Nineteen-sixty was a spectacularly good year for George London -- widely regarded as one of the finest singers of the century. That year he broke the ice of the Cold War by singing brilliantly that most grueling, and Russian, of roles -- Boris Godunov -- at the temple of Russian culture, the Bolshoi. He was the only non-Russian ever to do so.
He once described that triumph: "As I slowly came into view of the audience, I was greeted with waves of applause, and suddenly all nervousness vanished. From that moment until the end of the performance, I was in a state of complete euphoria. At the final curtain I received a standing ovation. Huge baskets of chrysanthemums were brought up on the stage. My colleagues applauded and some embraced me. My dear friends, the baritone, Lisitsian, and the conductor, Kondrashin, and their wives, came backstage to compliment me, as did Ambassador and Mrs. Thompson and the entire American press corps. The soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya Mrs. Mstislav Rostropovich , whom I had never met, rushed over, threw her arms around me, and gave me a resounding kiss. 'You did it!' she said and just as abruptly, left. Having finally divested myself of costume and makeup, I walked slowly with my wife back to the National Hotel, where we celebrated quietly, and drank sweet Georgian champagne, and retired early."
This year, though, has not been a good one for London, now 61, nor is it likely that there are any good ones to come. For a little more than four years, London has been the victim of severe brain damage suffered when a cardiac arrest ended his career while he was touring Germany as head of the Washington Opera.
Next Wednesday, the most dazzling array of operatic talent ever assembled for a single event in this benefit-crazed city will join ranks for a fund-raiser, a "Gala Tribute to George London" that will be filmed for broadcast on PBS next spring and recorded for commercial release by RCA. The benefit will take place at the Kennedy Center, where London once served as artistic administrator.
Joan Sutherland will sing Meyerbeer. Marilyn Horne will sing "Danny Boy." Shirley Verrett will sing "Ritorna Vincitor" from "Aida." Nicolai Gedda will sing Tchaikovsky. Leonie Rysanek will sing "Dich teure Halle" from "Tannha user." Evelyn Lear will sing "Vilja" from "The Merry Widow."
Beverly Sills will preside. James Levine, the Met's music director, will accompany, as will Julius Rudel, Sills' predecessor as head of the New York City Opera. The money goes to a new organization founded in August, the Opera Singers Disability Fund, which will contribute to London's care and become a permanent institution for the help of singers.
Until now, the London family has kept the extent of London's disability and the enormous expense of his treatment a private matter, except among close friends. Insurance has taken care of his rehabilitation therapy, but even the resources of so famous an operatic star have been taxed by the cost of round-the-clock nurses that are necessary if he is to remain at home in Armonk, N.Y.
But in a recent interview Nora London, his wife of 26 years, spoke openly about her husband's condition and about the ordeal of the last four years.
"His case is sort of unique, because at one time very few people survived something like this, but now more and more people do, and it's sad . . .
"You know, among other things, he's basically unable to speak. He does say 'yes' and 'no' and he calls me, and he says a few things, especially when he's well-rested.
"I speak to him all the time about this event which we have coming up, and I will say Rysanek will sing this and Tatiana Troyanos will sing this and Carol Neblett will sing that, and do you think that's right and he will say 'yes.' And he will say 'no' when he doesn't like it.
"And I say things to him again and again because you don't know how much immediate memory he has. He obviously has memories of the past perfectly. But I said to him just the other day, I said, 'You know I have to go, the concert is coming.' And he gave me a big smile, and he almost never smiles. I thought, gee, that smile is worth all the effort and all the . . ." She pauses, takes a deep breath and leaves the sentence incomplete.
In particular, George London was a major Mozart and Wagner singer. In addition to being a fine actor and a superb stylist, he brought to roles like Don Giovanni, the Flying Dutchman and the Count in "The Marriage of Figaro" a suitably tense, dark and sometimes mysterious sound that none of his contemporaries quite matched.
But his notion of the ultimate was Mussorgsky's and Pushkin's "Boris" -- and that had been so ever since his childhood in Montreal and Los Angeles when, as George Burnstein, he sang in a high-school glee club and, in what he sometimes said was the high point of his youth, sat next to Lana Turner while drinking an ice cream soda. He made his debut as George Burnson in 1941, singing Dr. Grenvil in "La Traviata" at the Hollywood Bowl.
By 1947, he was George London and was touring what he called "practically every town in America" with a then-obscure but very popular group of opera singers labeled the Bel Canto Trio. He was the bass baritone; the soprano was Frances Yeend, who went on to the Met; and the tenor was a fellow named Mario Lanza, whose future would turn out to be in movies.
Beverly Sills recalled yesterday that that was the period when she first became close to both London and Lanza. "It was our mothers who first tried to bring us together. We used to meet for lunch in New York at a vitamin bar. I would have loved to have been the soprano in that trio, but the management wouldn't take me.
"One result was that even though we've been good friends for almost 40 years, George and I never had a chance to sing together. But I will never forget what he was like on a stage -- that incredible voice, and even more, that extraordinary personality."
London finally decided that his best opportunity would be in Europe, so he went there. His debut was an auspicious one, with the Vienna Opera as Amonasro in "Aida," and before the year was out he was a public sensation as Boris in Vienna. Boris was his favorite role, and had been ever since as a child he sat around playing by the hour the recordings of Feodor Chaliapin, the most famous of all Borises.
Thus there seems something preordained about the circumstances under which George and Nora London met in 1954, during a Russian Easter party at the New York home of the Chaliapin family. It was he who was the stranger there (he had been singing "Boris" then at the Met). Nora London was the daughter of a prominent Russian family that, like the Chaliapins, left Russia after the revolution and ended up in New York because of World War II.
