Jussi and Me
My love for opera began in high school and continued at fever pitch for a good number of years. The fanatical “high”point was during my senior year of high school when I limped on crutches to the old Metropolitan Opera House and stood for the four hours of Verdi’s “Aida,” reveling in the celestial voice of my favorite soprano, Renata Tebaldi (no Callas freak I!).
But it was the tenors who really blew me away: Caruso and Gigli (on records), Di Stefano (even once at La Scala), and Del Monaco — power and beauty were their trademarks, with their inimitable Italianate sound.
I confess, however, to have been an incipient, if reluctant, ecumenist in my appreciation of the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjørling. His voice had nothing of the Italian warmth I so loved. But it had a nordic clarity that came not from the chest but from the head: a sort of rarefied intellectuality. Compare his recording of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” to that of Pavarotti to hear two master singers, at the top of their arduous craft, yet poles apart in sound and sentiment.
Jussi is still present to me in a strange way. Often when I celebrate daily Mass for the twenty or so oldsters who attend, I will intone the “Agnus Dei” in Gregorian chant, and there will be a lively participation. But I try to intone it, not Luciano style, but in the austere Jussi mode.
Dona ei pacem!