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Jussi in Utah -- Leaving His Mark

By Walter B. Rudolph

JBS-USA Conference in Salt Lake City

Immediately after arriving by boat in New York City, Jussi and Anna-Lisa Björling flew to Provo, Utah where he gave his first American performance for the 1939-40 season on November 20th, 1939 in the Provo Tabernacle (photo).

Revealing a golden tenor voice of rare beauty, Jussi Bjoerling, of Metropolitan Opera fame, sang his way into the hearts of more than 2000 people at the University-Community concert Monday night in the tabernacle. (The Daily Herald, November 21, 1939)

November 13th, 1945 he returned, this time to Ogden where he appeared with the Ogden Tabernacle Choir. Jussi Björling recital tickets nearly 70 years ago were priced $1.22 - $3.95 (tax included), and were obtained in the city’s (then obligatory – now basically extinct) music store, Glen Bros. Music Co.

Quoting from the letter to Jussi Björling from F. C. Coppicus (Columbia Concert, Inc.) of February 5, 1947, we read: You will note your itinerary covers a concert at Salt Lake City on February 19th. Negotiations are pending on this date and I will advise you later whether or not they materialize.

That recital would have taken place exactly two weeks after the letter was written, which itemized 18 other concerts he was to give between February 6 (the next day) and March 31st.

Other than a SLC contact name and the option of train or plane travel between Denver and SLC, this seems to be the only printed reference to this SLC appearance, which did not take place.

Leave it to the Jussi Björling Society-USA to make the latest mark in Utah. From the official welcome in the words of Utah Opera’s Artistic Director, Christopher McBeth (June 12th), to Anders Björling’s gracious words of benediction (the 13th), the two fully-packed days of the Salt Lake City Conference of JBS-USA now enter the finita category.

We were soon to have tactile contact with a pair of Jussi’s genuine foot imprinters. Auctioned at the conference dinner was a pair of his size 8 black Florsheim wing-tip shoes. New member Don Nelson is now the proud owner and occasional wearer of the size 8 black Florsheim wing-tip shoes, so munificently donated to the Society by Anders and Judie Björling. Combined earnings for the auction totaled over $2000. Yes, we have generous and dedicated Society Members, including the persuasive gifts of auctioneer Terry Williams (Missouri). Thank you, ALL!

Members of JBS-USA at a special concert in the Temple Square Assembly Hall

With our hotel (Plaza of SLC) located adjacent to Temple Square, we took advantage of the hospitality of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The President of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir greeting us when we arrived for the Choir’s Thursday evening rehearsal. Later renowned conductor Mack Wilberg publicly acknowledged our presence. Hearing America’s Choir is always a treat, but hearing them in their namesake domain is as unique and special as hearing Wagner in the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. Allow me to repeat myself for Richard Elliott’s Friday noon organ recital on the famed pipe organ. A consummate musician, he played his own arrangement of Land du Välsignade, plus Robert Cundick’s Prelude on a Swedish Folk Song. (hear a different performer here ) Both songs were frequently found on Jussi Björling recitals. The Elliott virtuosity was amply demonstrated with his closing Ride of the Valkyries.

Friday’s proceedings officially began with Björling-Recitalist: Out Front Alone, presented by Duff Murphy a Los Angeles lawyer and well-known radio and opera personality (and host of the national broadcasts of LA Opera). Thoughtful commentary and musical examples allowed his Keynote Address to establish the tone of the conference.

 Guest speaker Duff Murphy (Los Angeles radio personality) presents his topic:  "Björling-Recitalist:  Out Front Alone"

Other singers have always been a key element of JBS-USA Conferences. SLC’s contribution was Richard Tucker, who was lauded by his son, Dr. David N. Tucker, and Dr. James A. Drake, author of Richard Tucker: A Biography. Their presence allowed a remarkable introduction and friendship to begin between David Tucker and Anders Björling (plus Society attendees at large). And the context of great singing virtuosi during this period of American operatic singing took on a significance many had never previously experienced. Local Salt Lakers were invited and one offered this comment: The morning presentations were not merely interesting but THRILLING!

What a fantastic opportunity to hear these tenor titans side by side! And to hear about RT from his son. (Bill Goldsmith)

Many meals were taken at JB's (some weren’t aware of Jussi’s restaurant chain - ), which adjoined the hotel. We gathered after the organ recital to have a chance to chat with David Tucker and Jim Drake.

The Björling His Colleagues Knew allowed Jim Drake to share his collection of comments from interviewing Jussi’s singing colleagues. These Jim had gathered over his years of research in preparation for his books on Richard Tucker, Rosa Ponselle and Lily Pons, plus other articles. Considerable was the other linked information that naturally came to light about numerous colleagues who were all performing together, 3-4 score years ago.

