Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Made in Sweden” honors Swedish tenor Jussi Björling…ARThound interviews “Jussicologist,” Bertil Bengtsson, and Swedish star tenor Mats Carlsson

Swedish tenor, Mats Carlsson performed in “Made in Sweden,” a multimedia program celebrating the centennial of the late Swedish tenor Jussi Björling on November 7, 2011. Carlsson is the first recipient of the Scandinavian Björling Society award. Photo: Geneva Anderson

In the world of opera, the late Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960) is legendary—his voice was so distinct, so infused with emotion and velvety richness, and his phrasing so artistic and capable of handling huge ranges, he was and remains THE GOLD STANDARD for lyric tenors.  Last week, Bay Area audiences were treated to “Made in Sweden,” a remarkable tribute at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music  commemorating Björling’s legacy and celebrating the centennial of his birth.  The program, which has been traveling around the country, was an enormous hit, particularly with the Bay’s Area Swedish community, who showed up in force to celebrate their beloved tenor.  For those unfamiliar Björling, it was a chance to immerse oneself in his music and all things Swedish.  Beforehand, ARThound had the chance to interview Bertil Bengtsson, co-founder of  the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society (Jussi Björlingsällskapet i Sverige ) and one of the world’s leading “Jussicologists” and Mats Carlsson, one of Sweden’s leading lyric tenors who performed 10 songs, ranging from Swedish folk music loved by Björling to arias he immortalized.

The program also featured a heartwarming opening by Anders Björling, Jussi Björling’s son, who shared his childhood memories of his father and his personal reflections on his father’s legacy and two breathtaking solos by Swedish pianist Love Deringer who accompanied Carlson.  Deringer treated the audience to Liszt’s Sonetto del Patrarca No. 104 and Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F-minor.  Bengtsson also gave complete accounting to date of Björling’s performances at San Francisco Opera which began in 1940 when he made his debut as Rodolfo in “La Boheme” and continued with eight more roles until his last appearance in 1958.  San Francisco was also the place where the last operatic performance of his career, Gounod’s “Faust,” occurred at the Cosmopolitan Opera ensemble on April 1st, 1960. “Made in Sweden” was sponsored by the Consulate General of Sweden, in cooperation with San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  (Click here to read ARThound’s earlier coverage of “Made in Sweden.”)

Can you tell us a little about the Scandinavian Björling Society award you were given and how you came to be selected?   

Mats Carlsson:  This year, (as the recipient of the Scandinavian Björling Society award) I am giving about 50 concerts with a Jussi theme.  I always lecture about Jussi at these concerts and try to speak about him from a singer’s point of view.  Aside from being honored, I received about  US $1,500 and a crystal vase.

Growing up in Sweden and studying music at the Royal College of Music and University College of Opera in Stockholm, when did you first encounter Jussi Björling─in school?  In voice lessons?  How did that impact you?  

Mats Carlsson:  I met Jussi in my voice lessons.  By listening to him, you can learn a lot about placement, pronunciation, breathing, interpretation, etc.  Jussi sang in a healthy way.  That is very important for a singer.

Having immersed yourself in Björling, what do you find special/unique about his voice?  And is there such thing as a Nordic timbre? 

Mats Carlsson:  Nordic timbre, I would say a pure voice, very clear and with a natural vibrato. We are all born with a voice but some with more beauty than others. That is a fact.  I believe Jussi had a beautiful one.

Bertil Bengtsson, of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society, and leading Swedish tenor Mats Carlsson at “Made in Sweden,” a multimedia celebration of the late Swedish tenor Jussi Björling on November 7, 2011 at San Francisco’s Conservatory of Music. Photo: Geneva Anderson

You have prepared a program that includes both classic Swedish songs and opera arias (as well as two piano solos).   For those of us who are basically unfamiliar with Swedish music, can you explain why you selected these pieces from Björling’s extensive repertoire?  

Mats Carlsson:  I have chosen the songs that I like to sing and, of course, those that suit my voice.

Also, the program includes a fair amount of Italian opera—Puccini, Donizetti, Ponchielli, Verdi.  How was his voice suited to these particular composers?

Mats Carlsson: Very well.  Jussi had a lyric voice and had an easy time with the high notes. Very opened and a relaxed voice. That is really is important.

I also sense that the quality of his voice was supported/bolstered by the emotional content of those Italian operas. He’s singing the role of the tender boyfriend—very passionately, longingly—and he’s playing the role of the man who loves women, basically a good guy.  That’s got to help.

