Just put on a few recordings by George London, and the sound of that voice is unmistakable. So is his musicianship -- and his extraordinary versatility.
London, 64, died after a long illness last Sunday at his home at Armonk, N.Y. There was no other bass-baritone of his generation with quite that kind of voice, with its haunting darkness. The dark side is what is most special about it. Just listen to what he does with the deep, dusky sounds of the baritone part in Brahms' "German Requiem," in a performance recorded with Bruno Walter that almost was never released because the conductor had misgivings about some details of the New York Philharmonic's orchestral playing.
And there was his "Flying Dutchman," one of those parts -- that of an utterly desperate man -- in which that bleak sound that George London could evoke seemed utterly right.
Perhaps the ultimate -- and most dramatic -- London role, however, was Boris Godunov. It provided the occasion for his most spectacular triumph, when in 1960 he became the first westerner ever to assume that part at the cradle of Russian opera, Moscow's Bolshoi. The performance fortunately exists on records. It is a marvelous incarnation of the title role's shadowy, guilt-ridden persona (would you believe that London mastered Russian by rote?).
London once described that event, a break in the cultural alienation of the Cold War: "As I slowly came into view of the audience, I was greeted with waves of applause, and suddenly all nervousness vanished. From that point 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 came backstage to compliment me, as did Ambassador Llewellyn 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."
For all the vocal splendor, London's physical presence was equally impressive. He was a tall, handsome man. His wife, Nora, recalled in an interview three years ago that she first encountered the imposing London as Don Giovanni, in a performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
Then she met him in 1954 at a Russian Easter party at the home of the family of the great bass Feodor Chaliapin. London had been singing Boris, Chaliapin's most famous role, at the Met. "My mother and Chaliapin's daughter were very, very close," said Nora London. "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 cavier, 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 . . . after that he was off 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 anybody in Atlanta. But it was George, and we made a date for when he came back." They got married about a year later.
London's way with people, especially with younger singers, was legendary. The grants that he started when he was both head of the National Opera Institute and the general manager of the Washington Opera started many an important career.
The enormous regard in which George London was held by his peers could not have been more dramatically illustrated than in the benefit concert on Nov. 4, 1981, at the Kennedy Center. It was staged out of concern for his welfare in the illness that had already stilled him for four years (the result of severe brain damage from cardiac arrest). Just a few of the participants: Sills, Sutherland, Horne, Gedda, Rostropovich, Neblett, Rysanek, Troyanos, Verrett, McCracken, Lear, Stewart, Welting, James King, Richard Stilwell.
Beverly Sills, who was the emcee, told this story about London's early days when he was little known, touring as a member of what was called the Bel Canto Trio, along with Mario Lanza and Frances Yeend:
"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 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."