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Remembering Nicolai Gedda’s Covent Garden performances

The world renowned Swedish tenor passed away on 8 January 2017.

By Alasdair Steven (Music writer)

10 February 2017 at 12.00pm | 9 Comments

Nicolai Gedda (1925–2017) had one of the most majestic voices of his generation. He had an exceptional ear for music and lyrics, singing fluently in seven languages. Added to this was a robust technique that kept his top register secure well into his later life. His long and illustrious stage career included many memorable appearances at Covent Garden.

Gedda trained at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and made his professional debut in 1951 with the Royal Swedish Opera. In 1953 Gedda made his debut at La Scala, Milan, as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Further international debuts soon followed, including at Covent Garden, as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, in 1954.

After this sensational debut Gedda returned to sing the title role in La Damnation de Faust with the Company under Georg Solti at the Edinburgh Festival. But perhaps his most impressive work with The Royal Opera during this period were his performances in the testing title role of Benvenuto Cellini in 1966 and 1969 under John Pritchard and in 1976 under Colin Davis, in a production directed by John Dexter.

His further roles with The Royal Opera included Alfredo (La traviata, opposite Montserrat Caballé), Gustavus (Un ballo in maschera) Lensky (Eugene Onegin) and Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore). He made his final Covent Garden appearance in 1997 as Abdisu in Pfitzner’s Palestrina.

Gedda had an immense vocal style, elegance and grace, which he brought to all his roles. His versatility – from Verdi, Berlioz and Lehár, to the composers for whom he created roles, including Barber and Orff – marked him out as a truly special musician. His colleague Luciano Pavarotti once remarked, ‘There is no tenor alive with a greater ease in the upper register than Gedda’.

The Royal Opera’s Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, paid this tribute: ‘It is with great sadness we learn that Nicolai Gedda has passed away. For a long time he was a true giant of the opera world. He inspired and moved countless audiences, including at Covent Garden, with his extraordinary voice and artistry. The memory of this wonderful artist will never leave us.’

By Alasdair Steven (Music writer)

10 February 2017 at 12.00pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Nicolai Gedda, obituary

This article has 9 comments

  1. Edward Arckless responded on 12 February 2017 at 2:03pm Reply

    Dean Sir. I met Nicola Gedda when he was at the 21st. Edinburgh Festival with the wonderfull Joan Sutherland in Orfeo de Euridice from Haydn. I was the Solo dancer in this he and Sutherland just so kind to us all I went to see New York City Ballet with them I am happy to say that I worked with them again at Covent Garden Edward Arckless P.S a recording is now out on C D

  2. Stephen responded on 12 February 2017 at 6:44pm Reply

    You got the right photograph! The Guardian, The Telegraph and the New York Times all published exactly the same wrong photo of Nicolai Ghiaurov in their online obituaries!

    Many of us old-timers remember Gedda with enormous affection.

    I shan't forget his curtain call after the second act on the opening night of Eugene Onegin in 1979. The ovation was so loud and prolonged he was reduced to tears.

  3. It is with great sadness that I have to write these few words about the great Nicolai Gedda, especially as it is his second "death" in two years! The fact that there was an outpouring of grief when his demise was announced mistakenly two years ago would have made him giggle. He loved silly things and laughed at the slightest prompting!

    I first met Nicky Gedda when he came to sing the role of the old patriarch, Abdisu, in Pfitzner's opera, Palestrina. It is a huge opera, and Nicky's role was small, but what an impression he made - still with his ringing top notes.

    He came into the ORR for the first rehearsal, and within the space of entering the door and reaching the centre of the room, he had greeted, and had a conversation with, other colleagues in five different languages.

    Through talking with him, and having one teaching session with him at the ROH, it was arranged that I would go to study with him on occasions when we were both free.

    It was with some trepidation that I knocked off the door of his flat in Stockholm, but he soon put me at my ease as he opened the door, welcomed me, told me to take my shoes off, and then said "put these on", and gave me the slippers he'd been wearing!