Mats Carlsson: Yes, exactly!

How popular are the Swedish songs in the program?  

Mats Carlsson: Some of them are popular but mainly with the elder generation and they are still sung, just not very often.  As for myself, I didn’t grow up with these, I was a rock and roll guy!

There’s also definitely a dark side to some of the songs.  Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s  “When I Walk Along in the Dark Forest,” for example, is a particularly sad song in both its lyrics and mood.  This seems a huge part of the Scandinavian mind set—from Bergman to Kierkegaard and I can think of numerous other references.  What is this attributed to?  lack of daylight, cold weather?  On the other hand, Björling found the perfect expression of this.

Mats Carlsson:  Yes he did.  Despite a very successful career, you must understand that Jussi’s life was full of sadness mingled with music.  He sang 45 years out of his 49.  When he was 15, he had already sung 1000 concerts.  His childhood was to perform, not to play like other children.  He lost his both parents at young age.  All that, combined with all the pressure from being an opera star is probably why you find him to be the perfect expression of the Swedish melancholy.

The experience of immersing yourself in Björling on this concert tour must be fascinating for you.  How do you do it?  How do you keep your own personality defined while you are immersing yourself in his repertoire?  Also, in preparation, did you watch any films of him singing? 

Mats Carlsson:  I am not interpreting Björling.  I am interpreting the songs and arias. There is no reason to reproduce or try to copy someone else as I have my own expression.  The most important for me is to communicate with my audience.  That is why I am doing this and why I am a singer.  If I can make a difference in someone’s life, either by affect them directly or waking up emotions or memories that mean a lot to them, that is a great feeling.  I’d be grateful to have that impact.  No, I didn’t watch any films but I do enjoy listening to him.

What’s your personal favorite Björling song and why? 

Mats Carlsson:  I really enjoy August Söderman’s “Trollsjön” (“The Enchanted Lake”).   I think you can buy any recording actually and it will be great.  Jussi was able to maintain his remarkable voice through his whole career.

You and Björling are all over YouTube.  What do you think of this as a means of exposing people to your music?

Mats Carlsson:  YouTube is great for that.  We have to keep these Scandinavian songs alive for the future generations.

You are also going to be giving some master classes during this tour. What will you be covering?

Mats Carlsson:  I work with the students individually.  They need different kinds of help─solutions for support, breathing, how to mix head/chest voice, phrasing, legato and to sing in a relaxed way with as much beauty as possible!

Mats Carlsson with Walter Rudolph, current President, Jussi Björling Society-USA at “Made in Sweden,” November 7, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

I’ve read that you are an accomplished guitar player?  When you play, what type of music do you play?

Mats Carlsson: Unfortunately, I don’t play so much anymore. I have always mixed between classical and pop/rock. Who knows? I might start practicing again!

What has the reaction of the American audience been to this program so far?  I am particularly interested in the response of those people of Swedish ancestry that you’ve met while performing here—how do they react?    

Mats Carlsson:  Standing ovations!  That is a good answer!

Tell me about the Björling foundation.  Is the Björling family actively involved?  Aside from the preservation of Björling’s legacy why else are you pursuing this?  Is it to train young singers, music education, cultural promotion?

Bertil Bengtsson, co-founder of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society and one of the world’s leading “Jussicologists” gave an informative lecture on Björling’s life and musical legacy at “Made in Sweden.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Bertil Bengtsson:  The Scandanavian Jussi Björling Society was formed in 1989 by several Björling fans and I was one of the initiators.  We have members all over the world and our primary aim is to connect Jussi fans, regardless of country, in the study his life and art and to encourage the Swedish singing tradition, of which Jussi was one of the greatest exponents.  Mats Carlsson was selected for the Björling Award because he carries on the tradition of Jussi. (I am not saying that he’s the second Jussi as there will never be a second Jussi).  In Mats, we found a tenor whose art in inspired stylistically and vocally by Jussi.  Mats was one of several candidates.  The Society is always looking out for new talent, and as you rightly assume, the purpose is to assist a promising singer in his career.  When receiving this prize it’s the hope and wish of the society that the chosen singer will continue to carry on the proud Swedish singing tradition.

