Through the George London Foundation, the great bass-baritone’s wife, Nora, keeps his legacy alive.
By Jennifer Melick
Photograph by Sasha Maslov
“I WENT TO THE FINALS ON SUNDAY of the Met auditions, and it turns out that three of my winners are their winners,” says Nora London, smiling proudly. The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the George London Foundation Competition have both just ended when we meet in March, and indeed, most years there is significant overlap between the two events. 2017 Met winners soprano Kirsten MacKinnon, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven were winners of George London Foundation prizes in 2016 and 2017.
For forty-six years, the London Foundation has been awarding prizes to talented American and Canadian singers; the list of past winners is like a who’s-who of opera—everyone from Eric Owens and Catherine Malfitano to Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato. (The 2018 Competition is scheduled to run from February 12 to 16.) The Foundation is named, of course, after one of the best bass-baritones North America has ever produced, who was Nora London’s husband from 1954 until his death, in 1985. Because he had come from a poor family himself, he made a point of helping young professional singers beginning in 1971, and since his death, running the foundation has clearly become Nora London’s life work.
“I want to help the young singers,” she says. “That’s what George wanted. He was very much aware how difficult life is for them, how difficult it is to get anywhere, how poor they are. And I inherited this from him. I think it was a gift he left for me, and that is what I am supposed to be doing.” When London approaches the stage to speak at the competitions, held every winter at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan, it’s clear from the singers’ prolonged applause how much her efforts are appreciated—and not just by the winners. It’s a bit like watching the matriarch of a family in which every child is an opera singer of great promise.
Chatting in her New York apartment overlooking Central Park, London is full of energy and enthusiasm and speaks almost in a stream of consciousness. It’s hard to believe she is ninety-three years old. In addition to running the competition and associated recital series—this year she hired executive director John Hauser to help with the administrative end of things—she frequently attends operas and concerts at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. The day we met she was full of praise for the New York Philharmonic’s recent performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto with soloist Yo-Yo Ma. A conversation with her is punctuated by frequent giggles, along with the occasional barks and ear-flapping of her beloved dachshunds, Sebastian and Mateo. The apartment is filled with memorabilia of George London’s Boris Godunov, Flying Dutchman, Amfortas, Wotan—visual reminders of a remarkable voice and career.
Nora London was born in Berlin and raised in Paris, part of a cultured family with Russian roots. The family was Jewish, and she was a teenager when they fled the Nazis in 1940 for the U.S., via Portugal. In 1942, when she was just eighteen, she got “a fantastic job at the Office of War Information as a translator. It was the beginning of the Voice of America. This was very exciting for a young girl like I was. We had to work at night in order for the translations to get to Europe.” (The job ended when she married her first husband, Eugene Garvin, in 1943.) In addition to English, she speaks Russian, French and German, though she notes that she lacks her late husband’s unusual knack for languages. “I’ve been living here forty years, and I still have an accent! George would imitate in Vienna the slang. I speak German, and I can’t do it.” When she accompanied him to Russia for that groundbreaking Boris Godunov in 1960, she says, his accent was so good that “they all thought that he spoke Russian. He couldn’t even order a steak!” Nora translated for him.
Lately, she has been interviewed about how her family first arrived in the U.S. “It’s a difficult time here,” she says. “It’s a time that unfortunately resembles a little bit those days. It’s very difficult for me. I also used to help people to fill out their applications to become American citizens. I myself did it. It took me five years after we came.” With the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts in the news, she says, “Sometimes I am glad George is not alive. You know that he testified in Congress in support of the NEA.He would hate this period in our country.”
Still, London is excited about the work the foundation is doing with high-school-aged singers. “We unfortunately don’t have huge amounts of money,” she says, “but I think that is where we should be going. I see these kids between sixteen and eighteen years old every year now—we listen to the precollege kids at Juilliard and the Manhattan School and Mannes. It’s amazing what they do. Some of them go to college and continue music. Some of them become artists or singers. But they all find out that there is opera. There is music. And maybe one day they become big businessmen, but they still love music, and they are going to be the audience of the future.”
Jennifer Melick is managing editor of Symphony.