Last week at the Kennedy Center, her face still youthful and her voice vibrant, and apologizing for her undetectable accent, Nora London described the meeting: "My mother and Chaliapin's daughter were very, very close," she recalled, "and I had known them all my life. And every Russian Easter they had a big buffet and a celebration. There was a big crowd in one room and a buffet in another, and George and Leo Taubman his accompanist were at the buffet and George was eating caviar, which he loves above everything else. And Leo went to George and said, and this is the way George always told it, 'Go see this dish that just came in.' I know that's terrible to say about myself, but that was so many years ago. So George came over and we met and when everybody sat down he managed to sit next to me. I had seen him in 'Don Giovanni' but never met him. And when that was over he was off to Atlanta on the Met's spring tour.
"A few days later there was a call from Atlanta. I went to the phone and said I didn't know anyone in Atlanta. But it was George, and we made a date for when he came back.
"I'll never forget that, because we went to the Quo Vadis, and he started telling me, of all things, of what he would want of the woman he would marry. He said 'I'd like to do this and I'd like to do that, and she must do this and she must love music, and she must understand opera and she must be a good companion. I thought that either he was off his head or he was a very remarkable person indeed. But I wouldn't let myself believe that. I had just gone through a bad experience, a very bad marriage.
"And then we went to a nightclub. I think that's the only time we ever went to a nightclub in our life, but I guess he didn't want to take me home so we sat there and then we walked the streets until 3 o'clock in the morning.
"And then he was off to Europe. We met there later in the summer, and one thing led to another and we married there about a year later."
One of Nora London's earliest and fondest memories of those days in Europe is of Wieland Wagner, whose abstract, modernistic settings of his grandfather's operas at Bayreuth blazed the most important path of postwar opera design. "He was one of the most fascinating men I have ever known. He was brilliant, intelligent, extraordinarily cultured and he knew everything. Wieland really loved George. Just recently I found some letters from Wieland. There was one where he said to George that George was the answer to all his prayers as an artist and an interpreter, and in another one he wrote George after a production of 'Walku re' with George, and said that it was Richard Wagner's birthday and that he could never have wished for a better birthday present."
The anti-Semitic history of the Wagners was no bar to the friendship of the Londons with Wieland, who died in 1966. "Well, you know George is a Jew and so am I and when George came there, Wieland made it known that he was strongly anti-Nazi. Of course, he had met Hitler at Bayreuth and he had no choice but to join the Hitler Youth. And of course his strongly pro-Nazi mother was no longer a part of things by then. We met her later and she was quite a formidable woman, but her children really hated her, particularly Wieland."
One poignant George London story was told by Arianna Stassinopoulos in her best-selling biography of Maria Callas. It was Callas' debut season at the Met. "When many trusted colleagues were lining up to dispense their venom on Maria, George London remained totally loyal. 'When I learned that I would sing Scarpia to Callas' Tosca,' he recalled, 'I must admit that I had a few forebodings. So much had been printed about this 'stormy' star that I was prepared for almost anything. The first rehearsal reassured me. Here was a trouper, a fanatical worker, a stickler for detail. Remembering my own first season at the Met and the forlornness one can feel, I crossed the stage before curtain-time and, knocking on Callas' dressing room, said a quick 'In bocca di lupo' 'in the mouth of the wolf' -- an Italian charm for good luck . She took my hand in hers and seemed deeply moved."
They remained friends to the very end. "George had lunch with Callas in New York shortly before she died," Nora London said, "and when he came home he said she begged him to stay for dinner and he said to me, 'Oh, she is so lonely.' "
George London was especially qualified to understand the problems of singers, because his own voice started to fail prematurely in the mid-'60s. He consulted doctors around the world, but the mystery was never solved. For a while he continued to sing. He stopped in 1967. "He took the decision himself," his wife recalled. "I didn't say anything. And one day we were in Switzerland, and he came and said, 'I'm not going to sing anymore.' Of course it hurt . . ."
Soon afterward he became the Kennedy Center's first artistic administrator, served for five years as president of the American Guild of Musical Artists, ran the American Opera Institute and took over the Washington Opera in 1975.
One of the problems raised after London's illness was the lack of adequate rehabilitative care in Washington, Nora London recalled. They had kept a home in Washington since he came to the Kennedy Center. Finally they pulled up and moved to Armonk, only 10 minutes from the Burke Rehabilitation Center, in Westchester County, where London is taken for therapy almost every day. Also, their two children, and Nora London's two children by her previous marriage, all live in the area.
"The problem is almost the opposite of paralysis from polio, for instance," Nora London explained. "There the head is functioning, their impulses are functioning, but the body doesn't respond. But in George's case everything is there and it would respond if it got the signal from the brain properly.
"But I think he's made tremendous progress, if you think where he's coming from. He was in a coma the first three months. He couldn't open his mouth to eat for six months. They wanted to do an operation for that, but it would have meant that he would never eat, and I said, 'No, I refuse, he will eat,' and little by little, every day, I pushed the spoon and now he eats just like you and me. At this point he can, more or less, feed himself, according to his mood.
"Clearly something is happening now, whereas nothing was happening before. So, for us, we have to be content with this as progress. It can take 10 years, and it may never . . ." She paused. "You know, it's difficult. Nobody really knows . . ." She paused again. "I mean, the prognosis is not optimistic. But, on the other hand, he's done so many things that everybody said he'd never do."