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Birgit Nilsson (1918 – 2005): An Appreciation by Göran Forsling



When Birgit Nilsson passed away on Christmas Day the world lost one of the greatest dramatic sopranos ever. Among female singers during the last half of the 20th century, possibly only Maria Callas could challenge her in importance and excellence. Still her way to the big opera houses was both long and strenuous.

She was born on May 17, 1918 to a family of farmers in the little village Västra Karup in the province of Skåne in the south of Sweden, and her father wanted her to stay on the farm. It also took a long time before it was evident that she had great musical talent. She started to play the piano by ear when she was four, a toy piano covering one octave, and later she got an organ, and of course she sang, but not until she was 14 she got her first organized piano lessons. Her first teacher was also a cantor and he gave her some singing lessons and enrolled her in the church choir. After further training she was accepted to the Royal College of Music in Stockholm in 1941, where her first singing teacher was Joseph Hislop and later she studied for Arne Sunnegårdh. She made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1946 at short notice as Agathe in Der Freischütz, but her real break-through came the following year as Lady Macbeth. Her first Wagner role, Venus in Tannhäuser, singing opposite Set Svanholm, came the same year and among her early roles were also Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Lisa in The Queen of Spades. In 1951 she got her first international engagement, singing Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo at Glyndebourne with Richard Lewis, Sena Jurinac and Leopold Simoneau. After this ice-break the road was paved for her: Bayreuth (1953), Vienna (1954), Munich (1954), San Francisco and Chicago (1956), Rome and Covent Garden (1957), La Scala (1958) and Metropolitan (1959) are some of the milestones during a career that lasted until 1984.

And it was a spectacular career. In Italy she was known as “La Nilsson”, which also is the title of her memoirs, published in 1995. At the Vienna State Opera she was adored and she once, after a performance of Elektra, had 72 curtain calls, which took just as long as the performance. Hundreds of admirers used to accompany her to her hotel after each performance and occupied the whole of Kärtnerstrasse. People who looked out from their hotel windows thought that there was a fire but were reassured by the receptionist that it was just “die Frau Kammersängerin Nilsson who in her customary way had returned from the opera house”, as she writes in her memoirs.

Birgit Nilsson was to most opera lovers the unsurpassed Wagner soprano, with that magnificent laser-beam voice cutting through even the thickest orchestral texture, and the tremendous stamina that made it possible for her to sound just as fresh at the end of a performance of Tristan und Isolde as she did when the opera began five hours earlier. Isolde and the three Brünnhildes in the Ring operas are perhaps her most famous impersonations, but she also sang Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser, even both roles at the same performance since the two characters never meet. Salome, Elektra and Die Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten were also perfect vehicles for her Hochdramatische soprano, but she also excelled in the Italian repertoire: Lady Macbeth, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and Aida were important Verdi parts, she often sang Tosca and she was the reigning Turandot for many years.

Although she had this unparalleled international success she frequently returned to the Stockholm opera for guest appearances, and she always wanted to sing new roles first in Stockholm, before she brought them to other houses. Thus it happened that that her last new roles, Elektra in 1965 and Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1975 also were first heard in Stockholm. I heard the Elektra premiere on the radio and it would be great if Swedish Radio or some adventurous company dug out the tapes from the archives and released the performance on CD. A short excerpt can be found on the anthology “Famous Swedish Opera Singers” (Gala GL 333). Die Frau ohne Schatten was even televised, so please, someone, a DVD!

In Sweden she reached a popularity among ordinary people that was quite exceptional for an opera singer, but she had a very “folksy” approach, a great sense of humour and her hearty laughter was well-known from many radio- and TV-programmes. For more than 20 years she appeared every summer at Gröna Lund and Liseberg, the two amusement parks in Stockholm and Gothenburg, before audiences numbering several thousand, people of all categories and all ages. At these concerts she always sang some Nordic songs, popular opera arias – O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi being a particular favourite, somewhat surprisingly maybe, but she could fine down her large voice to lyric dimensions and she had a wonderfully girlish timbre in such repertoire. I could have danced all night from My Fair Lady was another favourite, memorably recorded on the legendary Karajan Fledermaus  recording as part of the Gala Performance with celebrity guests in the second act, and Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume was the obligatory encore. 25 years ago Bluebell of Sweden issued an LP with live recordings from Gröna Lund and Liseberg, which should be reissued on CD.

Practically nobody denied the glory of her voice and her way of using it but amidst the praise there were occasional dissenting voices who thought that she lacked warmth – especially in the Italian repertoire. Probably her very straight tone with very little vibrato can give a cool impression, but there was no lack of intensity and feeling in for instance her recorded Aida and Tosca and where with more vibrant voices one can’t always be sure what tone the singer is aiming at, there was never any doubt about that with Birgit Nilsson.

Privately she was quite unglamorous and it is characteristic that her death was not made public until after the funeral, to the annoyance of the Swedish evening papers. She was a quick-witted person and there are many stories about her repartee. The vocal combats with tenor colleague Franco Corelli are legendary and once at the MET, when Birgit managed to hold on to the high C in there duet in Turandot longer than Corelli did, he revenged by biting her, whereupon Birgit Nilsson sent a telegram to Rudolf Bing “CANT SING STOP CONTRACTED RABIES STOP” Another time Corelli found that Birgit had a piano in her dressing-room, which he hadn’t. He talked to Bing about it and Bing asked Birgit if it was OK to move the piano to Corelli’s room. “Of course”, Birgit answered, “but I have no time to teach him to play!”

Swedish pianist Lars Roos, now living in Los Angeles, was Birgit Nilsson’s accompanist for several years and got to know her well. He writes: “I first met Birgit 1968 in New York at the consulate. She was very friendly and gave me a ticket for MET when she sang Die Walküre. We exchanged Christmas Cards and greetings but not until 1976 I played with her. We made a private concert in Karlsruhe, at a conference, to see if I could manage. In spring 1977 we made a large tour in Europe, Iran, Korea and Japan and after that Gröna Lund, TV etc etc. I stayed with her for three days when we rehearsed for the first concert and I had a very good time. We sat until the small hours talking and telling stories.

She was never troublesome, very simple and nice – and mischievous when we were alone. She knew what she wanted and that always makes it easier for the accompanist, since one knows that she will do it the same way at the concert.

Birgit was considerate. She sent postcards from all over the world, she rang me if I was sick. We became very good friends and had a lot of fun. Even though her death didn’t come as a surprise, it feels sad and empty.”

Lars is the pianist on the aforementioned Bluebell record. Birgit Nilsson’s recorded legacy is enormous with about 25 complete operas and a number of recital discs. It is not an easy task to pick and choose among them, but probably the live-recorded Tristan und Isolde from Bayreuth 1966 (on DG) is the crowning glory, with Karl Böhm conducting and Christa Ludwig, Wolfgang Windgassen, Eberhard Wächter and Martti Talvela in the cast. Her two complete Ring recordings with Solti and Böhm are of course essential, just as the two Turandot: with Jussi Björling, Renata Tebaldi and Erich Leinsdorf  conducting (RCA) and with Franco Corelli, Renata Scotto and Molinari-Pradelli conducting (EMI). Of her recital discs I have a special fondness for the EMI recording of duets from Der fliegende Holländer and Die Walküre where she is partnered by Hans Hotter. It has been reissued by Testament.

But there are many other glories and as long as there are opera lovers in the world Birgit Nilsson will be remembered and her recordings listened to.

Birgit Nilsson died on Christmas Day 2005 but her memory will live for ever.



Göran Forsling




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