The article “Who in the Wagner World Was Lauritz Melchior?” (fall 2012 issue of Wagner Magazine) provoked a surprisingly strong reaction from readers. In our article, we recounted the story of how the world-famous heroic tenor left his large-game trophy collection to Wagner College in his will. Many readers contacted us to say that there was much more to the history of Melchior’s relationship with the College.
Donald Kane ’49, for instance, recalled that Melchior received an honorary degree from Wagner College in 1950. Vivian Seidel ’61 told us about singing with the choir and performing some scenes from The Student Prince in a 1958 concert featuring Melchior at Wagner College. “It’s something we will always remember,” she said. “He was jolly, a real nice man.”
Others added more details in letters and emails. “Your article on Lauritz Melchoir brought back such wonderful memories,” wrote Lelah Carlton Urban ’61, M’65. “In 1958 Melchoir gave a concert in the Sutter Gymnasium. As I was a member of the Varsity Players, our group did the staging and lighting for the concert.”
Mrs. Urban gave us an autographed picture of Melchior that she had saved from that encounter (see above), and Wagner Archivist Lisa Holland located the concert program.
“I think either Al Wagner ’58 or Carl Westerdahl ’59 was in charge of our crew,” Urban continued. “Varsity Players was not the professional group that it is today, but oh, what fun it was. Thank you for such a nice remembrance."
Then, we received letters from a few alumni about a later encounter between Wagner College students and the great tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Brett Murphy ’71 M’75, Pamela Paul ’71, and Susan Okrasinski ’72 were all members of the Wagner College Choir in the early 1970s.
“I am guessing that it would have been March of 1970 when the choir was invited to perform at the famed Liederkranz Club on East 87th Street in Manhattan, in what was then still referred to as Germantown,” Pamela Paul wrote.
Brett Murphy continues the story: “Following our performance, word reached us that downstairs in one of the dining rooms, Lauritz Melchior was celebrating his birthday. Perhaps it was President Davidson who arranged it, but the entire choir was escorted down the back stairs to the room, where we were introduced to Melchior. There we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.”
All agree that Melchior graciously thanked the students for their singing. “He was every bit the large and imposing man with the white hair and beard that is portrayed in the photo you used for the article,” said Ms. Paul. Mr. Murphy added another telling detail: “At nearly 80, he still had an eye for the girls and collected a birthday kiss from each of the sopranos and altos.”
“Reading your article brought back memories of meeting and congratulating Mr. Melchior, along with the many wonderful experiences I had while being a member of the choir,” wrote Susan Okrasinski — a feeling echoed by many others.
“Who in the Wagner World Was …” is a column dedicated to alumni and other friends of Wagner College from times past whose remarkable achievements make their connection to the College notable. Past issues have covered Jonathan Acierno ’02, Friedrich Katz ’49, Paul Zindel ’58 M’62 H’71, and Jim Carroll. If you would like to suggest a Wagnerian of the past for this column, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine
July 11, 2013