Lauritz Melchior

Lauritz Melchior

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Lauritz Melchior was a Danish and later American opera singer. He was the pre-eminent Wagnerian tenor of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and has since come to be considered the quintessence of his voice type.

Biography


Born Lauritz Lebrecht Hommel Melchior in Copenhagen, Denmark, the young Melchior was a boy soprano
Boy soprano
A boy soprano is a young male singer with an unchanged voice in the soprano range. Although a treble, or choirboy, may also be considered to be a boy soprano, the more colloquial term boy soprano is generally only used for boys who sing, perform, or record as soloists, and who may not necessarily...

 and amateur singer before starting his first operatic vocal studies under Paul Bang at the Royal Opera School in Copenhagen at the age of 18 in 1908.

In 1913, Melchior made his debut in the baritone role of Silvio in Ruggero Leoncavallo
Ruggero Leoncavallo
Ruggero Leoncavallo was an Italian opera composer. His two-act work Pagliacci remains one of the most popular works in the repertory, appearing as number 20 on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide.-Biography:...

's Pagliacci
Pagliacci
Pagliacci , sometimes incorrectly rendered with a definite article as I Pagliacci, is an opera consisting of a prologue and two acts written and composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It recounts the tragedy of a jealous husband in a commedia dell'arte troupe...

at the Royal Theatre
Royal Theatre
There are several venues known by the name Royal Theatre or Royal Theater. They include:in Canada*Royal Theatre in Victoria, British Columbia, Canadain Denmark...

 (Det Kongelige Teater) in Copenhagen. He sang mostly secondary baritone and bass roles for the Royal Danish Opera and provincial Scandianavian opera companies for the next few years.
One night, while on tour, Melchior helped an ailing soprano performing in Il trovatore
Il trovatore
Il trovatore is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, based on the play El Trovador by Antonio García Gutiérrez. Cammarano died in mid-1852 before completing the libretto...

by singing a high C in the Act IV Leonora-di Luna duet. The Azucena of that performance, the American contralto Mme Charles Cahier
Charles Cahier
Charles Cahier was a French antiquarian, born Paris on February 26, 1807. He made his preparatory studies at the College of Saint-Acheul, and entered the Society of Jesus on September 7, 1824....

, was impressed by the tone she had heard and gave her young colleague sound advice: he was no baritone, but a tenor "with the lid on." She even wrote to the Royal Opera pleading that Melchior be given a sabbatical and a stipend to restudy his voice. This he did between 1917 and 1918, taking lessons from the noted Danish tenor Vilhelm Herold
Vilhelm Herold
Vilhelm Christoffer Herold was an operatic tenor, voice teacher and theatre director...

 (1865-1937) who had sung Wagnerian roles in Covent Garden, Chicago and elsewhere from 1900 to 1915. This proved to be a turning point in Melchior's career. His high baritone voice was recast into that of a low tenor, but with a strong high extension. His second debut was on 8 October, 1918 in the title role of Tannhäuser
Tannhäuser (opera)
Tannhäuser is an opera in three acts, music and text by Richard Wagner, based on the two German legends of Tannhäuser and the song contest at Wartburg...

, also at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen.

In 1920, Melchior visited England to sing in an experimental radio broadcast to the Scandinavian capital cities from the Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi was an Italian inventor, known as the father of long distance radio transmission and for his development of Marconi's law and a radio telegraph system. Marconi is often credited as the inventor of radio, and indeed he shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand...

 station in Chelmsford. From 1920, Melchior was a frequent performer in London, appearing at Sir Henry Joseph Wood's Promenade Concerts in Queens Hall. While at London he met the popular novelist and passionate Wagnerite Hugh Walpole
Hugh Walpole
Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE was an English novelist. A prolific writer, he published thirty-six novels, five volumes of short stories, two plays and three volumes of memoirs. His skill at scene-setting, his vivid plots, his high profile as a lecturer and his driving ambition brought him a large...

, who provided the fledgling Heldentenor with financial aid. Additional studies under Victor Beigel, Ernst Grenzebach and the legendary dramatic soprano of the Vienna Court Opera, Anna Bahr von Mildenburg
Anna von Mildenburg
Anna von Mildenburg was an eminent Wagnerian soprano of Austrian nationality. Known as Anna Bahr-Mildenburg after her 1909 marriage, she had been a protege of the composer/conductor Gustav Mahler during his musical directorship at the Hamburg State Opera...

