22 June 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Nicolai Gedda – contemporaries and Butterfly

Nicolai Gedda (1925 – 2017) was one of the leading lyric tenors of the 20th century and one of the most productive.

He started to work with Karajan in 1952 at the age of 27 and performed and recorded with him over a period of 10 years. “Gedda was reported in Opera as being ‘a new tenor discovery of Karajan’s’, though it is doubtful whether Gedda would have much enjoyed being so described. The possessor of a voice of such liquid beauty as his then was needs no conductor to ‘discover’ him. (Richard Osborne).” Karajan’s and Gedda’s first joint effort, Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex”, recorded with the RAI orchestra Rome in 1952, is a fascinating piece of music, half opera, half oratorio, with a narrator speaking words by Jean Cocteau and the young Nicolai Gedda as Oedipus at the beginning of a meteoric career. It is notable that the first three projects were works by contemporary composers: Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex”, Orff’s “Trionfi” and Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time”.

Under Karajan’s baton, Gedda impersonated such famous opera figures as Tamino, Don Ottavio, Don José and Eisenstein, and he also sang in a large number of sacred works. In 1955 Karajan recorded “Madama Butterfly” at the Scala with Nicolai Gedda as Pinkerton and Maria Callas as Cho Cho San. Sometimes, Gedda was angry about Karajan (and Legge). He felt exploited and had the impression that they were urgon him to sing parts that could ruin his voice. Nevertheless, in 1996 he said to an interviewer:

“You needn’t to keep your eyes on Karajan. The beat, the movement, the flow of the music were so clear, so consequential, so beautiful that you became one with the music.”


We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Nicolai Gedda. Listen to them here.

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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