Bass-baritone George London (born George Burnstein; 1920 – 1985) was born to naturalized American citizens who had emigrated to the US from Russia. His parentage likely explains the fluency he exhibited in Russian roles, most prominently Boris Godunov. Born in Montreal and raised in Los Angeles, his vocal talent was soon recognized.
He toured the US during the season of 1947-48 a a member of the Bel Canto Trio – the other two singers were Frances Yeend and Mario Lanza. He was engaged by the Vienna State Opera in 1949. His international career was then assured.
His Met debut was on opening night of the 1951-52 season as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida. He was a success right from the start. Virgil Thomson wrote of his debut performance: “George London is already a great barytone star in the grand manner. Beauty of voice, perfection of musical style and a stage power, both by personal presence and by dramatic skill, of the very first class are his. Last night he took his place among the greatest singing actors we have any of us known or remembered, and he did it without seeming effort or immodesty, so naturally authoritative were his presence and his art.” London was only 31. He appeared 264 times with the company over the ensuing 15 years until his career was ended by illness – see below.
London had just about everything going for him. He was tall, dark, handsome, was an outstanding actor, had a beautiful voice that could sing just about anything in both the bass and baritone registers. Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Mussorgsky were central to his repertoire. He could sing with ease in English, French, Italian, German, and Russian. His voice had both power and finesse. He could modulate his tone from the loudest to the softest with ease and control. His musical and acting intelligence allowed him to inhabit all the roles he sang and acted.
What could go wrong? Right laryngeal palsy was what could and did go wrong. Below the figure is London’s wife’s description of the debilitating condition that ended his career.
Dr. Reckford [the Met’s ENT specialist, 1962] asked me to look over his shoulder into George’s throat while he was examining him with his instruments. George’s throat was so wide and open that I could clearly see his vocal cords, two short, rather thick membranes that met in a central position when he said the letter “a.” I could also see that the left cord was moving back and forth diligently while the right one seemed sluggish and vibrated only slightly when touching the left. The doctor explained that because the right cord was the affected one …. Still, it seemed that the nerve that activated the right cord was paralyzed. Possibly the nerve and cord were affected only temporarily, as a result of the throat infection, and would recover in time. In the meantime, he advised as much vocal rest as possible.
At first, the diagnosis had no influence on George’s singing. His cold was cured and he went back to his busy season at the Metropolitan, his recitals and some performances in Cologne. But from that time on, wherever he went, he would consult every throat specialist he heard about. In the beginning, it often seemed that the right cord was moving and the doctor could reassure George. Then he went back to the stage and performed as if nothing had happened. In 1964, Dr. Zimmermann, a German doctor, convinced him that an operation to straighten the septum in his nose would help. He went ahead, and was disappointed once again. As the years went by, it became obvious that the right cord was definitely not moving–would never move again. Another operation opening the base of the neck to find out if some muscle was pressing on the nerve proved useless; the laryngeal nerve was not functioning.
Because the cord was not moving, it eventually became atrophied. The left cord compensated and moved over farther and farther to meet the affected one. As long as the cords met, sound was produced and George could continue to sing. Because of his excellent technique and breath support, he was able to perform for a few years without too much trouble. On January 19, 1963, Winthrop Sargeant wrote in The New Yorker, “George London, in his role as the Dutchman, ought to be commemorated by a statue in the lobby. I have never encountered a finer interpretation of the Dutchman, and I suspect it will be many seasons before any other artist anywhere undertakes this brooding, romantic role with comparable authority, either in voice or in physical presence.”
This extravagant praise was particularly welcome at that time. Yet some high notes were becoming increasingly difficult, and then, little by little, he did not have the customary thrust in the voice. He was painfully aware of these faults.
By the end of 1964, every appearance was an ordeal for him. The carefree performer of the past The carefree performer of the past was gone; his instrument was no longer dependable and all his know-how could not help.
After his singing days were over he established the George London Foundation for Singers, which gives grants to young opera singers early in their careers. $80,000 is given each year to the winners of an annual competition. In 1975 he directed the Seattle Opera’s first Ring Cycle. From 1975-77 he directed the Washington Opera. In 1977 a heart attack caused brain damage and left him partially paralyzed. A second heart attack was followed by a third which killed him at age 64. His story was one of great talent followed by a sad ending. Fortunately, there is a record of his enormous abilities.
The first opera I ever attended at the Met was on December 25, 1954. Tosca featured London as Scarpia. The title character was played by Licia Albanese. Tenor Eugene Conley was a last minute substitute for an indisposed Jan Peerce. London’s depiction of the evil chief of police was as good as any I’ve ever seen. That includes Tito Gobbi whom I saw in the role a little over a year later. In those days curtain calls were taken after each act. Accordingly, London did not take a bow at the opera’s conclusion as his character had been offed by Tosca in Act 2. Nevertheless, virtually the entire house kept calling for London to take another call, so vivid and enthralling was his performance. Decorum was maintained and he didn’t appear. He probably was halfway through a late dinner at a midtown restaurant.
I’ll start with a video of London as Scarpia. It’s the Te Deum that ends Act 1.
In 1957 the Met did Eugene Onegin in English. London likely would have preferred to sing the title role in the original Russian. ‘Were I a man whom fate intended’ is from the third scene of Act 1. Onegin responds negatively to Tatyana’s epistolary declaration of love. Lucine Amara is briefly heard as the lovesick girl.
Boris Godunov was one of London’s most fully realized roles. This monologue is from Act 2.
Prince Igor’s aria is from the opera’s second act. He describes his anguish over having been wounded and captured along with his son and brother after a disastrous battle with the Polovtsy.
As mentioned above, London made his Met debut in Aida. The father-daughter duet in the Nile Scene is one of Verdi’s finest. The pairing of father and daughter was a constant theme throughout the composer’s life. London is joined in this 1963 recording with Birgit Nilsson. O ciel , mio padre
Two arias from Verdi’s final two masterpieces. The Credo from Otello and E sogno from Falstaff. The latter is for Ford, the second baritone, but a great singer can steal the opera with it. Ford thinks his wife had cuckolded him with Falstaff. Verdi reverts to the style of his earlier operas. This is pretty serious stuff, we know the truth, but Ford sees a different one. He suffers and the music shows it all to the audience – comedy is forsaken for a few minutes.
London was as proficient in Wagner as he was with Verdi. The Song to the evening star is from Act 3 of Tannhäuser. London’s sensitive and lovely reading is perfect. The same is true of his rendition of Wotan’s farewell at the end of the third act of Die Walküre. Hans Knappertsbusch wields a mighty baton in this 1958 recording.
Next the Champagne Aria, Fin ch’han dal vino, from Don Giovanni. This was recorded in 1965 when London was effectively singing with just one vocal cord – pretty good.
London was an extraordinary artist who perhaps is not as well remembered as he should be. Those who saw and heard him at his best will not forget his great work. He’s, unfortunately, another example of the random unfairness of life.