, kept Melchior occupied until 1923. Word of his talent spread and was heard of by Cosima
Cosima Wagner
Cosima Francesca Gaetana Wagner, née de Flavigny, from 1844 known as Cosima Liszt; was the daughter of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt...

 and Siegfried Wagner
Siegfried Wagner
Siegfried Wagner was a German composer and conductor, the son of Richard Wagner. He was an opera composer and the artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1908 to 1930.-Life:...

 at Bayreuth
Bayreuth Festspielhaus
The or Bayreuth Festival Theatre is an opera house north of Bayreuth, Germany, dedicated solely to the performance of operas by the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner...

. There the re-opening of the Festival for 1924 was under preparation. Melchior was engaged to sing Siegmund and Parsifal. This prestigious contract opened the way to several other appearances such as a Wagner concert with Frida Leider
Frida Leider
Frida Leider was a German opera singer.Leider was one of the most important dramatic sopranos of the 20th century. Her most famous roles were Wagner's Isolde and Brünnhilde, Beethoven's Fidelio, Mozart's Donna Anna, and Verdi's Aida and Leonora...

 in Berlin in 1923. Around this time several acoustic records were cut for Polydor.

On May 14, 1924 Lauritz Melchior made his debut, as Siegmund, at the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The...

 at Covent Garden
Covent Garden
Covent Garden is a district in London on the eastern fringes of the West End, between St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. It is associated with the former fruit and vegetable market in the central square, now a popular shopping and tourist site, and the Royal Opera House, which is also known as...

 in London. The result was a smashing success. Some weeks later Melchior made his debut on the stage of the Festspielhaus
Festspielhaus
A Festspielhaus or Festival Theatre is a German language term describing a theatre designed for opera or music festivals.There are several examples of Festival Theatres in the German-speaking world:...

 in Bayreuth
Bayreuth Festspielhaus
The or Bayreuth Festival Theatre is an opera house north of Bayreuth, Germany, dedicated solely to the performance of operas by the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner...

 in the roles of Siegmund and Parsifal. On February 17, 1926 his first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City took place. He sang Tannhäuser opposite Maria Jeritza
Maria Jeritza
Maria Jeritza , born Marie Jedličková, was a celebrated Moravian soprano singer, long associated with the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera...

, Friedrich Schorr
Friedrich Schorr
Friedrich Schorr , was a renowned Austrian-Hungarian bass-baritone opera singer of Jewish origin. He later became a naturalized American....

, Karin Branzell
Karin Branzell
Karin Branzell was a Swedish operatic contralto , who had a prominent career at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and in Europe. Her very wide range enabled her to sing both contralto roles and the occasional soprano role...

 and Michael Bohnen
Michael Bohnen
Franz Michael Bohnen was a German bass baritone opera singer and actor.-Life:Michael Bohnen was born in Cologne. He trained in opera singing at the Hochschule für Musik Köln and with a private tutor, making his debut in 1910 at the Stadttheater Düsseldorf. In 1912 he appeared at the Hoftheater...

 with Artur Bodanzky
Artur Bodanzky
Artur Bodanzky was an Austrian-American conductor particularly associated with the operas of Wagner.- Career :...

 conducting. Although he was not adversely criticized, there was not much enthusiasm elicited by this debut. In his first season at the Metropolitan opera, Melchior sang only eight times. His second season brought only one appearance. To build up his repertory and gain more stage experience, he accepted an engagement at the Hamburg State Opera
Hamburg State Opera
The Hamburg State Opera is one of the leading opera companies in Germany.Opera in Hamburg dates back to 2 January 1678 when the "Opern-Theatrum" was inaugurated with a performance of a biblical Singspiel by Johann Theile...

, where he appeared as Lohengrin
Lohengrin (opera)
Lohengrin is a romantic opera in three acts composed and written by Richard Wagner, first performed in 1850. The story of the eponymous character is taken from medieval German romance, notably the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach and its sequel, Lohengrin, written by a different author, itself...

, Otello
Otello
Otello is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on Shakespeare's play Othello. It was Verdi's penultimate opera, and was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on February 5, 1887....

