Mihály Székely

George Kennedy

[April 2002.]

According to Rudolf Bing among many other authorities, the late Mihály Székely had not only been gifted with one of the most genuinely beautiful basso profondo voices of this century, but with his enormous interpretative power and thorough understanding of the music he sang, he was able to fascinate his colleagues and mesmerize his audiences. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, wherever he performed, a sort of Székely-cult sprang up among operagoers. They loved the tone of his voice, which resembled the sonorous velvet sound of a noble organ, or perhaps a contrabass made by one of the great Italian instrument makers. His singing, interpretation, his towering stage presence and exceptional acting ability made a lasting impression on all those fortunate to see and hear him.

Székely was one of the pillars of Hungarian operatic life for four decades. Son of a well-known goldsmith, he was born on May 8, 1901, in a small Hungarian town, Jászberény. Both his parents were music lovers, although neither of them had any formal musical education. Székely himself was perhaps destined to be a performer, a man of the theater. Upon completing his high school studies, he moved to Budapest where he boarded with his uncle, a high-ranking police officer. He was only nineteen when his first performance took place in 1920, as a member of a male vocal quartet singing popular songs in the Royal Orpheum, a well-known nightclub at that time in the Hungarian capital.

This engagement was brief. On his uncle’s advice, Székely auditioned with Géza László, one of the best singing-teachers of the country, whose many pupils included Koloman von Pataky, Mária Németh, and Rosette (Piroska) Anday. Amazingly, Székely sang Leoncavallo’s Mattinata in the original tenor key, ending it with a high A. László predicted that if Székely studied with him, he would turn him into a first rate operatic bass. The maestro delivered on his promise. There were many truly outstanding bass singers of the 20th century among his compatriots — David Ney, Oszkár Kálmán, Dezsö Ernster, Endre Koréh — but Székely became and remains to this day the paragon against whom all others are measured.

Székely made his debut on May 28, 1923, as the Hermit in Der Freischütz. In the next 40 years he sang a total of 84 roles, 54 of them major parts of the standard repertory. During his career he sang 1,324 performances in Budapest alone. Unwilling to live abroad, as early as 1925 he unwisely canceled a six-year contract with the Viennese Staatsoper on the eve of his departure. Thereafter world politics, domestic and foreign, kept him in Hungary for most of his career. Still, he had numerous foreign engagements. He sang 34 performances at the Metropolitan (1947-50) as Fafner (Das Rheingold and Siegfried), Sparafucile, Fiesco, Landgrave Hermann, Marke, and Hunding. In 1949, he appeared in San Francisco and Los Angeles as Marke, Hunding, Ramfis, and Sparafucile. As Arthur Bloomfield acknowledged in his history of the San Francisco Opera, “They also brought a Hungarian bass, Mihály Székely, who turned out to be one of the most distinguished Wagnerians in company history.”

Székely also performed annually at Glyndebourne between 1957 and 1961, in 75 performances as Osmin, Sarastro, Rocco, and Bartolo (Le nozze di Figaro). He also performed in Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Rome, Moscow, Paris, and a number of Hungarian provincial theaters. His Hunding in New York earned the comment “Basso voice of extraordinary opulence who wins ovation,” and the reviewer of Theater World in its August 1957 issue wrote of his Sarastro in England that “The voice of Székely was outstanding in its cavernous depths and nobility of tone.”

Public and even collegial recognition came to him early. After singing Sparafucile to Titta Ruffo’s Rigoletto in Budapest on April 13, 1925, the Italian baritone reportedly said that he has never heard and probably will never hear a voice like Székely’s. It is also worth noting that the usually severe and uncompromising Bartók rewrote a few passages of Bluebeard’s music to accommodate the rôle to Székely’s range. With this generous gesture Bartók gave the music world one of the great exponents of this fascinating rôle . His appearances in the rôle were legendary; fortunately it has been preserved in three different recordings, under the baton of János Ferencsik, Antal Dorati, and Georges Sebastian.

