The year that London went missing

More fuss should have been made about the centenary of the birth of the great bass-baritone George London, which fell in May. But springtime 2020 was clouded by Covid and few cared to look back to a carefree era of extraordinary singers.

Basia Jaworski has some thoughts here.


London, who died in 1985, had to retire at the early age of 46 after encountering vocal difficulties.

 

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  • I was lucky enough to hear him sing Amfortas in Bayreuth with Knappertsbusch conducting in 1961.. I was very young but remember him to this day as one of my greatest experiences in opera..an incredible voice. very sad that he became so ill.

  • George London, born Burnstein in Canada, was one of many prominent Jewish musicians of the time to adopt less ethnic stage or professional names: Robert Merrill, Leonard Warren, Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, Richard Tauber, Clifford Curzon, Bruno Walter, Solti, Ormandy, Gershwin, Irving Berlin,– the list is endless. One of the best who did not as far as I know is Alexander Kipnis. who like London was a celebrated Boris Godunov.

    • Tauber was not Jewish according to Jewish law, neither did he himself consider Jewish, and Warren converted to chistianity

    • George Gershwin did not change his name. Ditto Curzon — his parents dropped the German family name at the outbreak of WWI, when CC was seven — “Windsor” was adopted by the royal family in 1917 for the same reason. Curzon was buried in a churchyard; whether he was Jewish or not I don’t know. So if the list is long it may not be “endless.”

  • My parents heard the “Bel Canto Trio” referred to in the article — London, Frances Yeend, and Mario Lanza — at a concert in Milwaukee, but it was one of Milwaukee’s summertime outdoor concerts and thus the voices were amplified. Thus he (my father) was unable to resolve for himself one of the great music debates of the time, that being “does Mario Lanza not sing opera in concert because he doesn’t have the projection to fill a hall without a microphone?” But he told me it was a great evening of singing.

    There are some charming photos on the internet of London, Lanza and Yeend relaxing around the Hollywood Bowl and a poster in the background indicates Eugene Ormandy was conducting.

    By the way the London biography referred to in the article titled Between Gods and Demons is taken from a famous Columbia LP of the 1950s “Of Gods and Demons” where London sang Wagner excerpts (the Gods) and then Faust oriented excerpts from Berlioz, Gounod, Boito (the demons) and a Chaliapin specialty from Rubinstein’s The Demon.

    Edgar Self mentions London as being among those Jewish artists who felt a need (or perhaps was ordered to feel the need by artist managers) to take on less-obviously Jewish/ethnic “stage names.” I suppose we could call that the Marjorie Morningstar syndrome, and while she was an aspiring actress in Wouk’s novel there were also Jewish actors who did the same. There is an amusing YouTube video of the actor Jonathan Harris talking about how he and his sisters suffered the tortures of the damned in school with the original last name of Charasuchin, and finally the entire family changed their name to Harris — for $35 at a New York courtroom. It was before he began acting but one could wonder how many parts he would have gotten on stage or film as Charasuchin, particuarly if he had retained his Bronx accent instead of the vaguely almost British accent he took on.

    It might be added that there is a long tradition for musicians to deliberately and for career advancing reasons give themselves (or again, be urged to do so by managers or advisors) more ethnic names, or ethnicity of a type they did not actually share: Zara Nelsova (Sara Nelson, but originally she was Sara Katznelson), Richard Bonelli (Richard Bunn), Ossy Renardy (sometimes Ossy Renardi, but originally Oskar Reiss), Ruggiero Ricci (Woodrow Wilson Rich, but Ricci was the original family last name I believe), the above-mentioned Frances Yeend (Frances Lynch), and of course Olga Samaroff (Lucy Hickenlooper).

    And it might be pointed out that some of these name changes might have been the ideas of the good folks at Ellis Island. My own family last name isn’t “Nelson” but some Norwegian variant. “In this country it’s Nelson” snarled the intake clerk to my grandfather fresh off the boat and he was in no mood (or position) to argue.

  • I always have a soft spot for London’s Vienna 1955 studio Don Giovanni, not only for his incomparable Don, but also for the youthful yet superb cast, whose members (with the only exception of Ludwig Weber who sings Il Commendatore) were all under age 40 when the recording was made:

    Don Giovanni – George London (born in 1920)
    Donna Anna – Hilde Zadek (born in 1917)
    Donna Elvira – Sena Jurinac (born in 1921)
    Don Ottavio – Léopold Simoneau (born in 1916)
    Leporello – Walter Berry (born in 1929)
    Masetto – Eberhard Waechter (born in 1929)
    Zerlina – Graziella Sciutti (born in 1927)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9cBFKA4Tsw&t=4727s

  • Interesting, David, I heard Frances Yeend sing Verdi’s Requiem in Dallas under Dorati about 1949 with Richard Tucker, Claramae Turner, and a fine but short-lived New Zealand bass Oscar Natzka, born Natzke, who died a year or two later.

    The DSO concertmaster was Rafael Druian, and Janos Starker may have been their principal cello that season, with Lev Aaronson and hiswife in the cello section or among the strings. I was aying French horn in the Wichita Falls Symphoy Orchestra under Frederic Balazs.

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