, Radames in Aida
Aida
Aida sometimes spelled Aïda, is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, based on a scenario written by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette...

and Jean van Leyden in Le prophète
Le prophète
Le prophète is an opera in five acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer. The French-language libretto was by Eugène Scribe.-Performance history:...

. He also sang regularly at other major German music theaters, like the State Operas of Berlin
Berlin State Opera
The Staatsoper Unter den Linden is a German opera company. Its permanent home is the opera house on the Unter den Linden boulevard in the Mitte district of Berlin, which also hosts the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra.-Early years:...

 and Munich
Bavarian State Opera
The Bavarian State Opera is an opera company based in Munich, Germany.Its orchestra is the Bavarian State Orchestra.- History:The opera company which was founded under Princess Henriette Adelaide of Savoy has been in existence since 1653...

.

Although Melchior sang at most of the theatres and concert halls of the Western world
Western world
The Western world, also known as the West and the Occident , is a term referring to the countries of Western Europe , the countries of the Americas, as well all countries of Northern and Central Europe, Australia and New Zealand...

 during his long career, he is perhaps best remembered as a member of the Metropolitan Opera
Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera is an opera company, located in New York City. Originally founded in 1880, the company gave its first performance on October 22, 1883. The company is operated by the non-profit Metropolitan Opera Association, with Peter Gelb as general manager...

 company where he sang 519 performances of Wagnerian roles between 1926 and 1950. Melchior's breakthrough at the Metropolitan opera finally came when he performed in Tristan und Isolde
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan und Isolde is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner to a German libretto by the composer, based largely on the romance by Gottfried von Straßburg. It was composed between 1857 and 1859 and premiered in Munich on 10 June 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting...

on March 20, 1929. From this point on his career flourished. It was Lohengrin's Farewell which served as Melchior's "swan song
Swan song
"Swan song" is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. The phrase refers to an ancient belief that the Mute Swan is completely silent during its lifetime until the moment just before death, when it sings one beautiful song...

" in his last stage performance, on 2 February, 1950.

Melchior appeared at Covent Garden from 1924 to 1939, also as Otello (opposite Viorica Ursuleac
Viorica Ursuleac
Viorica Ursuleac was an important Romanian operatic soprano.Viorica Ursuleac was born the daughter of a Greek Orthodox archdeacon, in Chernivtsi, which is now in Ukraine. Following training in Vienna, she made her operatic debut in Zagreb , as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, in 1922...

 as Desdemona) and Florestan, besides the Wagnerian repertory. Also at Covent Garden in 1932, he sang opposite popular soprano Florence Easton
Florence Easton
Florence Easton was a popular English dramatic soprano in the early 20th century. She was one of the most versatile singers of all time. She sang more than 100 parts, covering a wide range of styles and periods, from Mozart, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss, Schreker and Krenek...

 in Siegfried
Siegfried (opera)
Siegfried is the third of the four operas that constitute Der Ring des Nibelungen , by Richard Wagner. It received its premiere at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 16 August 1876, as part of the first complete performance of The Ring...

, the only time they appeared together. Other important stations of his career were in the Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is the capital and largest city of Argentina, and the second-largest metropolitan area in South America, after São Paulo. It is located on the western shore of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, on the southeastern coast of the South American continent...

 (Teatro Colón) (1931-1943), San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera is an American opera company, based in San Francisco, California.It was founded in 1923 by Gaetano Merola and is the second largest opera company in North America...

 (1934-1945) and Chicago Opera
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Lyric Opera of Chicago is one of the leading opera companies in the United States. It was founded in Chicago in 1952, under the name 'Lyric Theatre of Chicago' by Carol Fox, Nicolà Rescigno and Lawrence Kelly, with a season that included Maria Callas's American debut in Norma...

 (1934-1945).

Melchior made very many recordings, first as a baritone on Danish HMV
HMV
His Master's Voice is a trademark in the music business, and for many years was the name of a large record label. The name was coined in 1899 as the title of a painting of the dog Nipper listening to a wind-up gramophone...

, then as a tenor for Deutsche Grammophon
Deutsche Grammophon
Deutsche Grammophon is a German classical record label which was the foundation of the future corporation to be known as PolyGram. It is now part of Universal Music Group since its acquisition and absorption of PolyGram in 1999, and it is also UMG's oldest active label...

