Lauritz Melchior (1890–1973) was the most famous Wagnerian Heldentenor (“heroic tenor”) of his day. From the 1920s through the 1940s, he sang at all the great opera houses — Covent Garden, the Festival Theater at Bayreuth, and, most significantly, the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Also appearing in several Hollywood musicals and on American television and radio, the Danish-born singer (who became a U.S. citizen in 1947) was a household name, with a larger-than-life physique and personality.
As a measure of his significance, biographer Shirlee Emmons notes that the National Park Service asked Melchior “for five or six personal items for their new American Museum to be housed in the base of the Statue of Liberty.” Universities including Syracuse, Yale, and Boston sought his memorabilia as well.
In the end, he left all of his possessions to his son, who donated them to Dana College in Nebraska. Today, that collection is at the Danish Immigrant Museum in Elk Horn, Iowa. Except, that is, for a few items … which is where Wagner comes into the story.
Professor Otto Raths likes to tell the tale that in his early years on the Wagner faculty, in the 1960s, then-President Arthur O. Davidson would often mention his friendship with the elderly Melchior. “He’s going to leave something to Wagner in his will,” Raths remembers the president saying on more than one occasion.
Melchior died in 1973 — and, as promised, he remembered Wagner College in his will. He left the College his big-game trophy collection.
Melchior was a lifelong, avid hunter. He went on hunting expeditions all around the world; according to Emmons, at the age of 77 he went on safari in Kenya and bagged a bushbuck “two-and-a-half inches bigger than the world record specimen.” At home, he displayed mounted heads and other trophies, such as ashtrays made of bison hooves. President Guarasci was able to confirm that Melchior did, indeed, leave his collection to Wagner College.
Some of the Melchior trophies have not survived the years at Wagner, but the impressive heads of a North American caribou and a Cape buffalo still hang in Megerle 405, one of the biology labs.