    People often asked me what I learnt from him, and I'm often stuck for an answer. Of course we talked technique, a lot, but there was something about standing in front of such a great singer, with coincidentally a great speaking voice, listening to stories of Jussi Björling, Maria Callas, Birgit Nillson, Giuseppe di Stefano, Victoria de los Angeles (one of his
    favourite singers because she was so lovely) etc, which made you just absorb his magic. And when he demonstrated a phrase, the beauty and power was often overwhelming.

    His own favourite singer was Caruso, the "master", and I would often find him listening to his recordings as I arrived for lessons. He also loved to imitate his tenor colleagues, some of the imitations not being very complimentary!

    Subsequent visits to Stockholm, and to his beautiful villa in the tiny village of Tolochenaz in Switzerland, allowed me to meet his lovely wife, Aino, who often brought us drinks and stayed to chat. Whenever I rang him to arrange lessons (the calls always had to be between 8 and 830) he always pretended to be Aino, by speaking in a high falsetto, in case it was someone he didn't want to speak to!

    He was essentially a shy man, and told me on my last trip to Tolochenaz, that although he had lived next door to Audrey Hepburn for thirty years, he had never spoken to her as he was in awe of her. Also on that occasion he asked me to pass his best wishes and admiration to Luciano Pavarotti, who was about to sing his final Cavaradossi at ROH. I had that opportunity shortly afterwards, when I visited Pavarotti in his dressing room and found myself having a few quiet moments on my own with him, an unusual occurrence when Pavarotti was around! I passed on Nicky's good wishes to him and he immediately filled with tears. He said it was an honour to receive compliments from such a great singer. A wonderful tribute from another great
    man!

  4. Jim Page responded on 14 February 2017 at 5:23pm Reply

    At last an obituary has mentioned that amazing production of Benvenuto Cellini. I saw a performance in both runs and being in Berlioz's thrall through ROH's Trojans I could not believe that the "impossible-to-stage" Benvenuto would have proved to be such a fantastic opera. And Nicolai Gedda;'s singing was just marvellous.

  5. Ken Thomson responded on 14 February 2017 at 11:38pm Reply

    Nicolai Gedda was one of the greatest voices I have ever heard with a wide repertoire no singer has equaled in its breadth. He was also a delightful friend of my partner Charles Osborne and mine. After the phenomenal success of The Three Tenors in Rome in 1990 (all of whom have, in their time praised Nicolai as an inspiration)
    Charles for whom Nicolai gave a special concert in his honour at Wigmore Hall when he retired as a director of the Arts Council of GB, had the bright idea to bring together three tenors of an earlier era for a concert - Carlo Bergonzi, Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai. Nicolai agreed immediately, Bergonzi asked "quando e quanto?" Kraus declined, saying he did not wish to appear with the "older"artists. With the deaths of the other two great tenors, Nicolai is the last to leave us.
    Faithfully
    Ken Thomson

  6. A aivazian. responded on 16 February 2017 at 4:12pm Reply

    A beautiful singer unforgettable

  7. Noel Patrick responded on 17 February 2017 at 9:28am Reply

    The very first Opera DVD I ever purchased was Rigoletto starring Cornel MacNeil as Rigoletto and Nicolai Gedda as 'The Duke.'
    To this day it remains seminal in my introduction to opera. That performance (which was the first opera I ever heard) is most fondly remembered. Indeed I listened to it about 4-5 months ago, and greatly enjoyed it all over again.
    A truly great performer worthy of remembrance.

  8. JOHN STEEL responded on 17 February 2017 at 7:34pm Reply

    I was an extra chorus tenor in the 1966 production of "Benvenuto Cellini" and I was one of 6 male chorus members (dressed as women) designed to lift the great tenor head high and carry him off stage - naturally we were rather apprehensive about this responsibility - but I can remember he was very cheerful about the whole thing and urged us on with "One - two -three - up!". A wonderful memory of a great singer.

  9. Juliet Chaplin responded on 17 February 2017 at 9:27pm Reply

    Loved seeing Gedda in "Benvenuto Cellini" and also in "Palestrina" - what a fine opera that is! Gedda was obviously a wonderful person too; he is much missed.

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