Johan Jonatan (sometimes spelled as "Bjoerling" in English-language sources) (5 February 1911 – 9 September 1960) was a highly regarded Swedish operatic tenor. Björling was one of the few non-Latin tenors to rival the Italian dominance of the opera world at that time.
Björling made his professional operatic debut as the Lamplighter in Manon Lescaut at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in 1930. This was soon followed by Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Arnoldo in Rossini's William Tell and Almaviva in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. This in turn led to engagements in Europe and the U.S.. Björling made his American concert debut in Carnegie Hall in 1937; the following year, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Rodolfo in La bohème.
Björling went on to become one of the principal singers at the Metropolitan Opera during the 1940s and 1950s, with an interruption during World War II. He sang many major tenor roles in operas in the French and Italian repertoire, including Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Aida, Un Ballo In Maschera, Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, La Bohème, Tosca, and Manon Lescaut. Many of his recordings of these roles are still considered the best by any tenor in this repertoire.
In December 1940, Arturo Toscanini invited him to sing the tenor part in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in New York, a recording of which exists. He also performed the Verdi Requiem under Toscanini in 1939 in Lucerne, Switzerland, and in November 1940 in New York, another performance eventually transferred to recordings.
One of Björling's first LP sets was a 1950 performance of the complete Il Trovatore, with Zinka Milanov, for RCA Victor. In 1953, he recorded the role of Turridu in a complete version of Cavalleria Rusticana opposite Milanov for RCA Victor, but because Victoria de los Angeles was under contract to EMI, the recording of the complete Pagliacci, made concurrently with Cavalleria, was not released by RCA, but by EMI. Robert Merrill appeared on both albums, but Leonard Warren was featured only on the Pagliacci one, as Tonio.
Again with de los Angeles and Merrill, Björling made a complete recording of Puccini's La Boheme conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, a recording considered by some to be the finest ever made of the work, although Toscanini enthusiasts might disagree (Toscanini conducted the premiere of the opera in 1896, and in 1946 conducted a radio performance of it that is considered definitive by some - and was also released on records and CD).
Björling sang the part of Mario in the 1957 complete stereo recording of Tosca, recorded by RCA Victor in Rome with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. The tenor was awarded the 1959 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance - Vocal Soloist (With Or Without Orchestra) for his recording Björling in Opera.
In 1956, he appeared in an episode of the NBC television anthology Producers' Showcase. The episode was one of two programs entitled Festival of Music, and was hosted by Charles Laughton (José Ferrer hosted the second Festival of Music program.) Björling can be seen with soprano Renata Tebaldi in two arias from La Boheme. Both Festival of Music programs, originally telecast in color, have since been released on black-and-white kinescopes on DVD.
Björling was much admired for his innate musicality and his seemingly effortless technique. His limited acting ability was considered his main weakness, but at that time operatic acting was not considered a negative. He was known as the "Swedish Caruso". His son, Rolf, a successful tenor in his own right (although not at the level of his famous father), and his grandson, Raymond are inheritors of the "sound".
His widow, Anna-Lisa Björling, published a biography with the cooperation of Andrew Farkas that described Björling as a loving family man and generous colleague. However, Anna-Lisa also acknowledged the destructive influence of Björling's alcoholism.
On March 15, 1960, Björling suffered a heart attack before a performance at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. However, he still performed that night. He died of heart-related causes six months later in in Siarö, Sweden at the age of forty-nine. One of his final recordings was the Verdi Requiem conducted by Fritz Reiner for Decca Records which was recorded as late as June 1960 alongside Leontyne Price and Giorgio Tozzi. That recording proves that even in his dying days he could give startling performances with velvet voice and beautiful style.
He is buried in the little church cemetery at Stora Tuna, Sweden.
An archive of nearly all of Björling's recorded performances, photographs, letters, recital and opera programs, reviews, obituaries, and other items related to his career is maintained at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
Since Björling's death, many collections of his singing have been issued on LP and CD.
Luciano Pavarotti had great respect for Björling and regarded him a great tenor. He also used Björling's choices of roles as a sort of road map for his own career, although he did not perform as many non-Italian roles as Björling did.
The Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) published an article on September 6, 2007, that refers to two interviews with Pavarotti. It is clear that Jussi Björling was his idol. "When I'm about to train a new opera, I first listen to how Jussi Björling did it. His voice was unique and it's his path that I want to follow. I would more than anything else wish that people compared me with Jussi Björling. It's like so I'm striving to sing."
Another quote came from Luciano Pavarotti when he was compared to being in the same league as Björling. Pavarotti replied "Please, I'm only human" a statement demonstrating that even the great modern tenor had enormous respect for Björling.
Link to the article (in Swedish only): http://www.svd.se/kulturnoje/nyheter/artikel_16472.svd