These are excerpts from my notes taken during extensive conversations with broadcaster/teacher/critic Edward Downes (1911-2001) at his New York apartment in 1995. Edward was the son of New York Times critic Olin Downes and was himself a celebrated critic for The Boston Evening Transcript. From 1956-1999 Edward served as host of (Texaco) Opera Quiz over the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network. He was a faculty member at Queens College and The Juilliard School. These are verbatim transcripts, little editing attempted unless you see (CP: )
Edward Downes talking to me in 1995:
I heard my first Ring cycle at the Metropolitan in 1925. The Brunnhilde was the Swedish soprano Nanny Larsen-Todsen. She had a wobble in her voice which bothered a lot of people more than it bothered me. I thought she was a great singer, marvelous in the Ring and as Isolde. She had a lot of dramatic power, and I suspect she represented the end of the Wagner tradition which had been insisted upon by cosine Wagner. There were the big gestures, which often looked foolish. Larsen-Todsen was very effective in Goetterdaemmerung at the end of the prologue where they ring out the high Cs and Siegfried goes off. There's a certain point where Siegfried plays his horn and the orchestra comes in with a great sweep of violins. At this point, Larsen-Todsen gave the impression, from way in the back of the Metropolitan, that she had just caught sight of Siegfried. She made a large gesture just as the curtain came down, but the thought behind it, the impulse, was very moving.
In Siegfried, at Brunnhilde's awakening, Larsen-Todsen was likewise wonderful. The stage directions are just awful. She greets the light. She greets the sun. But Larsen-Todsen managed to do it just right. Big gestures complete concepts with a lot of feeling behind them. It was very powerful. Larsen-Todsen understood Wagner's text on a very subtle level and this came across in the slight colorations and little bits of rubato. Her voice was wobbly but very dramatic and it had something even Flagstad lacked. While Flagstad had the most gorgeous voice in these roles, she tended to sound a bit matronly. Larsen-Todsen had a strong visceral quality in her voice, similar to Lotte Lehmann. She was not the actress Lehmann was, but she was close.
There were no great tenors for Wagner before Lauritz Melchior arrived in '26. In fact, they were all horrible. There was one tenor willing to attempt Tristan in the 1920. His name was Kurt Taucher. He had been quite famous in Vienna, but by the time I heard him he made an awful sound!
NOTES from CP:
Nanny Larsen-Todsen (1884-1982)
debut in 1906 as Agathe in Der Fresichutz
Three seasons in new York: 1925-1928
Kurt Taucher, 109 performances in New York between 1922 and 1927
Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) Norwegian dramatic soprano. Her career and box office success rescued the Metropolitan Opera during the depression. She was unknown here and her debut in 1935 was broadcast. During the first intermission, radio commentator Geraldine Farrar, herself a great singer, threw her script away and told the public: "You have just heard the most exciting thing than can happen in any theater. The birth of a new star."
For power and beauty of voice, Flagstad is to this day hard to beat.
Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) Danish heldentenor. Unmatched in all of the Wagner operas. There has been no one approaching him since he retired form opera in 1950. He worked another ten years in Films and in Vegas! Often partnered Flagstad-reportedly they disliked each other. If you have never heard his many recordings and broadcasts, then you have never really heard Wagner!
P.S. Edward lived in the Dakota, the grand building at 72nd Street and Central Park West, notorious for the filming of Rosemary's Baby and the murder of John Lennon in 1980. Edward had lived in the building since he was ten and died there at ninety in 2001. Yoko lived just below him. Leonard Bernstein's apartment had a three storey living room. Lauren Bacall, Al Pacino, and Gilda Radner were among Edward's neighbors.