George London

George London (actual surname Burnstein) was born into a Russian-Jewish family that had emigrated to North America, settling in Los Angeles in 1935. Having studied singing with Richard Lert, Hugo Strelitzer and Nathan Stewart, he made his debut under the name George Burnson in 1942 as Dr Grenvil / La traviata at the Hollywood Bowl. London continued his vocal studies in New York with Enrico Rosati and Paola Novikova, appearing in operettas and musicals as well as with the San Francisco Opera as Monterone / Rigoletto in 1943, and as a substitute for Mihály Székely with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati in 1945. During 1947 and 1948 he toured as part of the Bel Canto Trio with soprano Frances Yeend and tenor Mario Lanza.

In 1949 London auditioned for Karl Böhm at the Vienna State Opera and was immediately engaged. He was greatly admired in Vienna, making his debut as Amonasro / Aida to sensational success. This was followed by Escamillo / Carmen, the title roles in Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni and the four villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. At the Glyndebourne Festival London first appeared in 1950 as Figaro / Le nozze di Figaro; and at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 as Amfortas / Parsifal, a role which he sang there in 1952–1953, 1956–1957 and 1961–1962. Also at Bayreuth he assumed the title part of Der fliegende Holländer in 1956, 1959 and 1961.

London’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York came in 1951 as Amonasro. He went on to sing over 200 performances with this company, where his notable parts included the title role in Boris Godunov, Scarpia / Tosca, Wolfram / Tannhäuser, Mandryka / Arabella, Golaud / Pelléas et Mélisande, Iago / Otello, Méphistophélès / Faust and the Speaker / Die Zauberflöte; and Wotan / Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried. In 1964 at the Met he created the role of Abdul in the American premiere of Menotti’s The Last Savage.

During 1952 London made two significant debuts: at the Salzburg Festival as the Count / Le nozze di Figaro, and at La Scala, Milan as Pizarro / Fidelio. From the mid-1950s he sang at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires; and with the opera companies of Chicago and San Francisco in the USA, and Amsterdam and Brussels in Europe. He was the first American singer to appear at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, as Boris in 1960.

At Cologne in May 1962 London sang his first complete Ring cycle in a new production by Wieland Wagner. Shortly afterwards, during the 1963–1964 season, his vocal health began to decline rapidly: a paralysed vocal cord was diagnosed. He gave his last performance at the Met as Amfortas in 1966, and by 1967 his singing career was effectively over.

London now turned to other activitites, in 1971 founding the George London Foundation to assist young singers early in their careers. He directed the Seattle Opera’s first Ring cycle in 1975 and between 1975 and 1977 was director of the Washington Opera. Between 1977 and 1985 London suffered several heart attacks. The first left him partially paralysed and the last was fatal.

A tall, well-built man with a strong stage presence, London had a large, dark and resonant voice with a wide dynamic range. His recordings for the Decca label are notable, especially those conducted by Solti and Knappertsbusch.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).