Modest Menzinsky

Modest Menzinsky was born April 29th, 1875 in the village of Velyki Novosilky, in western Ukraine. He was born into a family with a long priestly tradition. Since his father was a priest, and even more so as an only son, Menzinsky was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. With this purpose in mind he entered the Theological Academy in Lviv. His father was an avid collector and arranger of Ukrainian music and Menzinsky directed a student choir that performed many works from his father's collection. By then he was already showing vocal promise and was encouraged to enter the Lviv conservatory and simultaneously study voice while pursuing theology.  He did so, joining the studio of Walery Wysocki (1835–1907), one of the most prominent voice teachers of the time whose students included Adam Didur, Solomija Krushelnytska, Jozef Mann, Maria Mokryczka (Moscisca) among many others.

After completing his theological studies in 1899 and developing his vocal gift under Wysocki's tutelage it became evident to him and his family that he was destined for the stage rather than the church. With Wysocki's encouragement he left that autumn for Frankfurt am Main to pursue vocal studies with Julius Stockhausen (1826–1906) who was a student of Manuel García (1805–1906), the father of modern vocal pedagogy. Stockhausen was famous for adapting García's technique for vowel production to fit the color of Germanic vowels without reducing their power and ring. Stockhausen, then 73, in a wheelchair and almost blind, but with undiminished energy, guided Menzinsky for the next four years.

Menzinsky made his operatic debut on September 18th, 1901 as Lyonel in Martha at the Frankfurt Opera. The debut was successful enough for Frankfurt to offer him a one year contract. The following year, the Stadttheater in Elberfeld offered him a more lucrative one year contract, which was then renewed for another year, allowing Menzinsky to have an income while he completed his studies. During this period he was still studying with Stockhausen, who guided him through his initial repertoire. He started on the lyric side but progressed quickly to spinto since Stockhausen thought he had too much 'metal' in his voice to be consistently effective in the lyric repertoire. Among the roles he did during this period was Tamino, Faust, Lyonel, Léopold in La Juive, Radames, Lohengrin, Manrico, Stolzing, Siegmund, Cavaradossi and Tannhäuser, the role he would eventually perform more than any other: 165 times.

In the fall of 1903, the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm was having trouble with its star tenor of 30 seasons, Arvid Ödmann. During rehearsals for Lohengrin with a guest artist, the famous Finnish soprano Aino Ackté who was half his age but infinitely more temperamental, the tenor had had enough and claimed indisposition. A frantic search ensued for a suitable replacement. Finally the Stadttheater in Elberfeld telegraphed that it had a suitable tenor who had just completed his first one year contract with them. So it was that on October 24th, 1903 Modest Menzinsky made his Stockholm debut as Lohengrin.

Cosima Wagner heard Menzinsky during his tenure at Elberfeld and had recommended him to Felix Mottl for contractual considerations at the Hoftheater Karlsruhe. Thus before the start of the 1904 season, Menzinsky had contractual offers from several different opera companies for his services. But only Stockholm offered a contract for more than one year, a six year contract from 1904 to 1910. These financial considerations plus the fact that his fiancée was from Stockholm sent Menzinsky as first tenor at the Royal Swedish Opera to what was to become his adopted homeland.

With his gift for languages, Menzinsky quickly began employing Swedish at the Royal Opera. He started with Florestan, then Erik in Der fliegende Holländer, Otello, Masaniello in La muette de Portici and then in the first all Swedish production of Siegfried at the Royal Swedish Opera on December 12th, 1905, which turned him into a popular celebrity. And when on February 28th, 1907 he sang Siegfried in the first all Swedish Götterdämmerung, there seemed to be no end to his accolades.

During the 1908/09 season he was on hiatus from the Royal Swedish Opera and spent time as guest artist in Berlin (Canio, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser) and Lviv (world premier of Ludomir Różycki's Bolesław Śmiały, Canio, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, Radames, Manrico, Otello and Éléazar). On completion of his contract for the 1910 season in Stockholm, Menzinsky faced a bidding war for his services. The final offer from Cologne was one that was hard to refuse. So, Menzinsky accepted the position of first tenor at the Cologne Opera House where, despite many alluring offers over the years from Berlin and Vienna among others, he stayed until the end of the 1926 season.