For obscure reasons, much of Székely’s recorded legacy remains unavailable. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound of the New York Public Library lists 546 titles, although some are duplicate releases under different catalogue numbers on the Hungaroton label or from private collections. In the “Klemperer in Budapest” series there is a complete Fidelio (Rocco), Die Zauberflöte (Sarastro), and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Osmin), and abridged versions of Don Giovanni (Leporello) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Pogner). His Fiesco is preserved from a Met performance (January 28, 1950) with Varnay, Warren, Tucker, and Valdengo.

Several of his studio recordings have recently been transferred to CD, offering a fair sampling of his voice, primarily in the last decade of his life. He can be heard in the principal arias of Osmin, Leporello, Sarastro, Don Basilio, King Philip, Prince Gremin, Khan Konchak, Baron Ochs, and others. Each aria showcases his range, especially Osmin’s aria with the sustained low D, as well as a superb rendition of Schubert’s “Das Tod und das Mädchen.”

Székely celebrated the 40th anniversary of his career in Don Carlos at Hungarian State Opera. At the end of the performance he received 22 curtain calls during a 25-minute standing ovation. At a press conference Székely said he would like to sing a few more roles, although what he would really like to do is to have a studio and teach to young colleagues the art of classical singing.

His wish remained unfulfilled. On March 5, 1963, after a long interval, he sang one more Fiesco. In his first line Fiesco sings: “A te l’estremo addio, palagio altero” (“A last farewell to you, proud palace”). No one at that performance suspected that these words were Székely’s leave-taking from his artistic home. The day after the performance he entered a hospital for an operation. He was dead when they removed him from the operating table.

Every analysis and discussion of Székely’s success and popularity must begin and end with the voice. Critics wrote prolifically about his magically sonorous voice, often likening it to an organ, or describing it as “a true musical instrument, a humming cello.” His vocal studies were shortened by his natural voice placement, ease of learning, and innate musicality. What many singers acquire only with great effort — breathing technique, support, finding and setting the vocal resonance, evening out the scale without a break — Székely attained with ease and retained till the end. While the beautiful voice was a phenomenon of nature, it was only the foundation on which Székely, the opera- and concert-singer performer built his art.

One critic noted after Székely’s King Marke at the Metropolitan, that the most astonishing thing about his performance was his natural way of singing. Indeed, he used his voice as nature intended, without artifice or vocal gimmickry. Hearing him sing one felt he could not sing otherwise. Perhaps only among the Slavonic people would one come across a basso profondo who could sing a contra-octave with such resonance, focus, beauty, and with such stunning facility and power. On his best evenings his descent to a low F, E, and D of the standard operatic literature left his hearers in a state of disbelief. However, to exploit his full range, György Ránki in the Hungarian operatic version of the King’s New Clothes (Pomádé király uj ruhája) wrote an A below low C for the King to showcase Székely’s voice.

Unable to do justice to a repertoire of 84 roles in a short article, discussion must be confined to a representative group of his best creations. When Erich Kleiber prepared Entführung for a performance on January 9, 1936, at the Royal Hungarian Opera, he especially helped Székely to rethink his Osmin. Contrary to the traditional conception of meanness and violence, Székely’s Osmin emerged as an overgrown child, with a childlike naïvete, imagination, and exaggerations. This way his Osmin gained humanity and depth, and became a comical figure whose antics not only provoked amusement but some sort of benign pity, too. When Osmin’s lust for Blondchen turned into lust for revenge, Székely could make even that ignoble sentiment appear comical. His Osmin was a harmless ogre, more lovable than terrifying. As was to be expected, the musical demands of the rôle perfectly fit his voice and range. When he “exported” his Osmin to Glyndebourne, Adam Bell wrote in his review in the Observer (July 28, 1957): “The performance of Seraglio at Glyndebourne the other night was not especially outstanding, except for the glorious Osmin of Mihály Székely.”

