The number of Wagner revivals has been increasing since the late 1950’s and the John Culshaw/Georg Solti Ring. The Wagnerian presence is so extended that the Metropolitan Opera’s production of the Ring was broadcast last summer on four successive nights on public television. The result was quite good, though it’s a bit unnerving to find a mini-Bayreuth at home. Perhaps the presence of the Ring cycle as an option on the cable is even more remarkable than the performances themselves, in this age of Madonna and 2 Live Crew.
But still, there’s something missing. The Briinhilde is shrewd and brave, but also “overparted.” She just hasn’t got the chops. The Siegfried too has his merits, all but one—he doesn’t sound like a hero. In these cases and others, memory supplies what it provokes: the thought of complete mastery of the singing requirements. Some remember yet the live performances that others know from recordings. There is an immortality that attaches to certain names: Frida Leider, Friedrich Schorr, Kirsten Flagstad, perhaps Helen Traubel and Birgit Nilsson. And one other, of course. The shadow of Lauritz Melchior looms; the echo resounds.
What then—forty years after Melchior’s retirement from opera and seventeen years after his death—does the operatic world still await? A Heldentenor voice of steely power and clarion ring that can cut through the Wagnerian orchestra handily; a voice so strong that it never needs to operate at its limit, giving the sense of power in reserve; a voice, therefore, with the endurance to triumph at the end of the role; a voice, furthermore, not only so gifted as to strength and quality, but also so well-schooled in the idiomatic use of the German language that it reveals the poetry of the score, and so technically skilled that it can master the art of dynamic shading rather than capitulating to the adoption of a uniform fortissimo bellow. This is to say, a voice that is equal to Richard Wagner’s own ideal.
Shirlee Emmons puts Lauritz Melchior in that perspective, and rightly so.
She puts him in other perspectives as well. She shows us Melchior as a “Copenhagen lad,” one devoted for life to wining and dining, a curiously passive man whose rather strange family life she treats with understanding and a firm fairness. Shirlee Emmons shows us a singer who was at Bayreuth in 1924 where and when he learned his craft in an ambiance that included Cosima and Siegfried Wagner, and Adolf Hitler. And in a historical counterpoint, she takes us through years that are studded with the names of Leo Blech, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and many others, until the disintegration of Europe and the Nazification of Germany drove Melchior to America for good. The ascendancy of Hitler and his relationship to Wagner, to Bayreuth, and to musical politics, Emmons plays for all its worth. The personal stories of Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad, and others are woven into the narrative of Melchior’s career, lending shade to this account of a life that was, on the whole, sunny.
A pleasure-loving man, Melchior was not cut out for tragedy. Wasn’t he somehow “at home” appearing in Thrill of a Romance and Luxury Liner and other such cornball movies? The giant, the hero, had a deep need to be the clown, the buffoon. Rudolf Bing made a point of humiliating Melchior and eliminating him from the Metropolitan Opera in 1950. He was wrong, but he had a reason:
Headlines screamed “COURT RULES IT ISN’T NOISE IF MELCHIOR SAYS ITS MUSIC!” and Lauritz looked just fine playing the washboard for the photographers from his Herald-Tribune. In the same month as the glamorous Metropolitan opening, Lauritz served as witness for the defense in the trial of the Korn Kobblers’ Band. Accompanied by a few beauteous show girls, the Korn Kobblers were riding along Broadway in a hay wagon, celebrating their impending appearance at a restaurant in the vicinity. At 47th Street and Broadway they were handed a noise summons by a policeman who insisted that auto horns, washboards, and inverted spittoons were not orchestral instruments. Lauritz, brought along to court by the chief Korn Kobbler to help prove that it was music that they were making, spoke eloquently: “Sometimes it is difficult to determine what is music. Wagner’s operas were at first described as unnecessary noise. The music of living composers is way ahead of the people.” From the sublime to the ridiculous seemed to be the normal path of Lauritz’s life. Could Rudolf Bing have missed this coverage? Most surely he heard Melchior’s exuberant rendition of the Chevrolet radio commercial. The Wagnerian parody of “Seeeeeeee the U!S!A! in a Che-vro-laaaaaaaay” was inescapable.
