Nicolai Gedda

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Nicolai Gedda, 1959

Harry Gustaf Nikolai Gädda,[1] known professionally as Nicolai Gedda (11 July 1925 – 8 January 2017),[2] was a Swedish operatic tenor. Debuting in 1952, Gedda had a long and successful career in opera until the age of 77 in June 2003, when he made his final operatic recording. Skilled at languages, he performed operas in French, Russian, German, Italian, English, Czech, and Swedish,[3] as well as one in Latin. In January 1958, he created the part of Anatol in the world premiere of the American opera Vanessa at the Metropolitan Opera.[4] Having made some two hundred recordings,[5] Gedda is one of the most widely recorded opera singers in history.[1] His singing is best known for its beauty of tone, vocal control, and musical perception.[6]

Early years[edit]

Harry Gustaf Nikolai Gädda, who later changed the spelling of his surname to Gedda, was born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and a half-Russian father. He was raised by his aunt Olga Gädda and his adoptive father Mihail Ustinov (a distant relative of Peter Ustinov), who sang bass in Serge Jaroff's Don Cossack Choir and was cantor in a Russian Orthodox church.[7] Gedda grew up bilingual in Swedish and Russian. From 1929 to 1934 he lived with his family in Leipzig, Germany, where he learned German. They returned to Sweden after Hitler came to power. In school he later learned English, French and Latin. After leaving school he learned Italian on his own.

Gedda worked first as a bank teller in a local bank in Stockholm. One day he told a client that he was searching for a good singing teacher, and the client recommended Carl Martin Öhman, a well known Wagnerian tenor from the 1920s, who is also credited with discovering Jussi Björling. Later he also taught the Finnish bass Martti Talvela. Öhman was enthusiastic about Gedda and took him as a pupil, at the beginning without payment, because Gedda was at the time supporting his parents. After a few months he obtained a scholarship and was later able to pay for Öhman's singing lessons.

Opera career[edit]

An early appraisal of Gedda's singing was offered by Walter Legge, after first hearing Gedda sing for the role of Dmitry in a planned recording of Boris Godunov.

On my arrival at the airport I was asked by a swarm of journalists if I were not interested in hearing their excellent young Swedish voices. Naturally I was interested, but I did not expect either the front page stories that appeared next morning or the mass of letters and almost incessant telephone calls asking to be heard. I had to ask the Director of the Opera for a room for a couple of days to hear about 100 young aspirants. The first to sing to me (at 9.30 in the morning) was Gedda who had, I believe, sung only once in public. He sang the Carmen Flower Song so tenderly yet passionately that I was moved almost to tears. He delivered the difficult rising scale ending with a clear and brilliant B flat. Almost apologetically I asked him to try to sing it as written – pianissimo, rallentando and diminuendo. Without turning a hair he achieved the near-miracle, incredibly beautifully and without effort. I asked him to come back at 8 that evening and sent word to my wife that a great singer had fallen into my lap and to Dobrowen that, believe it or not, this 23-year-old Gedda was the heaven-sent Dmitry for our Boris."[8]

He was understudy to Giuseppe Di Stefano at a performance of L'elisir d'amore at the Edinburgh Festival circa 1951.

In April 1952, at the age of 26, Gedda made his debut at the Royal Swedish Opera, performing the role of Chapelou in Adolphe Adam's Le postillon de Lonjumeau with Hjördis Schymberg. One of the arias in this opera, "Mes amis, écoutez l'histoire", is considered one of the most difficult tenor arias in all of opera, as it calls for a demanding high D from the soloist. In this same year Gedda also performed the role of Hoffmann in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and the tenor role in Der Rosenkavalier.

After an audition in Stockholm, Gedda gained the attention of conductor Herbert von Karajan, who took him to Italy. In 1953, he made his début at La Scala as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.

In 1954, he made his Paris Opéra debut in the tenor role in Weber's Oberon, and was given a permanent contract for several years. In 1957, Gedda made his Metropolitan Opera début in the title role of Gounod's Faust, and went on to sing 28 roles there over the next 26 years, including the world premiere of Barber's Vanessa and the U.S. premiere of Menotti's The Last Savage. Gedda made his Royal Opera House Covent Garden début in 1954 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi's Rigoletto and returned to sing Benvenuto Cellini, Alfredo, Gustavus III, Nemorino and Lensky.

