There are more than a few people who think that Jussi Bjorling, a Swedish opera singer who died in 1960, was the best tenor of the 20th century. There are fewer people who know that he sang in Warwick in 1920, in the village of Pontiac, when he was 9 years old.
The reason he performed at the former Memorial Hall of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was because Pontiac had one of the largest concentrations of Swedish people in Rhode Island.
“It was only much later, when I was older and grown up, that it occurred to me that I lead a rather sheltered life,” says Shirley Nordquist of Warwick. “To me, it was a given that people spoke Swedish at home and that kids learned how to speak Swedish.”
A little bit of that Swedish-ness returns to Rhode Island on Oct. 29, when a concert being sponsored by the Rhode Island Swedish Heritage Association (RISHA), Opera Providence, and the Jussi Björling Society-USA will be held at the Park Theatre in Cranston.
While opera may not be the most popular of the performing arts, most people who have opera fans in their family know how passionately those fans feel about their favorite singers. As the society referred above indicates, there are a great many people who worship the recordings of Jussi Bjorling [approximately pronounced “Yousee” and “Beeyerling”].
Bjorling was a member of an earlier version of the “the boy band” called the Björling Male Quartet with his two bothers, Olle and Gösta, and his father, David, a singer and voice teacher whose methods of instruction were vindicated by the success of the boys. When their mother died in 1917, David brought the boys to America, where, from 1919 to 1921, they performed hundreds of concerts in Swedish churches and halls from coast to coast. In January 1920, they came to Rhode Island and performed at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church and St. Ansgarius Swedish Episcopal Church in Providence, the Lutheran Church in Pawtucket, and Memorial Hall of St. Paul's Lutheran in Warwick.
“St. Paul’s was originally called the Swedish Lutheran Church of Pontiac,” said former villager Richard Nelson, who was 2 years old when Bjorling came to Warwick and, as far as he knows, didn’t hear him sing in Memorial Hall. “That was to distinguish it from the German Lutherans in Providence.”
While St. Paul’s sat “up on the hill” on Greenwich Avenue, the rectory and Memorial Hall were down in the village with the people.
“Memorial Hall was used for just about everything,” said Nelson. “Sunday school, confirmation classes, Swedish lessons, suppers, auctions…it was a busy place. A lot of romances started there,” said Nelson, with a sly grin. “But not mine. I married a Polish Catholic girl from Compton, much to my mother’s dismay.”
It was precisely that sort of cross-cultural contact and a rapidly changing world that saw most of the old neighborhoods lose their villagers to the suburbs and their jobs become obsolete.
“There were still people who worked in the mill when I lived there,” said Nordquist, who moved out of the neighborhood in the 1950s. “They still had the mill bell and that would ring and I would watch the people walk down my street to the mill. It was the way it used to be in my parents’ time, but there were still people who worked there.”
Nordquist, who is a musician herself, was way too young to have seen the Bjorling boys at Memorial Hall. In fact, the hall itself was sold to a Warwick businessman in 1944 and was used for his purposes until it burned down in the early 1960s.
While the Memorial Hall was used as a community center in Pontiac, Jussi Bjorling had returned to Sweden and eventually made his way to Stockholm’s Royal Opera and Operatic School. He made his debut at the Royal Opera in 1930, at the age of 19, and immediately got good reviews form European opera fans. By the time he returned to the United States in 1937, he was a huge star. He performed at the Metropolitan Opera many times and gave concerts all across America and had appeared on radio and television enough times to be recognized beyond the operatic stage. He also made a number of recordings and opera fans began debating whether a Swedish tenor could sing Italian opera better than Italian singers. But only the most diehard partisans among the Italian fans refused to acknowledge how well Bjorling sang Puccini.
“I bought Mario Del Monaco for the whole opera [Turandot], I bought Jussi Bjorling for ‘nessun dorma’ [the aria],” said one discerning listener. “I think all around, Del Monaco did the role better but you can listen to Bjorling singing ‘nessun dorma’ without tears coming to your eyes. It’s uncanny.”
Bjorling died in 1960 at the age of 49. In 1999, 39 years after his death, a team of 25 music critics assembled by Classic CD magazine ranked Jussi [Jussi is a Finnish diminutive of John used by Bjorling’s grandmother] Björling as the greatest singer of the 20th century, ahead of Placido Domingo, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli and Luciano Pavarotti.
Those are mighty big boots to fill and it falls on Swedish tenor Mats Carlsson to sing at a concert tribute to Jussi Björling at the Park Cinema Center for the Arts in Cranston. Carlsson is one of the leading members of the Swedish Royal Opera with a superlative tenor voice. According to Bjorling superfan Kendall Svengalis, who is also the president of the Rhode Island Swedish Heritage Association, Carlsson has already performed the Björling Tribute dozens of times in Sweden, Europe and India. His American tour includes New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, Chicago, San Francisco, and, of course, Cranston.
“We were able to secure him because I have known him for several years through the Jussi Björling Society-USA at which conventions he has performed,” said Svengalis. “When I heard that he was planning an American tour, I contacted him immediately to make arrangements for a Rhode Island appearance.”
Svengalis said you can sample Carlsson on YouTube. A Tribute to Jussi Bjorling will be held Oct. 29 at 8 p.m. at the Park Theatre at 848 Park Ave. in Cranston.
Tickets are $30 and $45. For more information about the concert, visit www.riswedishheritage.org or www.parktheatreri.com, or call 467-7275.