Well, so was Lauritz Melchior’s destiny. Shirlee Emmons was herself a member of “The Lauritz Melchior Show” that toured nightclubs, which gave her a personal insight into Melchior’s personality and the retrogression of his career. But most of the authority of her biography of Melchior is scholarly. Extensively researched and documented, Tristanissimo is a superbly composed, impeccably balanced rendering of a life. Just at those most difficult points—the Nazi degradation of German culture and the Wagner cult, Melchior’s failures as a father and his weaknesses of character—she is strongest. Her scrupulous maintenance of comprehensive understanding gives a sense of forgiveness to the portrayal of old grudges and family bitterness. At the end, we see that the Heldentenor was no hero, but we must be sad to see him go. After all, there haven’t been many singers around who could “do” Siegmund at 70 as well as ever, or whose idea of “warming up” was to get on the outside of a bottle of Carlsberg. You have to like a guy like that. But you have to feel something more for the artist who recorded Act I of Die Walküre with Lotte Lehman and Bruno Walter so unforgettably, and who left behind a cut but incandescent Tristan love duet with Frida Leider that puts all others in the shade.
Shirlee Emmons has succeeded handsomely in doing justice not only to her peerless subject, but to the familial, cultural, and historical contexts of his life. Complete with elaborate notes, bibliography, discography, and photographs, her Tristanissimo is the best biography I have read in years.
Another book on a great singer, Andrew Farkas’s anthology of pieces about Lawrence Tibbett, is nowhere near as extended a study as Emmons’ biography of Melchior. But it is a valuable, useful work, one that not only says much about an imposing artist but also provokes some reflections about music in America today.
John Charles Thomas, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeill, and Sherill Milnes notwithstanding, Lawrence Tibbett was the greatest of American baritones, one whose American training led to international impact, matinée idol status, and recordings cherished by lovers of great singing all over the world. A superb artist and a reflective and intelligent person, Tibbett was the man for whom the Metropolitan Opera mounted English-language operas that are chiefly remembered today because he sang in them: Emperor Jones, The King’s Henchman, and Merry Mount. Farkas’s Lawrence Tibbett includes the singer’s own argument for opera in English as the key to popular acceptance. I think today that argument must seem quaint, since opera in its original languages thrives popularly, in many ways; and since too the degradation of popular music has opened up an all but unbridgeable gap between “high” and “low.” Tibbett and others had the good fortune to live in a generation that enjoyed some measure of cultural unity. Cab drivers sang the Prologue to I Pagliacci—and Tibbett sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with matchless power on the radio. Stars of Tibbett’s charisma don’t come along very often, but when they do, they redefine “the rules” and create their own audience, as Callas did.
The story of Tibbett’s life and career is surveyed in Thomas R. Bullard’s “Lawrence Tibbett,” the most substantial essay in Farkas’s book. Also included are various other pieces, including ones by Tibbett himself, a lavish supply of photographs, and a complete discography by W.R. Moran. Every vocal buff will want a copy of Lawrence Tibbett, which leaves me feeling only one lack: the sound of Tibbett’s voice m my ear. That lack can be supplied today on RCA and Pearl silver discs, which gloriously demonstrate why Tibbett still lives in recordings sixty years old. That great lago, Simon Boccanegra, and Ford continue to cast vocal spells. Anyone who has never heard Tibbett’s rendition of Loewe’s “Edward” should do so posthaste. The likely result will be acquisition of the tribute to Tibbett assembled by Andrew Farkas.
[Tristanissimo: The Authorized Biography of Heroic Tenor Lauritz Melchior, by Shirlee Emmons (New York: Schirmer Books) 480 pp., $24.95]
[Lawrence Tibbett: Singing Actor, Edited by Andrew Farkas (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press) 160 pp., $29.95]