His Master’s Voice

By Anando Mukerjee 0

Anando Mukerjee on his teacher, the great Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda who died in January. Renowned for the beauty of his tone, Gedda connected Mukerjee to opera history


The truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. Believe me, dear readers, it is! To think that a boy born in Patna, that ancient cradle of civilisation too often remembered for the wrong reasons today, would one day become a disciple of one of the 20th century’s greatest tenors is almost too fantastic to believe. And yet there it is: Nicolai Gedda, the most recorded tenor of all time according to the Guinness Book of Records, was the guru, or “maestro” as I called him, to my shishya.

Shortly after I caught the opera bug as a teenager in Delhi, my piano teacher at the time, all too aware that my musical talents lay far away from the keyboard, loaned me a copy of EMI’s legendary 1959 recording of Bizet’s Carmen conducted by Thomas Beecham. She particularly wanted me to listen to the famous “Flower Song” and perhaps consider learning it. Gedda was the tenor on the recording.

Years later in England when I got my first professional job singing, I was able to, through what can only be described as divine intervention, gain a personal introduction to Gedda. Our first meeting was in Switzerland, where he had retired. I was completely awestruck. At 80, Gedda was still a very handsome man, standing a full six feet with luxurious silver hair and the aura of a star. But he was, at the same time, down to earth, his fame worn lightly and his humour dry and irreverent.

The seven years I spent learning with him were a singular privilege. Here was a supreme artist who was part of that great lineage of tenors stretching back to Bjoerling, Schipa, Gigli and ultimately Caruso, all inheritors of the celebrated Italian tradition of “bel canto” singing with its emphasis on singing “sul fiato”, that is, on the breath. Beyond the technical instruction, he would share stories about the great figures with whom he was personally associated, Richard Strauss, Samuel Barber, Maria Callas, Beecham, Gerald Moore, Robert Merrill, Richard Tucker…the list was endless! This truly was an invaluable education. He always referred to me as his “darling boy” and paid me the highest compliment by saying that his wife Aino and he agreed that I was probably the best student he’d ever had. I am proud to forward the torch he passed onto me.

This article was published in Apr-Jun ’17 The Indian Quarterly.

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