Historical Performances: Sandor Konya, Irene Dalis in “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 27, 1960

Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the fifth of five such observances of performances from the company’s 1960 Fall season.

I have already noted 1960 performances of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West)” [See Historical Performances: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960] and Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” [See Historical Performances: The Woman Without an Equal: Leonie Rysanek in “Frau ohne Schatten”: San Francisco Opera, September 24, 1960].

The next observance is my very first Wagner opera at the War Memorial, “Lohengrin”.

[Below: Sandor Konya as Lohengrin (Bayreuth 1958), in a historical photograph from www.cs.princeton.edu.]

To supplement my recollections five decades later, beginning with this observance, I am adding selected quotations from a contemporary source, the major history of the opera company by my friend and colleague, Arthur Bloomfield, then opera critic for the San Francisco Examiner. So that is clear which remarks are mine and which are his, I will so identify each paragraph that quotes him and place it in parantheses and unbolded italics. The quotations are (occasionally non-substantively edited) excerpts from Arthur Bloomfield’s 50 Years of the San Francisco Opera,1972, San Francisco Book Company, San Francisco, California.

(Bloomfield: The “Fanciulla” revival served to introduce Sandor Konya, the new Hungarian tenor, to America. A tallish, sturdy Dick Johnson, he delivered his listeners a pingy spinto sound that carried a sizeable emotional charge. The fact that he tended to lumber about the stage  (there are roles more comfortable than Johnson), and the fact that his projection was occasionally a bit insecure or grainy – these mattered not so much in earshot of Konya’s lyric charms. He followed the Johnson with a superior Lohengrin, a fresh Rodolfo, and a Radames which, while stiff in movement, intermittently called to mind the singing of Lauri-Volpi. He was immediately re-engaged . . .)

In my 50 year observance of “Fanciulla”, I spoke of the welcome ubiquitouness of Sandor Konya at San Francisco Opera during the first half of the 1960s. Besides doing two of the Wagnerian jugendlicher tenor  title roles of “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” (the latter in 1964), he also sang our different Italian opera roles opposite Leontyne Price. (Konya was the tenor in no fewer than five of my first performances of a given opera – two Wagner, two Puccini and a Verdi).

In both Wagner and the Italian roles he had a glorious tenor voice, that shone in the War Memorial Opera House, warmly baritonal in the lower registers with a smooth transition to high notes of the tenor range whose sound soared above the San Francisco Opera Orchestra playing at full volume in the open orchestra pit. To this day, I believe no Lohengrin that I have heard surpasses him. I regard it as a great compliment to say that an artist sings Lohengrin as well as Konya did.

Even though I regard him an underrecorded artist, there does exist a nearly contemporaneous recording of “Lohengrin” with Konya, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For those who want to hear what I call bel canto Wagnerian singing, invest in an MP3 download from that recording of Konya singing “In fernem Land”.

In this recording, Konya sings the uncut version of the aria that contains an entire section – the second verse, with somewhat different music – that Wagner reluctantly removed as the opera was readied for performance. If more Wagnerians (and opera lovers in general) can hear the uncut aria, sung by an artist like Konya, perhaps conductors and artistic managements of opera companies can be persuaded to present “Lohengrin” without the cuts it has endured for a century and a half.

[Below: Ihgrid Bjoner as Elsa; edited image, based on an historical photograph from wikipedia.com.]

The Elsa was the well-received Ingrid Bjoner, in her American debut, in her only role in San Francisco. A year later she debuted at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she sang through the 1967 season.

But it was the seconda donna, the Ortrud of 35 year old Irene Dalis, whom I had already seen for the first time earlier that season as the Amne (nurse) in Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, whose importance to  the San Francisco Opera was of much longer duration than Bjoner’s and greater significance (and to me as well).

[Below: Irene Dalis as Ortrud; resized image, based on a historical photograph, from www.cs.princeton.edu. ]

Not only was Dalis my first Amne and Ortrud, in subsequent seasons she introduced me, in live performance, to the roles of the Marina in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” (1961) and Princess Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” (1962), and three other major Wagnerian roles – Kundry in Wagner’s “Parsifal” (1964), and two in 1967, Fricka in “Das Rheingold” and Isolde in “Tristan und Isolde” (1967).

