I shall not go into the details of his life and career which have been accounted for in numerous obituaries, biographical sketches and encyclopedic texts, including his own autobiography that was published in Swedish already in 1977. My intention is just to share some of my own memories and impressions of a person who was remarkable and outstanding in more than one sense.
His beginnings are thus fairly well known: born in Stockholm out of wedlock to a half-Russian, half-Swedish father and a Swedish mother; adopted by his half-Russian, half-Swedish aunt and her husband, a Russian Kuban Cossack singer and Orthodox church choir master; brought up mostly in Germany up to the age of 9, then in Stockholm; getting his first musical training by his adoptive father. The rest, as far as his operatic and musical career is concerned, is history that has either been written already or awaits being further elaborated.
Nico – that was how all his friends and acquaintances called him and how he himself wanted to be addressed by us – was the complete antipode to the cliché of the egomaniac, pretentious diva. He shunned the world of limousines and posh cocktail parties. Wherever he stayed on the globe for his opera engagements, he preferred walking to the theatre for rehearsals and performances, perhaps having a hot dog or an ice cream on the way. In Stockholm you often saw him biking around until his late 70’s. His life-style was of an almost ascetic character. His ways – both materially and in his attitudes to other people – were as unpretentious and humble when he had become one of the best paid opera artists worldwide as they were back in the days of his youth when he still lived under poor circumstances. He regarded his enormous talent not as a means of any kind of narcissistic self-aggrandizement but purely as a gift of God that he had an obligation to reciprocate by just doing what he did.
For some decades, I was deeply involved in Orthodox church life, having converted already as a young student. Being also a singer at the time, it was natural for me to engage in Orthodox church music which is, by definition, purely vocal. I sang in church as a chorister, serving for a few years even as a choir master.
That was how Nicolai Gedda’s and my life-paths crossed. By the mid-1970’s, Gedda, who was a practising Orthodox Christian throughout his life, founded a male quartet dedicated to Orthodox liturgical music, mainly in the monastic tradition. In this quartet, I had the great fortune of being asked by Gedda to sing the 2nd tenor voice which I did until the quartet was finally dissolved by the end of the 1980’s.
My years in Nico’s quartet partly coincided with my years as a chorister at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, meaning that I would meet Nico in the corridors of the Opera House, having at times a brief chat with him there. But mostly we would meet outside the Opera, at rehearsals and at concerts given by the quartet.
The aim of Nico’s quartet – the official name of which was “Nicolai Gedda’s Vocal Ensemble” - was not mainly to sing at services in the Russian Orthodox Church, but to give concerts in public. We thus regarded our mission as being rather cultural than specifically religious or church-related. Not even all members of the quartet were Orthodox themselves.
We performed in several places in Stockholm, such as The National Museum of Art, The Historical Museum, The Stockholm (Evangelical-Lutheran) Cathedral, The Royal Palace (within the framework of Nico’s duties as a Court Singer), as well as in Copenhagen and Uppsala.
Nicolai Gedda undoubtedly was very proud of being a global cultural ambassador of Sweden by means of his astounding art. Sweden was the country of his birth, and Stockholm was the city of his late childhood and his youth. He loved Sweden and he loved his home town. Among all the languages he mastered up to he point of idiomatic perfection, he spoke Swedish with a clearly recognizable accent of the idiom spoken on the hills of Southern Stockholm where he had once been living with his parents.
But in his very person, both the beauty and the complexity of having a double cultural “root system” were tangibly displayed. In Nico, the Russian and the Swedish, the Eastern and the Western elements were living side by side, and inseparably.
Saying this, I feel that maybe I ought to give some examples; but I fear that doing so would make me lapsing into generalizations and stereotypes. I can just testify that the feeling of this dual presence was always there when you met him.
Stereotype or not – but nevertheless, I recall one moment in which I felt that I definitely saw the Russian Nico in front of me. The quartet had been invited to sing at a charity event that took place at one of the Stockholm museums; meaning, of course, that all the four of us would sing without any demands for remuneration. (In order not to hurt anybody of those in charge who might still be around, I shall not mention at which museum or for what charity purpose the event in question took place.)
When we arrived in the foyer adjacent to the concert hall, there was a large, oblong table laid with champagne glasses and scores of bottles of champagne of some exquisite brand, the content of which was lavishly offered to all the paying visitors. I watched Nico’s complexion turning black with fury at such wastefulness with charity money. After the concert Nico went straight up to the officials in charge, giving them a scolding they had probably never experienced any time before.
Next day, Nico paid from his own pocket all the three of us other quartet members. In matters of righteousness and decency, Nico never accepted any kind of compromise.
His attachment to his Russian heritage was of course about the classical Russian music, but first and foremost it was about the Russian Orthodox chant which had been the air he had been breathing from the earliest days of his childhood.
Nico’s religion was 100 per cent emotional. Wherever he went around the globe, he brought with him a small, old Russian icon. It represented his safety, his hope and his consolation in a world so poor in all the three of these qualities. In the Russian Orthodox liturgy with its emotional warmth, its symbolical opulence and its almost sensual chanting, Nico experienced the feeling of being profoundly at home – in a way I think he did not anywhere else in the world. His notions of the theological content of the Orthodox faith were rather vague, and hence his beliefs were very individual. He once revealed to me that he shared the Hindu-Buddhist belief in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls rather than the Christian and Orthodox belief in eternity.
But one thing he told me remains with me for ever as his particular, spiritual legacy:
“Despite all my amazing successes on the opera stages around the world, I never feel such deep internal happiness and satisfaction as when I sing the sacred chants of the Church. They remain closest to my heart for ever.”