He was only 32 when he first sang Philip II in Don Carlo under the baton of Sergio Failoni. The opera had not been staged in Budapest since the 1860s, and the premiere on March 29, 1934, was first time it was given at the Royal Hungarian Opera House. Young Székely surprised everybody with his brilliant singing and portrayal of Verdi’s troubled king. Above all else, his musicality was greatly admired. If Osmin was his best creation in the comic repertory, Philip II, its polar opposite, was the summit of his tragic roles. Characterization, singing and acting were a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the viewer. Despite his round-faced features, Székely succeeded in his makeup (prepared by himself) to recreate his face into a look-alike of Titian’s portrait of the Spanish King. His black suit with white collar, the grey-streaked hair and beard, the pursed lips and large unsteady eyes made him appear like a true Habsburg monarch. Changing from scene to scene, the voice and interpretation rendered palpable the full gamut of emotions of the complex character, from tyrant to betrayed husband, from royal protector to the Inquisition’s unwilling pawn. Throughout it all, in every scene and situation, Székely, the singer, metamorphosed into the deeply human royal.

On June 11, 1937, at the Hungarian premiere of Simon Boccanegra, with Failoni on the podium,”…the stage became a splendid pallet of Romantic colours. The imposing patrician lord, Fiesco was somber and proud, a colossal giant in the hands of Mihály Székely,” wrote the reviewer of the Pesti Napló a day after the performance. And more than a decade later, on November 29, 1949, Harriett Johnson in the New York Post wrote that “Mihály Székely’s extraordinary bass voice was unusually convincing last night in the rôle of Fiesco. He has both richness of timbre and sonority. His presence truly honoured this Simon Boccanegra‘s return to the repertory.”

In the Prologue, Székely made a great impact with his entrance, the aria itself, and his duet with Simon. When, in the last scene, after their reconciliation, Fiesco announced the death of Simon to the people of Genoa, there was hardly a dry eye in the auditorium.

Let us close with three reviews from Székely’s New York and Glyndebourne appearances.

New York Herald Tribune, January 4, 1948, by Jerome D. Bohm:

“No finer exponent of King Marke’s music could be imagined than Mr Székely, who is the owner of a huge but extraordinary flexible bass voice which enables him to sing softly as effectively as he does loudly and without loss of expressiveness. What is more he sings steadily and on pitch, attributes in a Wagnerian bass which one had almost forgotten could exist.”

The New York Sun, January 10, 1948, by Irving Kolodin:

“Mihály Székely’s burly Hunding was one of the best things in the Metropolitan’s Die Walküre yesterday.”

Stage, August 11, 1960, by A.M:

“The perfect Sarastro, combining magnificent resonance with an air of benevolent wisdom, and able to accomplish two formidable, deceptively simple arias with flow and consistency, seems a remote dream. However, Mihály Székely comes near with his eloquent sonority, particularly in ‘Isis und Osiris,’ which is more even than his ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen,’ and his speaking voice has nobility, otherwise he is rather nearer earth than lofty regions.”

I wish to express my gratitude firstly to Mr Andrew Farkas, Director of Libraries University of North Florida, USA for his precious help and masterly editorship to shape this writing into its final form, and for the most valuable help of Mr John Pennino, Assistant Archivist Metropolitan Opera; Miss Julia Aries, Archivist Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound; The New York Public Library for the Performing Art; Ms Katalin Szerzö, Archivist of the Music Department of The Széchenyi Library of Budapest; the magazine Muzsika (Budapest) — for providing data, articles, and press-cuttings of reviews. And last but not least, I am most sincerely thankful for the opportunity to read the Hungarian musicologist Mr Péter Várnai’s book on Mihály Székely. It enabled me to find most of the biographical and some critical data which augmented and supplemented my own extensive recollections of many performances with this great singer.

In 2001, foremost the Hungarians, along with New York, Glyndebourne, Dresden, Vienna, Moscow et al, celebrated Mihály Székely’s 100th Birthday. In his home town, Jászberény (South-East Hungary), the Municipal Council along with the director of the Jasz Museum, Dr Edit H. Batho, organised a long-lasting celebration for this occasion. I was honoured to be invited to one of the Székely-days and had an unfortunately time-forbidding, very tentative look into his huge heritage of photos, letters, costumes and reviews. I sincerely hope that one day these enormous materials will be put in order for the benefit of those who are interested in this great artist’s life and of his 40 years of unparalleled career.

Székely’s only solo CD is in the series Great Hungarian Voices, Hungaroton Classic HCD 31615.