Gifted with a shining, spinto weight instrument, tenor Sándor Kónya became a leading artist with his 1958 Bayreuth Festival debut as Lohengrin. So thoroughly did his performance define the Swan Knight that it became Kónya's calling card. The 1958 Bayreuth production has been issued on CD, preserving Kónya's interpretation at its pristine best along with Leonie Rysanek's lustrous Elsa and Astrid Varnay's implacable Ortrud. Later, Kónya recorded the opera commercially for RCA under Erich Leinsdorf, an effort in which the rest of the cast fell short of the tenor's high standards. The easy thrust of Kónya's top register suited both the higher-lying passages allotted to Lohengrin and Walter in Die Meistersinger and afforded him the plangency to do full justice to many Italian roles as well. Kónya's stage deportment was discrete and dignified, setting him apart from many Italian contemporaries given to frantic histrionics.
After beginning his vocal studies in Budapest, Kónya moved first to Detmold, then to Rome and Milan to gain an advanced polish to his technique. In 1951, he made his professional debut in Bielefeld as Turiddu. Following engagements at Darmstadt, Stuttgart, and Hamburg, Kónya became a member of the Städtische Oper in Berlin in 1955. From that point forward, his career became more international in scope. A leading role in the world premiere of Henze's König Hirsch and a performance of Nureddin in Cornelius' comic confection Der Barbier in Bagdad at the Edinburgh Festival attracted widespread attention in 1956. Then Kónya's stunning 1958 Bayreuth debut put his name near the top of management must-engage lists. Paris discovered him in 1959 and the year following, San Francisco heard him in four operas, the first of which was La Fanciulla del West. In the role of Dick Johnson, Kónya's strong instrument was appreciated for its vibrancy and seductive ease. His Lohengrin a month later was hailed as superior and he earned approval for his singing of Rodolfo and Radames, if muted praise for his stage deportment. Kónya's Parsifal at La Scala in 1960 was praised warmly and his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1961 was similarly successful. At London's Covent Garden, Kónya made his first appearance in 1963. As at the Metropolitan, the role was once again Lohengrin.
At the Metropolitan Opera, Kónya sang not only Lohengrin and Walter in the German wing, but also Erik in Der Fliegende Holländer and Max (in an unsuccessful attempt to revive Weber's long-dormant Freischütz). While German and Austrian audiences continued to appreciate Weber's wonderful singspiel, Metropolitan audiences were less enthralled and the work passed back into obscurity, despite Kónya's hand-in-glove suitability for the role of Max.
An artist both outstandingly endowed and versatile in schooling and temperament, Kónya proved immensely useful to the Metropolitan Opera over 14 seasons. In addition to the jugendlicher heldentenor repertory, he was a highly credible Cavaradossi, Pinkerton, Calaf, Radames, and Edgardo. A slight graininess of timbre lent to his voice a slightly veiled quality not unlike that of Björling. Kónya also shared with the Swedish tenor an uncommon blossoming of tone in the upper register. His substantial middle and lower voice provided the firm anchor for his ringing top and allowed him, at his best, to negotiate the transition (passaggio) into the upper register without the strangulation exhibited by so many other German-trained tenors.