17 May 1918
Båstad, Skåne, Sweden
25 December 2005 (aged 87)
Birgit Nilsson made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1946, with only three days' notice, replacing the scheduled Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz who was too ill to go on. The conductor, Leo Blech, wasn't very kind to her and - as she wrote in her autobiography - she even contemplated suicide after the performance. Fortunately, that unhappy experience was soon put behind her. In 1947, she claimed national attention there as Verdi's Lady Macbeth under Fritz Busch. A wealth of parts followed, from Strauss, and Verdi to Wagner, Puccini and Tchaikovsky. In Stockholm she built up a steady repertoire of roles in the lyric-dramatic field, including Donna Anna, Aïda, Lisa, Tosca, Venus, Sieglinde, Senta and the Marschallin, one of her favourite roles (though she later lamented that nobody ever asked her to undertake it), all sung in Swedish.
Under Fritz Busch’s tutelage her career took wing. Indeed, he was instrumental in gaining her first important engagement outside Sweden — her first important international appearance was 1951, as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Glyndebourne Festival. Her debut at the Vienna State Opera (where she would be a regular performer for more than 25 years) in 1953 proved a real turning point. It was followed Elsa in Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival in 1954, then her first Brünnhilde in a complete Ring at the Bavarian State Opera, at the Munich Festival of 1954. After Elsa at Bayreuth, she returned as Sieglinde, Brünnhilde and Isolde until 1969, all to universal acclaim.
She took the title role of Turandot, which is brief but in need of an unusually big sound, to La Scala in Milan in 1958 and then to the rest of Italy. Birgit Nilsson made her American debut as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in 1956 with the San Francisco Opera. She attained international stardom after a performance as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1959, which made front page news. She says, though, that the single biggest event in her life was when she was asked to perform at the opening of the 370th(?) season at La Scala as Turandot in 1958. She became the first non-Italian other than Maria Callas ever granted the privilege of opening a season at La Scala. She has performed at many major opera houses in the world including Vienna, Berlin, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Tokyo, Paris, Buenos Aires, Chicago, and Hamburg.
Birgit Nilsson was widely known as the leading Wagnerian soprano of her time, the successor to the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, particularly in the role of Brünnhilde. However, she also sang many of the other famous soprano roles, among them Leonore, Aida, Turandot, Tosca, Elektra, and Salome. She had, according to The New York Times, a "voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina". Her career was long and distinguished and continued into the 1980s, when she mostly sang Elektra and the Dyer’s Wife.
Her voice lost very little of its power or steadiness over the years, and her histrionic ability always improved. Nobody who has seen or indeed heard her as Elektra could doubt her powers as an actress, and her Isolde has had few peers in depicting both the anger and frustration of Act 1, the erotic emotion of Act 2 or the transfiguration of Act 3. As Brünnhilde, she eagerly conveyed both the human and goddess-like characteristics of the part. A certain unwieldiness marred her performances of Mozart and Verdi, and she was sometimes afflicted by uncertain pitch in this repertory, but in Puccini, in particular as Turandot, she was memorable. It was not that Nilsson's voice was of such daunting size, as those who sang with her can testify, but it was so unwaveringly produced and so perfectly focused that she had no difficulty filling the largest auditorium or riding the most violent orchestral clamour.
Birgit Nilsson was suspicious of opera's recent youth culture and often remarked on the premature destruction of young voices brought on by overambitious career planning. "Directors and managers don't care about their futures," she once said. "They will just get another young person when this one goes bad." In today's opera culture, the best managed voices tend to mature in the singer's 40's and begin to deteriorate during the 50's. Yet at 66, when most singers hang onto whatever career remains through less taxing recitals with piano and discreet downward transpositions of key, Birgit Nilsson sang a New York concert performance of Strauss and Wagner that met both composers head-on. "Ms. Nilsson did not sound young," Will Crutchfield once wrote in The New York Times. "Soft and low notes were often precarious; sustained tones were not always steady." He continued: "The wonderful thing is that she doesn't let this bother her. There was never a sense of distress or worry."
The conductor Erich Leinsdorf thought that her longevity, like Flagstad's, had something to do with her Scandinavian heritage, remarking that Wagner required "thoughtful, patient and methodical people." Birgit Nilsson attributed her long career to no particular lifestyle or regimen. "I do nothing special," she once said. "I don't smoke. I drink a little wine and beer. I was born with the right set of parents." In sheer power, Birgit Nilsson's high notes were sometimes compared to those of the Broadway belter Ethel Merman. One high C rendered in a "Turandot" performance in the outdoor Arena di Verona in Italy led citizenry beyond the walls to think that a fire alarm had been set off. Once urged to follow Nilsson in the same role at the Metropolitan Opera, the eminent soprano Leonie Rysanek refused.
