Michael Langdon


Born: November 12, 1920 Died: March 12, 1991
Physically imposing and endowed with a large, somewhat saturnine bass voice, Michael Langdon achieved excellence in a narrow, but flavorful repertory. He was, at the same time, both a ripe (but never overdrawn) Baron Ochs and a John Claggart (Billy Budd) chilling in malicious intent. Although lacking the luxurious nap of the best basses, Langdon's instrument was both weighty and well-controlled with sepulchral low notes that set him apart from most of his contemporaries. His career, though it carried him to America and many other parts of Europe, remained centered in London, specifically at the Royal Opera House, where he began as a chorister. He concluded his days as the respected director of a school for aspiring singers, also proving himself a droll writer and keen observer in the pages of his autobiography.

After studying in London, Langdon joined the Covent Garden Chorus in 1948, making his solo debut with the company as the Nightwatchman in Arthur Bliss' The Olympians during a performance in Manchester. By the 1950 - 1951 season, Langdon was being heard as Sparafucile and Varlaam and, during the following season, he created the role of Lieutenant Ratcliff in Britten's Billy Budd. For the Coronation season, the bass' King "upheld the honor of the resident company" against the Aida of Maria Callas, the Amneris of Giulietta Simionato, and the Radames of Kurt Baum. The same season, Langdon created the Recorder of Norwich in Britten's tepidly received Gloriana. In 1955, he shared with Frederick Dalberg the role of the He-Ancient in the first performances of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage. Opportunities grew and his repertory gradually expanded to include Sarastro, Osmin, Daland, Hunding, Fafner, Hagen, Rocco, Keèal, Don Basilio, Bottom in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Verdi's Grand Inquisitor. In the latter role, he had to follow the titanic Giulio Neri, whose interpretation defined the Inquisitor; despite such competition, Langdon became one of the role's most memorable interpreters.

Two Strauss roles came within Langdon's orbit -- both vividly interpreted, and one joining the short list of best-ever characterizations. As Count Waldner in Arabella, Langdon presented a sharply detailed, well-sung portrait of a down-at-the-heals minor noble; as Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, he rose to the ranks of such distinguished exponents as Richard Mayr, Ludwig Weber, and Otto Edelmann. After studying the role in Vienna with bass baritone Alfred Jerger (the first Mandryka in Arabella), Langdon went forward to more than a hundred performances of the role. As presented in a 1962 San Francisco production featuring the Marschallin of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Langdon's Ochs was both nobleman and lout, adept at rattling off the parlando passages and wholly at ease with the part's low C and the low E that concludes Act II.

After retiring from the stage in 1977, Langdon assumed the directorship of the National Opera Studio for some eight years, proving himself an able instructor in the stagecraft required of young singers. His autobiography, Notes From a Low Singer, issued in 1982, reflects the writer's dry wit and his commitment to the professionalism required by his art. Among Langdon's recordings, a disc of excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier provides a memento of the singer's participation in a Scottish Opera production and his malignant Claggart is heard under the composer's direction.