Lauritz Lebrecht Hommel Melchior was born in Copenhagen on 20 March 1890. On this day also Beniamino Gigli was born.
The young Lauritz sang in an English church choir as boy soprano. At the age of 18 he began voice studies under Paul Bang as a baritone at the Royal Opera School, Copenhagen. He made his official debut as a baritone at the Royal Danish Opera itself in 1913 as Silvio in Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. The conductor of the evening was the composer Carl Nielsen. From this time on he served as a bread-and-butter baritone at the Copenhagen opera. Some early acoustic recordings of Melchior's baritone voice with opera arias and songs were made in this period and are still available. Hear, for example, old Germont's aria Di provenza il mar from La Traviata.
One night,while on tour with the American contralto Mme. Charles Cahier, Melchior helped an ailing soprano in Il Trovatore by singing a high C in the Act IV Leonora-Di Luna duet. Mme Cahier, amazed by the tone she heard, forthwith gave her young colleague sound advice: he was no baritone, but a tenor "with the lid on". The kind lady even wrote to the Royal Opera pleading that Melchior be given a sabbatical and a stipend to restudy his voice.
From 1917 to 1918 Melchior took lessons from the Danish tenor Vilhelm Herold (1865-1937) who had sung Wagnerian rôles in Covent Garden, Chicago and Copenhagen from 1900 to 1915. This training proved to be a turning point in Melchior's career. His high baritone voice was remoulded in that of a low tenor, but with glorious high register. His second debut was on 8 October 1918 in the title rôle of Tannhäuser, also at Copenhagen. Incidentally his career was not yet very successful. Melchior was cast only twice, as Canio and as Samson.
Melchior made a journey to England, were he was heard by the inventor Marconi in a concert. Marconi invited him to take part in the first international radio transmission. This opened contacts, e.g. to the novelist and passionate Wagnerite Hugh Walpole, who provided the fledgling heldentenor with moral support and financial aid. Additional studies under Victor Beigel, Ernst Grenzebach and the legendary dramatic soprano of the Vienna Court Opera, Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, kept Melchior occupied until 1923. Word of his talent spread and he was taken under the wing of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner at Bayreuth. There the re-opening of the Festival for 1924 was under preparation. Melchior was signed as the new tenor for Siegmund and Parsifal. The news of his engagement opened the way to several other performances, e.g. a Wagner concert with Frida Leider in Berlin, 1923. Around this event some acoustic Wagner records were made by Polydor.
On 14 May 1924 he appeared as Siegmund at the Covent Garden Opera House, London. The result was a smashing success. Some weeks later Melchior made his debut on the stage of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in the rôles of Siegmund and Parsifal. On 17 February 1926 his first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, New York took place. He sang Tannhäuser togather with Jeritza, Schorr, Branzell and Bohnen, conducted by Bodansky. Although he was not criticized, there was not much enthusiasm heard about his debut. In his first season at the Met Melchior sang only 8 evenings. His second season brought only one appearance. To build up his repertory and to gain more stage experience Melchior got into an engagement at the Hamburg State Opera, where he eventually made his debuts as Lohengrin, Otello, Radames and Jean van Leyden. He also sung regularly at other major German music theaters, so at the State Operas of Berlin and Munich.
Melchior's breakthrough at the Met was finally to come with his Tristan performance on 20 March 1929. From this moment he went from success to success until his retirement. It was Lohengrin's Farewell which served as Melchior's "Swan Song" in his last stage performance on 2 February 1950. Parallel to his work at the Met Melchior appeared at Covent Garden from 1924 to 1939, also as Otello and Florestan. Other important stations of his career were Buenos Aires (1931-1943), San Francisco (1934-1945) and Chicago (1934-1945). In the time from 1929 to 1945 Melchior made the most of his numerous 78rpm discs.
Melchior, the Great Dane, believed in living life to the full, with a typically Danish love of food and drink. His second wife, Kleinchen, who was also his business manager during most of his career, fought constantly to control his diet -- and his extravagant spending. Off-stage, his great passion was hunting; he had to abandon his beloved German hunting estate, Chossewitz on the outbreak of war in August 1939. He had not endeared himself to the Nazis, on one occasion setting his dogs on some unwelcome Gestapo visitors at Chossewitz. On-stage, he was fond of practical jokes, which was contributed to the difficulties in his relationship with Kisten Flagstadt. Another factor was Kleinchen's constant promotion of her husband through what Flagstad called phony publicity stunts.
After Melchior's retirement from opera his musical activities continued in the form of radio, television and nightclub engagements. There are also several movies with Melchior playing and singing playback. To celebrate his 70th birthday, 1960, Melchior sung Siegmund in a concert performance of the first act of "Die Walküre" at Copenhagen. There exists a recording of this performance. His farewell from public musical life was as conductor of the Fledermaus overture in an open-air concert at San Francisco, 1966.
The old Melchior was convinced that after he had not enough real Heldentenors
as successors. So he instituted a program to discover and develop potential
Heldentenors, mainly from the species of high baritones. A Wagnerian tenor,
as Melchior knew, is made, not born. He needs special training under ideal
conditions, circumstances that permit him to devote his full time and energies
to studies. The Melchior Heldentenor Foundation, a cash scholarship, provides
gifted young singers with such an opportunity. In a broschure of the Foundation
we can read:
"Heldentenors are rare, usually developing with age, and most often created from a high baritone voice. This singer must stop singing for some time an concentrate on study. The Melchior Foundation will provide the financial assistance to make the training and support of the future Heldentenor possible. Applicants for grants can be nominated only by the director of an opera company, who will be expected to assist the singer's development in any way possible if he is selected. The director must engage the singer to perform Heldentenor roles for at least one season with his opera company. By the same token, the singer must have musical and dramatic experience already."
Among the singers successfully assisted by the Foundation were William Cochran and Gary Lakes. They belong to the best Heldentenors of today.
Lauritz Melchior finally died on March 18, 1973 at Santa Monica, California.