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
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
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
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.