By Franz Schreker's request Menzinsky participated in the world premieres of three of his operas: Die Gezeichneten which premiered in Frankfurt am Main on April 25th, 1918 under Ludwig Rottenberg; Der Schatzgräber, also premiered in Frankfurt on January 21st, 1920 under Rottenberg; and Irrelohe, which premiered in Cologne on March 27th, 1924 under Otto Klemperer. Hans Pfitzner also much admired Menzinsky as the protagonist in his three operas: Der arme Heinrich, Die Rose vom Liebesgarten and especially Palestrina. Menzinsky made his final staged opera appearance as Éléazar in La Juive on October 29th, 1927. All together he mastered 53 roles during his 26 year career on the operatic stage.

Menzinsky had become a Swedish citizen in 1910 and so upon retiring from the operatic stage he and his family moved back to Stockholm. He continued giving concerts and doing concert tours with pianist Ella Conrad. Between concert tours he spent many hours teaching. One of his students was Arne Sunnegårdh (1907–1972), who later became the legendary Swedish vocal pedagogue whose students included Birgit Nilsson, Erik Saedén, Helge Brilioth and Kerstin Meyer.

During a radio broadcast of his last concert, just a few days before his 59th birthday in 1934, Menzinsky suffered a stroke. He had partially recovered from this episode when on December 11th, 1935 another stroke ended his life.

Because Menzinsky limited his career to only part of Europe, left a rather limited recorded legacy and because his health somewhat shortened his operatic stage career, it is easy to overlook the impact that his presence had on the performance history of Wagnerian opera. From the beginning of the twentieth century and until Melchior, he was widely considered the epitome of the Wagnerian tenor. Coached personally by Cosima Wagner for Siegfried, Tristan and Tannhäuser, he also carried a certain "legitimacy" with his approach. A good example of the sort of enthusiasm his presence generated on stage is a quote from a review of his first Siegfried in Cologne: "...with this first performance, Menzinsky obliterated the memory of all tenors who ever appeared in our theater. His Siegfried is sublime. The singer virtually hypnotizes the audience with his youth, vitality, the overwhelming power of his voice and stamina, his natural and fluid movements on stage and the subtleties of every stylistic nuance. ...there is no better Siegfried on the German stage today!" This type of reaction was even expressed by some of the more jaded critics. At the time, one of the general arbiters of musical success, the Allgemeine Deutsche Musik-Zeitung said this about a series of Menzinsky's performances: "He achieves extraordinary stage projection, at times deeply introverted, at other times bursting with laughter, yet constantly maintaining a beauty of tone without diminishing its strong dramatic quality. Menzinsky's success was spectacular in every performance!" Someone once said that he sang Wagner with as much music in his voice as would be expected with Mozart, and that he brought legato back to Wagner's heroes. His approach was widely imitated by those who followed.

He must have chosen how to transliterate his name in Germany – the "z" in his family name is to be seen and spoken as a German "z". Standard transliteration from Ukrainian would be Mentsinskyj.
Modest Menzinsky sings Otello: Ora e per sempre addio, in Swedish

Modest Menzinsky sings Otello: Gott, warum hast du gehäuft dieses Elend
In RA format

Modest Menzinsky sings Martha: Ach so fromm
In RA format

Modest Menzinsky sings Die Walküre: Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond
In RA format

Modest Menzinsky sings Tristan und Isolde: Wohin nun Tristan scheidet
In RA format

Modest Menzinsky sings Meni odnakovo (Lysenko)
In RA format
I wish to thank Daniel Godor for the recording (Otello: Ora e per sempre).
I wish to thank Victor Roman for the recordings (Tristan, Lysenko and Martha) and biographical notes.
I wish to thank Vladimir Efimenko for the recording (Walküre).

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