(Polydor) (1923-1930), English and German HMV (1927-1935), RCA Victor (1938-1941), American Columbia
Columbia Records
Columbia Records is an American record label, owned by Japan's Sony Music Entertainment, operating under the Columbia Music Group with Aware Records. It was founded in 1888, evolving from an earlier enterprise, the American Graphophone Company — successor to the Volta Graphophone Company...

 (1942-1950) and lastly Warner Brothers. His final appearance with Danish radio was in 1960 with a performance of the first act of Die Walküre
Die Walküre
Die Walküre , WWV 86B, is the second of the four operas that form the cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen , by Richard Wagner...

to celebrate his 70th birthday, which was recorded and constitutes a terrific souvenir of the indestructible, indeed almost supernatural Melchior in full flight.

Some of Melchior's most notable colleagues in the opera houses of the world included the soprano
Soprano
A soprano is a voice type with a vocal range from approximately middle C to "high A" in choral music, or to "soprano C" or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody...

s Frida Leider
Frida Leider
Frida Leider was a German opera singer.Leider was one of the most important dramatic sopranos of the 20th century. Her most famous roles were Wagner's Isolde and Brünnhilde, Beethoven's Fidelio, Mozart's Donna Anna, and Verdi's Aida and Leonora...

, Kirsten Flagstad
Kirsten Flagstad
Kirsten Målfrid Flagstad was a Norwegian opera singer and a highly regarded Wagnerian soprano...

, Lotte Lehmann
Lotte Lehmann
Charlotte "Lotte" Lehmann was a German soprano who was especially associated with German repertory. She gave memorable performances in the operas of Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Puccini, Mozart and Massenet. The Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier was considered her greatest...

, Helen Traubel
Helen Traubel
Helen Francesca Traubel was an American opera and concert singer. A dramatic soprano, she was best known for her Wagnerian roles, especially those of Brünnhilde and Isolde. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, she began her career as a concert singer and went on to sing at the Metropolitan...

, Marjorie Lawrence
Marjorie Lawrence
Marjorie Florence Lawrence CBE was an Australian soprano, particularly noted as an interpreter of Richard Wagner's operas. She was the first soprano to perform the immolation scene in Götterdämmerung by riding her horse into the flames as Wagner had intended. She was afflicted by polio from 1941...

 and Elisabeth Rethberg
Elisabeth Rethberg
The German soprano Elisabeth Rethberg was an opera singer of international repute active from the period of the First World War through to the early 1940s. Some hailed her as the greatest soprano of her day...

 and conductors Felix Weingartner
Felix Weingartner
Paul Felix von Weingartner, Edler von Münzberg was an Austrian conductor, composer and pianist.-Biography:...

, Bruno Walter
Bruno Walter
Bruno Walter was a German-born conductor. He is considered one of the best known conductors of the 20th century. Walter was born in Berlin, but is known to have lived in several countries between 1933 and 1939, before finally settling in the United States in 1939...

, Wilhelm Furtwängler
Wilhelm Furtwängler
Wilhelm Furtwängler was a German conductor and composer. He is widely considered to have been one of the greatest symphonic and operatic conductors of the 20th century. By the 1930s he had built a reputation as one of the leading conductors in Europe, and he was the leading conductor who remained...

, Fritz Reiner
Fritz Reiner
Frederick Martin “Fritz” Reiner was a prominent conductor of opera and symphonic music in the twentieth century.-Biography:...

, Sir Thomas Beecham
Thomas Beecham
Sir Thomas Beecham, 2nd Baronet CH was an English conductor and impresario best known for his association with the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic orchestras. He was also closely associated with the Liverpool Philharmonic and Hallé orchestras...

, Arturo Toscanini
Arturo Toscanini
Arturo Toscanini was an Italian conductor. One of the most acclaimed musicians of the late 19th and 20th century, he was renowned for his intensity, his perfectionism, his ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his photographic memory...

, Erich Leinsdorf
Erich Leinsdorf
Erich Leinsdorf was a naturalized American Austrian conductor. He performed and recorded with leading orchestras and opera companies throughout the United States and Europe, earning a reputation for exacting standards as well as an acerbic personality...

, George Szell
George Szell
George Szell , originally György Széll, György Endre Szél, or Georg Szell, was a Hungarian-born American conductor and composer...