The Björling family is partially active in the society.  They attend meetings and show an interest in what we do.  We appreciate this.  Personally, I pursue my work with regard to Jussi because his singing has been such an inspiration to me for close to 30 years now, and through him I’ve also made an in-depth study of all great singers of the past, in particular Caruso and the singers of his era.  Through this interest, I’ve come to experience so many things, and I’ve made friends all over the world. The society’s aim is to find and promote young singers, as well as to make known and carry on our Swedish cultural heritage. With regard to what I do, well, aside from the Björling Society and serving as a consultant to the Jussi Björling Museum in Borlange, Sweden, Jussi’s hometown, I lecture and I work as a teacher (grades 6-9).  My subjects are socially-orientated: history, religion, social science and geography.  I also teach languages, primarily Spanish.

Here in the US, government money for culture has virtually dried up.  Do you get government funding or is this a privately funded foundation?  

Bertil Bengtsson:  We’re a privately funded society. This year, with regard to the centennial of Jussi’s birth, we also received some much appreciated sponsorship from private donators, including the Bernard Osher Foundationwhich has been instrumental in backing us for our centennial events.

Sweden’s Jussi Björling was one of the most beloved vocal artists of the 20th century.

In terms of the people Björling sang with, who was his favorite soprano and why?  Also conductors?

Bertil Bengtsson:  Jussi had many favourite singers. Among the sopranos he especially liked Victoria de Los Angeles and Renata Tebaldi.  As for the conductors, well, the same here, he liked several, but spoke most glowingly of his association to Arturo Toscanini.

What was Björling’s role in making Swedish music known to international audiences?  Did he play a role in bringing any previously unknown or underrepresented artists from the Scandinavian countries to mainstream attention? 
Bertil Bengtsson:  Jussi always included songs by Swedish and Scandinavian composers on his programs when in the USA: Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Hugo Alfvén, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Jean Sibelius and Ture Rangström.  Very often, his audiences were comprised of Swedish-American, so it was a way to connect with them.

What’s your personal favorite Björling song and why?  Along that line, do you have a personal favorite recording of Björling? 

Bertil Bengtsson:  I have many favorite songs and arias, but I will pick the aria “M’appari tutt’ amor” (“She Appeared to Me Full of Love”) from Friedrich von Flotow’s “Martha.”  I’m referring to the studio recording from 1957 (important!).  It’s classical bel canto at it’s very best.  As for a favorite complete opera recording, I choose the live recording of “Roméo and Juliette” from the Metropolitan Opera of February 1st, 1947, surely one of the greatest live recordings ever (regarding tenor singing).

How much of Björling’s repertoire is available digitally?  When did the re-mastering of his work start? 

Bertil Bengtsson:  A very large proportion of Jussi’s recordings are available digitally (on CD, and to a lesser extent on DVD). The transfer to digital media began early, at the beginning of the ’80s, when the CD was introduced.

What’s the opera scene like in Sweden?   Here, it’s a real struggle to get younger people interested in and attending the opera.  Is opera a strong and vibrant art form?  Is it attracting young people or is it seen more a dying art? 

Bertil Bengtsson:  I guess we’re having the same “problem” as you describe within the USA─ trying to interest younger people in attending concerts and opera.  I think that the interest for opera and classical comes later in life.  Very few kids in Sweden have their parents to educate them on these subjects.  My experience is that I’ve noticed more of an interest this year, as Jussi has been “marketed” much more.  There are more young listeners at our performances, which of course is very nice.  From time to time, I play Jussi to my students, and generally I get positive comments.  The Swedish Royal Opera is the foremost institution for the genre in Sweden.  We also have several high-class opera companies in other cities, like Gothenburg and Malmö.

If you had to pick a singer who most encapsulates the best of Björling, who would you choose and why?

Bertil Bengtsson:  The German tenor Fritz Wunderlich.  He died in 1966, at the very young age of 36.  He has the same stylistic beauty and elegance, as well as a voice of exceptional beauty.

What has the reaction of the American audience been to this program so far?  I am particularly interested in the response of those people of Swedish ancestry that you’ve met while performing here—how do they react?   

Bertil Bengtsson:  Very appreciative and warm reactions, often with standing ovations at the end.   It’s great to connect with all the Swedish-Americans who have so much to tell about Jussi. His art is something that affects people deeply, which is clearly noticeable at our performances. And San Francisco─it’s a city closely associated with Jussi, who sang there over a 40 year time span, the first time in 1920 and the last time in 1960.  It was actually the place for the last operatic performance of his career, Gounod’s “Faust,” with the Cosmopolitan Opera on April 1st, 1960.

November 17, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment