By Josep Maria
This important Swedish tenor, aged 69, whose
real name is Harry Gustav Gedda, was in Barcelona in November, 1994, to take
part of the group of judges of the 32nd Francisco Viñas International
Singing Contest. During his stay, Mr. Gedda was gracious enough to
grant an interview for WAGNERIANA.
Everybody knows that you are a multifaceted artist, with a large repertory,
and that you have interpreted and recorded operas not only in Italian and
German, but also in French, Russian, Swedish and English. Our first
question is related to the problem of the text in the musical theater.
What is your opinion of opera performances in some countries in which the
text is sung in the local language, that is to say, in German if the performance
is given in Germany? This is something that is still done in many theaters
in this country.
Well, not that much. It is not done anymore in the great theaters.
But what is your opinion? Is it better to sing Italian operas always
in Italian, or German operas in German?
Well, most of the time the translation is poor. During my long career
I have done horrible things, i.e., Rigoletto, in English, at Covent Garden,
during the 50's; it was horrible. I have sung Lenski, from "Eugene
Onegin," in English at the Met. But slowly but surely, by the mid 70's,
the great theaters started using the original language. Naturally,
this is the best thing, the composer's language. In Stockholm Wagner
was always performed in German, long before my time. I don't know if
you have heard about Set Svanholm, the great Swedish Wagnerian tenor, and
baritone Sigurd Bjorling, and Kirsten Flagstad, from Norway. Of course,
they had to sing in German because they sang at Bayreuth and other German
theaters. There is also Torsten Ralf. That's why in Sweden Wagner
was always performed in German. As I told you, I had to sing Rigoletto
in English many times, and it was horrible, but I learned it; however, I
sang La Traviata in French and it did not sound so bad, but it didn't work
out either. All the great theaters have ended up singing the original
text, even in Russian operas. Naturally, this is what is best to do.
But I know that German audiences are very familiarized with Verdi's operas
sung in German. That's why I have recorded excerpts of famous or popular
Italian or French operas in German, because they sold very well in small
towns, with small theaters, and people liked the music and wanted to have
these operas in German. I have also done that, but of course, when
you are recording you don't need to memorize the text.
Of course, that way the audiences understand the text better.
Well, this is also open to discussion. Do audiences understand everything
that is sung onstage? Can you follow the text of a Wagner opera?
No, it can't be done; the orchestra is so loud, and most of all, one only
can listen to certain vowels in the feminine voices. Naturally, Wagnerites
know these operas by rote, language is not a problem for them; it is the
music and the plot. I understand, but I am no Wagnerian in the strict
sense of the word. I like Wagner's operas, especially Lohengrin; it
is so beautiful, as well as The Flying Dutchman, etc., but I have not delved
very much in the "Ring," although the story is Scandinavian and I am Scandinavian;
all those gods hail from there, but I have not studied the work in depth.
It is, on the other hand, a fantastic and beautiful experience when you listen
to the leit-motiv, when you know about them, it is almost an orgasmic sensation,
isn't it? Isn't it a delight when during a recitative --if you could
call those excerpts with very little melody-- the orchestra takes over and
introduces the leit-motiv?
Very true, it is like that. Have you ever sung a complete performance
of a Wagner opera?
Yes, Lohengrin, in Stockholm. And, of course, in German.
And have you tried any other Wagnerian character, like for example, David
in Die Meistersinger, or the Steersman, in The Flying Dutchman? I think
that these are roles that suit your voice very well.
No, I have a huge repertory. Due to my knowledge of languages, I concentrated
most of all in French, Italian, Russian, and American opera. On the
other hand, these are small roles and I don't have the time for them.
Let's change the subject. You are today taking part in the Francisco
Viñas Singing Contest. Our question would be, which is your
opinion on today's singing technique, the quality of singing?
A bit negative; there are only a few who have a good technique. There
are exceptions, like two Italian singers who have sung Verdi. I would
also mention the Asians, the Japanese are very disciplined, some of them
very good. And also the Russians, but I am not very hopeful.
There are good voices, but they lack technique. That's what's happening
today, that some new voices appear, they sing for a few years, and then disappear.
Yesterday I spoke with a colleague on the judge panel, who is presently the
Manager of the Opera in Marseilles, about a young man, I'm not going to mention
his name, Franco-Italian, born in Italy but educated in France, with a very
beautiful voice, and I asked him what happened to this boy. I had heard
very good reviews about this boy, and all of a sudden I read that he sang
a Verdi opera at La Scala, very suitable for his voice, but all went wrong.
"Yes," he told me, "this boy sings very much and very different operas; his
voice is already showing signs of deterioration". It is a shame, he
is in his thirties, he is very young. I think that the problem today
is that young people are very much in a hurry to make money; besides, life
today is very different; they want to study and everything is very expensive;
a scholarship has to be very good if they want to do something. In
my time, during the 50's, when I started my career, everything was different,
everything was easier; today everything is more difficult, more expensive.