Birgit Nilsson was known for her one-liners. The secret to singing Isolde, she said, was "comfortable shoes." After a disagreement with the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, Nilsson was asked if she thought Joan Sutherland's famous bouffant hairdo was real. She answered: "I don't know. I haven't pulled it yet." After the tenor Franco Corelli was said to have bitten her neck in an onstage quarrel over held notes, Nilsson cancelled performances complaining that she had rabies.
Birgit Nilsson was also famous for her good humour and ability to make money. She became one of the highest-paid singers in the field, in part because of the rarity of her skills. Being a shrewd businesswoman, she negotiated much of her own career. She never ranted or engaged in tantrums. She was also too proud to make outright demands. She would begin contract talks by refusing every offer and being evasive about her availability in general. This tack would continue until the impresario offered something she wanted. Nilsson's reply would be "maybe." Now in control, she would be begged to accept what she desired in the first place.
Once asked of what was her favourite role, she answered: "Isolde made me famous. Turandot made me rich". An interesting anecdote is told that characterizes her relationship with Sir Rudolph Bing, the long-time director of the Metropolitan Opera. When Bing was asked if she was difficult, he reportedly said, "Not at all. You put enough money in, and a glorious voice comes out." When Nilsson was preparing her taxes and was asked if she had any dependents, she replied, "Yes, just one, Rudolph Bing." Another story is that once when returning to Europe from New York, she sewed a number of dollar bills into the lining of her fur coat.
Nilsson was known for standing up to intensely wired conductors. An example took place in a rehearsal of Die Walküre in 1967 with Herbert von Karajan when, because of the gloomy light of the production, Nilsson decided to rehearse with a miner's helmet (complete with Valkerian wings) on her head. When Georg Solti, in "Tristan und Isolde," insisted on tempos too slow for Nilsson's taste, she made the first performance even slower, inducing a conductorial change of heart.
Despite her worldwide recognition, Nilsson said she was nervous before every major performance. "Before a premiere, on the way to the opera, I'd hope for just a small, small accident, it didn't need to be much, but just so I would not have to sing," she said in a 1977 interview on Swedish TV. Nilsson often spoke of her limits. She said her voice was not a good fit with what she described as the softer textures and refined tones of Italian operas. But she sang those roles anyway.
All of her major roles were recorded. Partly because Birgit Nilsson was on the scene to play Brünnhilde, Decca Records undertook the audacious and mammothly expensive project of making the first studio recording of Wagner's four-opera Ring cycle cycle, conducted by Solti and produced by John Culshaw. The effort took seven years, from 1958 to 1965. A film of the proceedings made her a familiar image for arts-conscious television viewers.
Though a frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Opera, Birgit Nilsson did not always see eye to eye with its redoubtable general manager, Rudolf Bing, nor with the conductor Herbert von Karajan. This resulted both in her making fewer New York appearances than hoped in the early 1970s and her virtual exclusion from the Salzburg Festival. Birgit Nilsson's American career was derailed in the mid-70's by a squabble with the US Internal Revenue Service, which had filed claims for back taxes. Several years later, cooler heads intervened: a schedule of payments was worked out, and Nilsson's ill-tempered hiatus from the United States ended. When she returned, Donal Henahan wrote in The New York Times, "The famous shining trumpet of a voice is still far from sounding like a cornet."
Birgit Nilsson appeared at the Metropolitan Opera 223 times in 16 roles. She sang two complete "Ring" cycles in the 1961-62 season, and another in 1974-75. She was Isolde 33 times, and Turandot 52. She played most of the other big soprano parts: Aida, Tosca, the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, Salome, Elektra (opera), as Verdi's Lady Macbeth, Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, and both Venus and Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. She memorably appeared as replacement Sieglinde to Rita Hunter's Brünnhilde in the 1970s. She appeared 232 times at the Vienna State Opera from 1954-82, and the Vienna Philharmonic, the company's orchestra, made her an honorary member in 1999. "If there ever was someone that one can call a real star today and a world-famous opera singer during her time then that was Frau Nilsson," said Ioan Holender, director of the Vienna State Opera.
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