Nicolai Gedda, a Swedish-born singer who was one of the most renowned lyric tenors of the 20th century, performing dozens of roles on the world’s leading opera stages, died Jan. 8 in Tolochenaz, Switzerland, where he lived. He was 91.
His death, which was not announced until the past week, was confirmed to Opera News by Swiss officials and the singer’s daughter. The cause was a heart attack.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, Gedda was a regular presence at La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan. He sang in a variety of languages and was widely heralded for his versatility, musical refinement and vocal clarity.
During a career of nearly 50 years, Gedda made more than 200 recordings, sang 367 times at the Metropolitan Opera and gave hundreds of recitals before retiring in his 70s. In 2008, BBC Music magazine ranked him the ninth-greatest tenor in history.
“Nicolai Gedda is one of the absolute masters of singing of our time,” Washington Post music critic Paul Hume wrote in 1971. “He is in many ways a phenomenon.”
Early in his life, Gedda took lessons from a strict Russian singer he thought was his father and sang in Russian Orthodox Church services. (Years later, Gedda learned that there were many family secrets surrounding his parentage.)
Gedda was singing in an opera production in Stockholm in the early 1950s, when he was heard by Walter Legge, a British recording executive with EMI Records who was married to the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Legge signed Gedda to a recording contract and reportedly sent a cable to conductor Herbert von Karajan: “Just heard the greatest Mozart singer in my life: his name is Nicolai Gedda.”
In 1953, Gedda made his debut at La Scala, under von Karajan’s baton, as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The next year, he appeared at the Paris Opera and a year later was at Covent Garden, singing the role of the Duke of Mantua in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
He first performed in the United States in 1957, appearing in Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco before his Metropolitan Opera debut on Nov. 1, 1957, in the lead role in Charles Gounod’s “Faust.”
Gedda was often sought out by younger singers who wanted to learn about his mastery of vocal technique. No amount of practice, he said, could overcome the butterflies he felt before going onstage.
“Every night I am singing to a different public,” he said in 1969, “and every night, though I may not show it, I’m as nervous as if I was singing whatever part it may be for the first time.”