There is also a great dearth of singing teachers; the old school has almost
We have another question regarding your repertory. We would like to
know the details of your recording of "Palestrina," by Hans Pfitzner, in
1973, in Munich, in which you sing the main role. Could you talk about
it? Pfitzner is almost unknown in Spain. It was a surprise for
us that this recording was edited here.
It is an opera which is performed very seldom because, even though it is
very beautiful, it is difficult for all the singers. It has very long
stretches, for example, Palestrina and also Borromeo, interpreted by Fischer-Dieskau.
On the other hand, it isn't Wagner, sometimes it's a little boring; Wagner
is never boring, although once upon a time there was a Wagnerian singer,
Lauritz Melchior, very tall and fat, who during a long pause, leaned against
one of the sets and fell asleep. I don't remember now the opera, I
know it was one of the "Ring" operas, where the soprano sings continually
for about one-half hour, and he fell asleep during this time. He was
awaken by the regisseur, since he had to take part in the next scene.
Wagner is not boring, the opposite of Pfitzner, although the latter has marvelous
I knew that I had to study the role, but that I was not going to sing it
again onstage. I never refused to recording, because a recording is
a document. There is another recording of this opera, but not many
more, therefore, the 1973 recording is a document. I dedicated a long
time to study this opera because the role was very difficult, but I discovered
beautiful excerpts, like when Palestrina looks at the great composers and
talks to them; it is a celestial excerpt. It was a great pleasure for
me, and most of all, to collaborate with great singers and with Rafael Kubelik,
who is a magnificent conductor who already turned 80.
You must be thinking about the Second Act, the Trento Council, where everything
is a little confusing.
Yes, but of course, it is a personal opinion. I like Pfitzner and I
think that Palestrina is his best opera. He composed several and one
of them is called "The Heart." They wanted to perform it and Hans Kanappertsbusch
had to conduct it but he didn't like it. Kna had also conducted Palestrina,
and when he got bored, he could be very difficult, even though he was a great
person. When he lost his patience, he could be cruel, even with the
singers. Once he scolded Birgit Nilsson because she missed a cue in
the middle of a concert. During the rehearsals of "The Heart," he conducted
without any interest, although Hans Pfitzner and he were very good friends.
Back to your repertory. You have recorded "Undine," by Lortzing.
Have you sung something by other composers, like Marschner, Otto Nicolai,
or Siegfried Wagner?
I have sung some Lortzing and Weber, but not onstage, only recordings.
And what have you sung by Weber?
"Der Freischhutz," and a very beautiful opera, "Abu Hassan." Besides
"Undine," I have also sung "Zar und Zimmerman," by Lortzing, which includes
a very beautiful aria, and also a recording for Electrola, in which they
wanted to group several unknown works by these composers, and I did it with
great pleasure, they were all very beautiful things. I have also recorded
excerpts from "Der Evangelimann," by Wilhelm Kienzl. The idea was to
launch composers contemporary with Wagner, who were relegated to a second
place because of the great Maestro, and who composed very beautiful music.
We believe that these composers deserve more attention than what is given
Certainly; they are still performed in Germany.
It is not the case in Spain. 20 years ago, "Zar und Zimmerman" was
performed frequently, but today it is never performed.
It could be that the same as in Italy, the Spanish people have other preferences.
Have you song Flammand, in Capriccio? Have you sung any other opera
Only Der Rosenkavalier, with Karajan. Also, I sang excerpts of
Arabella 40 years ago, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Unfortunately, Strauss is very little known in Spain. Der Rosenkavalier,
Salome, and some Arabella is all we know here.
Ariadne auf Naxos is a beautiful and magnificent opera. Capriccio is
difficult, because it is an operatic conversation in German. I think
that it would not work in Spanish. It is usually performed in Germany
Of course, it is difficult for Latin audiences. We have a question
about stage direction. What is your opinion about the present condition
of the theater, above all, the decisive role of the stage director?
I have thought a great deal about this issue. Naturally, the operatic
scenography has to evolve, it can't be the same always, it can't remain conventional.
For example, the garden in "Faust" is an authentic garden, or "Carmen" is
like Bizet conceived her. Stage direction has to evolve, to develop,
but this evolution can't be a speculation of sensations. For example,
Rigoletto has been brought to the slums of New York, with gangsters, even
in a Nazi environment. There is also an American director --can't remember
his name-- who demanded from the singers mechanical movements during a Lohengrin.
I don't agree with that, somehow it is wrong. Some friends of mine
in Munich, older than me, tell me that they don't attend opera anymore.
I can only say that I understand that stage directors fear to be labeled
conventional, and that they look for all kinds of ideas not to be conventional.
But, how do singers have to sing? Lying on the floor. And besides,
the costumes that they have to use, they're simply horrendous. I saw
it in a Faust performance, where Faust and Mephisto look as if they were
going to sing La Traviata, with grey tuxedoes, like in Gounod's times.