, and Otto Klemperer
Otto Klemperer
Otto Klemperer was a German conductor and composer. He is widely regarded as one of the leading conductors of the 20th century.-Biography:Otto Klemperer was born in Breslau, Silesia Province, then in Germany...

.

Between 1944 and 1952, Melchior performed in 5 Hollywood musical films for MGM and Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures Corporation is an American film production and distribution company, located at 5555 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. Founded in 1912 and currently owned by media conglomerate Viacom, it is America's oldest existing film studio; it is also the last major film studio still...

 and made numerous US television appearances. In 1947, he put his hand and footprints in cement in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre
Grauman's Chinese Theatre
Grauman's Chinese Theatre is a movie theater at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. It is on the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame.The Chinese Theatre was commissioned following the success of the nearby Grauman's Egyptian Theatre which opened in 1922...

 in Hollywood.
From 1946-1949 Melchior went on a world tour with his personal conductor Ezra Rachlin
Ezra Rachlin
Ezra Rachlin was an American conductor and pianist.Rachlin was born in Hollywood and first showed an interest in the piano at the age of three. He gave his first full-length recital at age five. The Rachlins moved to Germany to assist Ezra in his studies...

. Their visit to Denmark was particularly meaningful as they were the guests of King Frederic, who was an amateur conductor with his own personal concert hall in his palace.

Following his unofficial retirement around 1955, Melchior made sporadic singing appearances. In the late 1960s, he set up a fund through Juilliard for the training of potential heldentenors called "The Lauritz Melchior Heldentenor Foundation."

In the summer of 1972, Melchior conducted the San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera is an American opera company, based in San Francisco, California.It was founded in 1923 by Gaetano Merola and is the second largest opera company in North America...

 Orchestra at Sigmund Stern Grove in the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss I
Johann Strauss I
Johann Strauss I , born in Vienna, was an Austrian Romantic composer famous for his waltzes, and for popularizing them alongside Joseph Lanner, thereby setting the foundations for his sons to carry on his musical dynasty...

 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the company; this was one of his last public appearances.

An American citizen since 1947, Melchior died in Santa Monica, California
Santa Monica, California
Santa Monica is a beachfront city in western Los Angeles County, California, US. Situated on Santa Monica Bay, it is surrounded on three sides by the city of Los Angeles — Pacific Palisades on the northwest, Brentwood on the north, West Los Angeles on the northeast, Mar Vista on the east, and...

 in 1973. He was put to rest in the Assistens Kirkegaard cemetery in Copenhagen.

Melchior is the father of Danish-American novelist and filmmaker Ib Melchior
Ib Melchior
Ib Jørgen Melchior is a novelist, short story writer, film producer, film director, and screenwriter of low-budget American science fiction movies, most of them released by American International Pictures...

, who has written a biography about him and for years has fought a legal battle to reclaim the Melchior family estate Chossewitz in Germany, which was confiscated by East Germany.

Filmography

  • Thrill of a Romance
    Thrill of a Romance
    Thrill of a Romance was an American romance film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1945, starring Van Johnson, Esther Williams and Carleton G. Young, with musical performances by opera singer Lauritz Melchior...

    (1945)
  • Two Sisters from Boston
    Two Sisters from Boston
    Two Sisters from Boston is a 1946 musical comedy film directed by Henry Koster. Starring Kathryn Grayson, June Allyson, Lauritz Melchior, Jimmy Durante and Peter Lawford....

    (1946)
  • This Time for Keeps
    This Time for Keeps
    This Time for Keeps is an American romantic musical film released in 1947 and produced by MGM. It is about a soldier, returning home from war who does not wish to work for his father's opera company or to continue his relationship with his pre-war lover. It stars Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante,...

    (1947)
  • Luxury Liner
    Luxury Liner (film)
    Luxury Liner is a 1948 romantic musical comedy film made by MGM. It was directed by Richard Whorf, and written by Richard Connell, Karl Kamb and Gladys Lehman...

    (1948)
  • The Stars Are Singing
    The Stars Are Singing
    The Stars Are Singing is a 1953 Paramount Pictures musical starring Rosemary Clooney, Anna Maria Alberghetti, and Lauritz Melchior. A 15-year-old Polish girl attempts to enter the U.S...

    (1953)

External links