Dalis sang in 68 performances for the San Francisco Opera, 48 regular performances at the War Memorial Opera House and twice in student matinees there. She sang 14 roles between 1958 and 1973. For those who never heard her and wonder what she sounded like, she is the Kundry in what many regard as the best recording of “Parsifal” ever made, the live recording (under studio conditions) from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch in 1962, in her prime at age 37, within two years of the performance I chronicle here. In all I saw her 12 times, all at the War Memorial. (Her Parsifal in that recording is Jess Thomas, whom I will have a lot to say about in these 50 year anniversaries, but that is still a bit in the future.)

(Bloomfield: Although Adler was tending to make conducting assignments on a nationalistic basis . . . there was a major exchange in 1960 when Molinari-Pradelli took over “Lohengrin” (following in the steps of Cleva) and Leopold Ludwig assumed responsibility for “Boccanegra”. The Italian Wagner was immensely vibrant, spontaneous and to the point, the German Verdi more elegantly controlled but forceful.)

Despite his foray into the Wagnerian repertory in 1960, Molinari-Pradelli was the leading conductor for the Italian repertory during the years 1957 through 1966. He was the conductor for no fewer than 16 of my “first times” for live performances of operas.

[Below: Conductor Francesco Molinari-Pradelli; edited image of historical photograph, from www.cs.princeton.edu.]

I will have more to say about Molinari-Pradelli in 50 year anniversaries of operas from the 1961 season, to be posted in the next calendar year.

(Bloomfield: The revival of Leo Kerz’ 1955 “Lohengrin” (hardly a full-dress production) brought some lovely projections and misty lighting effects. The swan was now a stationary emblem-like object behind a scrim. Even though it looked, as Alfred Frankenstein put it, like a Mexican postage stamp, a fairly satisfactory compromise was struck between the creaky old-fashioned swan boat and ultra-modern invisibility.)

Leo Kerz was a Polish emigree, who studied theatrical arts in Berlin during the 1920s. On his arrival in the United States he became involved with production and lighting design, and perhaps is best known in the United States for his production designs for the Broadway production of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”.

Kerz’ approach to operatic sets and lighting at the time was regarded as non-traditional. The disappearance of the concept of a solid swan in “Lohengrin” did result in some ridicule, but the ideas of Kerz and other European designers that Adler brought to San Francisco looked to the future of operatic production, rather than the past.  We will return to this subject in future posts.

Swan Song for the “Thoroughly Modern Lohengrin”?

One last note, in reflecting on a half century of viewing “Lohengrin”. For the first century of “Lohengrin” performances it was assumed that the opera was the presentation for the operatic stage of Wagner’s conception of a medieval myth about a Christian knight, who was son of one of the knights who guarded the Holy Grail. Eighty years ago the course of German history began to be affected by the appearance of a leader who proposed, among his many ideas, that the stories of Wagnerian operas, in fact, supported courses of action whose consequences most of the world forcibly rejected.

A reality of the past half century is that several production designers have incorporated themes of 20th century totalitarianism into “Lohengrin” productions. But we may well have reached a time that people may become open to the idea that “Lohengrin” really is a medieval tale, something a little more than a fairy story, but something that has taken on too much baggage as production designers have pushed the story closer to us in time.

Perhaps we are at point where we can return to the idea of the Knights of the Grail, and Parsifal and Amfortas at Montsalvat, and little Lohengrin being raised in a milieu that does not produce a “worldly”, certainly not a streetwise, young man.  But Lohengrin is one who accepts both the religious fervor and the belief that magical spells do occur that a medieval upbringing in a magical place has instilled in him.

As some of the insightful, even if misguided, “Lohengrin” productions of the past few decades age out  – whether they envision a Brabantian Soviet Socialist Republic or a Nazi hierarchy that “Lohengrin” is somehow supposed to symbolize –  we should begin to retire the idea of Lohengrin as a citizen of the 20th and 21st centuries.

For recent reviews of “Lohengrin” productions time-shifted to the 20th century, see: Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009, and also,

Countdown to the Wagner Bicentennial: James Conlon Conducts Bel Canto “Lohengrin” – Los Angeles Opera, November 20, 2010, and also,

Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20,2012.

For a postcript on this 50 year anniversary post, with some subsequent thoughts, see: A Second Look: The “Lohengrin” Experience at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 28, 2012