But the authors of the libretto (Barbier and Carré) clearly explain
how Mephistopheles is costumed when he meets Faust: Me voici! D'où
vient ta surprise? L'eppé au coté, la plume au chapeau,
l'escarcelle pleine, un riche manteau.
So then, what is the meaning of these costumes without the sword, the feathers,
the cape? Pure anecdote. I would like to see in our times a "Carmen"
like a Spanish Carmen, like she has to be, why not?
Audiences today are tired about all this. For example, in Bayreuth,
during the last Tristan in 1993, the audience showed their disagreement,
and also in London this year with the new "Ring." Do you expect a reaction
in future scenographies?
I think that new stage directors could do two things: they can be conventional,
or else direct non-conventional performances, but ones that make sense.
I talked personally to Chéreau, for example, about this issue.
In Paris, during the 70's, towards 1974, I sang a "Hoffmann" with him, which
was something stupendous. Patrice Chéreau is a French actor
and stage director, who has made very good operatic stage directions.
In those years we were with him in Paris, a group of afficionadi, and we
talked to him. He told us that he had to go to Bayreuth, and that for
him the "Ring" was a toy with which he wanted to play. But Chéreau
is a genius and the result was a complete success. It was all about
finding for the "Ring" a talented director, who respects the work, and who
adjusts to the text, psychology and music, not despising them. And
most of all, taking care of the scenery, which must correspond to the rest
of the production. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as many operas
onstage today look like a joke.
You spoke in an interview about a very beautiful scenery in "The Magic Flute,"
in Viena, in 1962, under Karajan's direction. Do you remember who was
the stage director? The scenography, was it done by Schneider-Siemssen?
This stage designer worked with Karajan for a long time.
It could be. I can't remember at this time, but the stage director
was a very good friend of mine and I admired him very much: Rudolf Hartmann.
Have you performed with Schneider-Siemssen stage design in Salzburg or New
Yes, of course. In Salzburg and also in Vienna.
In which operas?
I can't remember now. It was long ago, but they were very good almost
always, since sometimes something goes wrong. They were very good operas.
We admire Schneider-Siemssen very much and his present work at the Met.
You have recorded songs by Nordic composers, like Sibelius. Do you
also sing works from other less known composers, like Peterson Berger or
Nielsen? What can you tell us about these composers?
We Scandinavian singers sing all these songs since we are very young, when
we were student, because our teachers go by what Stanislavsky says:
that each hour of singing has to begin with exercises, continue with songs
or romanzas, and finally opera. Therefore, we have sung Grieg, Swedish
composers Peterson Berger, Alfven, etc. We have sung them when we were
students and then in concerts. All of them have composed beautiful
songs and I always include them in my programs. Naturally, since I
am one-fourth Russian and I speak Russian, I also sing works by Russian composers,
as well as French and Italian. I am not an expert in German, only in
Schubert. I fear and respect Schumann because I am a perfectionist.
I leave Schumann to the great masters: Schreier, Dieskau, Prey, who
are Schumann singers, but I like Schumann very much, and I also sing him.
And what about the Spanish repertory. Have you sung something?
Yes, a cycle of six songs by Turina, called "Poema." I sang them accompanied
by Miguel Zanetti. I have also sung songs by Obradors and Joaquin Nin,
but I've had very little time to study and I am a perfectionist. I
had to study with a Spaniard because of the pronunciation, because I want
to do it right. If I don't master the language, I prefer not to sing
But you know a lot of Spanish.
Yes, it is not very difficult, but one has to know their details very well.
Thank you very much. One more thing, would you tell us an anecdote
experienced by you?
Most of them have been with orchestra conductors. With Otto Klemperer
we have lived and listened to fantastic things. This time I was present,
yes, that's right, it was a recording of "The Passion According to St. Matthew,"
with Klemperer, and Fischer-Dieskau was singing Christ. Somehow or
other, Klemperer did not like Fischer. Fischer-Dieskau sang very well
and Klemperer, smoking his pipe, was getting bored. Klemperer talked
very beautifully, but he was very sick. He had a brain tumor and had
had surgery through his mouth. He died at 86. He had many accidents.
Once he fell down and broke his hip and he needed some alcohol massages.
It was in Milan where he was prohibited from smoking, but he smoked and he
almost got burned because of the alcohol; he was as strong as Frankenstein.
That day during the recording, he was seated and getting bored. All
of a sudden, he said to Dieskau: "Listen, Mr. Fiskau, you could sing
Eisenstein (A character from "Die Fledermaus," by Johann Strauss)
divinely, you sound like a tenor. Fischer-Dieskau blushed and shouted
to Klemperer: "I have more important things to do," and he left quickly
and never again sang with Klemperer. Of course, Klemperer wanted a
Christ who sounded in a lower register.
Thank you very much