Mention his name in a room full of opera fans and watch them go nuts. The Met Opera dedicated the fountains at its new house to him, and the reason isn't just that he forged one of the most illustrious careers any bass ever had without ever learning how to read notes. By the time he retired from the Met, his unusual dramatic versatility had landed him more than ninety-five operatic roles. He took the male lead in Rodgers' and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" soon after, the richness of his tone capturing the imaginations of the legendary Broadway composers, who wrote some of the famous musical's songs for his voice specifically. Bass students of Italian opera often quote him as an inspiration, and his recordings with artists such as Rosa Ponselle are legendary.
Herbert von Karajan would have loved this guy. Pol Plancon was one of the very last opera stars who adhered to a tradition that championed exceptional grace, refinement, and clarity in a vocalist's style, sometimes at the expense of drama. He hopped into the recording era with Nellie Melba and friends out of the 1800s, immortalizing a voice that, because of a more passionate and "human" trend among vocalists that Enrico Caruso, Feodor Chaliapin, and the like paraded through the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, was hailed as an elegant rarity. His recordings are some of the very few glimpses into opera's most significant and prestigious time. His retirement was a somewhat gloomy event in the opera world, as his voice was still in great shape when he made his final exit from the stage.
Rene Pape, dubbed "The Black Diamond Bass," has been performing since he was old enough to be cast as one of the three boys in Mozart's "The Magic Flute," and is considered one of the most talented operatic basses active today. He has received two Grammys and an ECHO (Germany's Grammy) award, and he was named "Vocalist of the Year" by Musical America in 2002, then "Artist of the Year" in 2006 by critics in Germany. He was also honored by the Metropolitan Opera in its "Met Mastersingers" series. His voice being dark, large, and well- controlled, he has been selected by great conductors (including the legendary Georg Solti) and film makers (i.e. Kenneth Branagh) for roles in famous productions and recordings. A man with an ear open to the new, he is also known for his interpretations of songs by the German metal band, Rammstein. He is set to next month perform a recital in Paris and, then, the complete role of King Philipp II in a production of Verdi's "Don Carlo."
Boris Christoff's name is very familiar to opera- adoring folk, though it doesn't take an aficionado to recognize the gifts he
possessed. His sound wasn't extremely large, but he achieved lasting international fame for his matching dramatic stylings and timbre, both of them intense and penetrating. His portrayal of Boris Godunov is still one of the most admired on disc, and he is also widely known today for his interpretation of Russian art song. He recorded over two hundred Russian classical songs, including all sixty-three of Mussorgsky's, which are available in a box set. He was known to be a difficult artist to work with at times; his falling out with Maria Callas became meat for the press, "La Divina" being scrutinized constantly, herself, for a temperament similar to his own. He made his permanent exit from the stage at the age of seventy-two.
Siepi is considered the ultimate Don Giovanni. He performed the role forty-three times at the Vienna State Opera alone, more than any other guest or mainstay of that company, and made a legendary recording of it in 1953, conducted by the great Wilhelm Furtwangler. His stylings in the role of King Philipp II in "Don Carlo" are also very famous. He replaced Boris Christoff in the role at the Met at the start of the 1950 season and shortly after that became the principal (and most internationally acclaimed) bass there, performing and recording into his sixties to the delight of his very large audiences. He passed away in 2010 at the age of eighty-seven.
Talvela was one of a small handful of legendary Finnish basses in the Twentieth Century (the first, according to some). His voice was described as having "immense size and wide range," earning him a stellar reputation as an interpreter of many widely varied roles and musical styles. He is almost as well-remembered for his Mozart and Wagner as for his Mussorgsky. His lowest notes were well-recorded and still astonish listeners because of the ease with which he could descend to them from his highest, but in his lifetime his size and acting contributed in equal amount to his fame. He stood six feet, eight inches tall, taller than any opera singer in the world, and he had a demeanor to match his unmissable and grand vocal sound. Though he was stricken with health problems that thinned his voice considerably before his passing, he made a late recording (his last) of Schubert's "Winterreise" that is widely acclaimed for its warmth and emotion. He also famously recorded Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death" twice, once with orchestral accompaniment and once with piano.
Ivar F. Andresen
Andresen had the distinction of being the first Norwegian to perform at the Met, and he is one of two opera singers to be honored quite memorably in his native country, the other being Kirsten Flagstad, whose face is painted on the tails of Norwegian Air Shuttle passenger jets. His flexible voice earned him success with the music of Verdi, Wagner, and Mozart. He was most famous in his lifetime in England, America, and Germany, but has become known all over the world because of his many recordings and the widely circulated fact of his face being put on the boxes of IFA cough drops, which are advertised as purposed for "singers, public speakers, smokers, and athletes." He passed away rather young, at the age of forty-four, after a battle with a series of health issues.
Nicolai Ghiaurov's full, fluid, and powerful voice made him, according to many more than only the writer of his obituary in The Telegraph, "one of the two or three leading bass singers over a quarter of a century from 1960." Even now he is universally acclaimed as being among the most exceptional interpreters of the roles of Boris Godunov, Timur in "Turandot," Massenet's Don Quichotte (of which the first complete performance recorded in stereo sound is his), and Don Giovanni. His focus on smooth transition between notes (legato) made him a favorite of Herbert von Karajan, whose ideal soprano, Mirella Freni, he married in 1978. His gifts got a peak on one of Antarctica's islands named after him, and he now regularly makes lists of the best operatic basses in history.
Anton van Rooy
Van Rooy was one of the most acclaimed Wagnerian basses ever, his voice being considered universally as beautiful and affecting. His recordings, much like Rosa Ponselle's, don't quite capture its immense size and power, but they showcase all of its other impressive qualities, including its solid high notes and abyssal chest tones. Though he cut his prime short by taking up a few too many roles that pushed his range, he wasn't left without an enormous fan base in his later years. The first truly legendary Wotan of the Twentieth Century, his legacy inspired basses and bass-baritones for decades after his passing in 1932.
I hope you've enjoyed this, Part I of II in Everyone's Opera's "The Opera Crazy's Guide to the Greatest Opera Singers of Time: The Basses." If there's a name you'd like to see in Part II, leave it in a comment below and I'll be sure to include it! Thanks for all of your help with the editing of the list of great contraltos, which will be completed before the week is out! Ciao, my fellow opera crazies, and happy operatic insanity!