Gedda's recordings span a wide variety of styles and several of the roles may be considered among the most challenging in the entire operatic repertoire, notably Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell and Arturo in I puritani, both requiring stratospheric high notes and an easy legato line. One of his greatest and most acclaimed recordings was that of the great masterwork of Hans Pfitzner, Palestrina, which he recorded under the baton of Rafael Kubelík.

A singer of unusual longevity, Gedda was active well into his late 70s; in May 2001 he recorded the role of the Emperor Altoum in Puccini's Turandot and the role of the High Priest in Mozart's Idomeneo in June 2003.

Art song[edit]

In addition to his opera performances, Gedda cultivated an active parallel career as a recitalist, with a large repertoire of French, German, Scandinavian, and Russian art songs. As an interpreter of Lieder he often performed with the pianist Sebastian Peschko. Gedda's language skills, intellectualism and musicality, as well as his extensive recordings, rendered him particularly indispensable in this genre.[9] He also sang, and recorded, sacred music, including Russian liturgical music.[10]


In 1965 he became a Swedish Court Singer and in 1966 he was inducted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. In 1968 he was a recipient of the Swedish royal medal Litteris et Artibus. In 1976 he was awarded the Gold Medal for the Promotion of the Art of Music (Swedish: För tonkonstens främjande) by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 2007 he received the Caruso prize.

In 2010 he received the Legion of Honor (Légion d'honneur), the highest French decoration, from then president of France Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nicolai Gedda was a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and in 1994 he was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy.[11]


He published his first memoirs, Gåvan är inte gratis (The gift is not free of charge) in 1977, with the help of his future wife, Aino Sellermark. Later the two wrote another biography, Nicolai Gedda: My Life and Art, which was published by Amadeus Press in 1999.


His death on 8 January 2017, aged 91, was not announced by his family until 9 February 2017. He died after a heart attack at his home in Tolochenaz in the Swiss canton of Vaud.[12]


  1. ^ a b Brug, Manuel (11 July 2015). "Das strahlende Lächeln im Land der Musik" (in German). Die Welt. Retrieved 22 August 2015. 
  2. ^ Decalf, Guillaume (9 February 2017). "Le ténor suédois Nicolai Gedda est mort" [Swedish Tenor Nicolai Gedda has died]. France Musique (in French). Stockholm. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  3. ^ Gedda, Gedda & Geddes 2003, pp. 203–18.
  4. ^ Gedda, Gedda & Geddes 2003, p. 203.
  5. ^ Gedda, Gedda & Geddes 2003, pp. 225–37.
  6. ^ Warrack, John and Ewan West (1996). "Nicolai Gedda." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera. (3rd Ed.), Oxford University.
  7. ^ Nicolai Gedda Homepage
  8. ^ Legge, Walter (1998). Walter Legge: Words and Music. Routledge (UK), pp. 204–05. ISBN 0-415-92108-2.
  9. ^ Miller, Richard (2003) Solutions for Singers: Tools for Every Performer and Teacher. Oxford University Press, pg. 118. ISBN 0-19-516005-3. ("Regardless of the ethnic or national origin of the singer, excellence in diction and enunciation are to a large extent dependent on the principle of anticipatory consonants. Nicolai Gedda is a prime example of an international artist who sings beautifully in languages not natively his. Like Fischer-Dieskau, he makes much use of the anticipatory consonant. A list of current singing artists who have mastered this technique would include most of today's great singers.")
  10. ^ Russian Orthodox Church Music - Nicolai Gedda | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic
  11. ^ "Honorary Members of the Royal Academy of Music)". Royal Academy of Music. 14 October 2009. Retrieved 14 October 2009. 
  12. ^ Fox. Margalit: Nicolai Gedda, Celebrated Opera Tenor, Dies at 91. The New York Times, 10 February 2017. Retrieved 11 February 2017.


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