Dr. Ingo Titze, who heads the National Center for Voice and Speech came well prepared with multiple examples of Jussi and other famous tenors singing the cadenza from “La donna è mobile.” This provided the basis for his topic: The Singer’s Formant Cluster – “Vocal Ring” in the Voice of Jussi Björling. One of the pre-eminent vocal scientists of our time, Ingo also introduced us to his creation, Pavarobotti, with whom (via video) he performed “Nessun dorma.” (Watch here)

The Family History Library sits immediately north of the conference hotel, and there we ended the Friday sessions. There is free access to the library’s vast collection of genealogical records online via Additionally, we learned of a great-great aunt of Jussi Björling (sister to his mother’s father’s father) named Johanna Sund. She was located on the manifest of the ship, Emerald Isle, which was the last sailing ship commonly bringing immigrants (future ships were steamers). At age 38, she was among nearly 900 passengers who had travelled first to Liverpool before embarking on June 20th, 1868, to be on the North Atlantic until August 14th – 8 full weeks in crossing. Then on to SLC (with equally challenging circumstances) where today she still has living descendants.

Stephen Hastings came from Milan and presented video performance analyses in Five Tenors for Don José. Björling, del Monaco, Domingo, Kaufmann and Alagna were the tenors. Stephen’s presentation introduced us to his current book project analyzing recorded performances of 75-80 nineteenth century arias – scholarship which continues to demonstrate his extraordinary means of writing and talking about the singing voice.

Unpacking Engelbrekt: Natanael Berg’s opera under the Nazis was the intriguing topic presented by two gifted young musicologists, Jared Oaks (SLC) and Zachary Milliman (Anchorage, AK). Between them, we were introduced to a significant work of 1930’s Sweden in which Jussi Björling appeared. Its connection to the Third Reich provided another facet to its history, and begs the question, “Is it time for an Engelbrekt revival?” Melissa Heath gave her secure soprano to several excerpts from the opera, demonstrating the worthiness of Berg’s score and her own voice.

Dr. Cherilyn Worthen led a group of 6 gifted women who sang two songs composed by the noted Borlänge-born composer, Lille Bror Söderlundh. Jared Oaks accompanied and coached their Swedish pronunciation.

 Guest speaker Harald Henrysson (Sweden) during his presentation on Björling's father, "David Björling Becomes a Singer"

Harald Henrysson exceeded his own reputation as a Björling Scholar with his research and presentation, David Björling Becomes a Singer: USA, Sweden and Vienna 1899 – 1908. The quality and quantity of evidence he found and presented about David Björling was astounding and will be published (along with other Conference presentations) in future JBS-USA publications. He preceded the David Björling subject with a rather humorous, but spurious Jussi Björling interview in Hilversum from Netherlands radio in 1939; and an introduction to the newly updated Phonography now on the JB Museum website 

Guest panel Duff Murphy (California), Enrique Gilardoni (Chile), Andrew Farkas (Florida), Stephen Hastings (Italy), Sue Flaster, moderator (South Carolina) discuss, "Tonight:  Jussi Björling ... today"

The panel discussion was headed by Sue Flaster, moderator, and included participants Andrew Farkas (Florida), Enrique Gilardoni (Chile), Stephen Hastings (Italy) and Duff Murphy (California). The subject of discussion was to put Jussi Björling into today’s complex operatic world and consider Tonight: Jussi Björling . . . today. This generated spirited conversation, including notions new to many.

Stefan Olmårs came from Sweden and invited any and all in the Society to Sweden in 2016 to attend the Jussi Björling Concerts he annually organizes in Voxna, Skansen (Stockholm) and Strömsbruk. He is also trying to create cooperation with the annual concert tour in the United States of the Jenny Lind Prize winner and the Jussi Björling Prize winner. You may contact him at for more information, or to express your ideas.

Board member, Michael Mayer (vocal function researcher, coach and singer) provided a superb session entitled How’d He Do That?! – The Functional Aspects of Jussi Björling’s Singing. With clear syntax and aural demonstration, he revealed his understandings and abilities, answering audience questions. To provide clear ideas on the subject of vocal technique and style is clearly one of Michael’s strengths, and his presentation was keenly received.

Sessions ended with Andrew Farkas giving pause to consider Jussi Björling among a group of a dozen other exemplary tenors – with the title And the Winner is . . . Each sang a song or aria also recorded by Jussi Björling. It was quiet, attentive listening to expertly chosen singers, and a great idea that masterfully brought the conference presentations to a close.

The encore was omitted for lack of time, but for-the-record was Franz Volker’s 1936 “In fernem Land” from Lohengrin. It gave us cause to hear and think as we are sometimes not wont to do.

Two short interviews about Jussi Björling and the Conference appeared on KUED and KBYU (and Facebook). Classical 89 radio presented a one hour “live” broadcast of portions of the music heard in recital Saturday evening in the Assembly Hall. And the Playbill for Utah Symphony donated a 1⁄2 page ad promoting the Conference during the month of May.

For future meetings some have suggested we spread the amount of content presented in SLC over a three day period (rather than two) to allow more free time. If you have recommendations and ideas, please share them.

Most of all, thank you for coming and participating!

Members of JBS-USA in the Morman Tabernacle with organist Richard Elliott