Birgit Nilsson’s career spanned 40 years
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – She was a celebrated star on the stages of the world’s greatest opera houses.
But a diva, Birgit Nilsson was not.
“The thing that was
remarkably wonderful about her was that she had no conceit. She was completely modest,” said Jon Vickers, who often performed with Nilsson in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.
Nilsson, who retired two decades ago after a career spanning nearly
40 years, died at age 87 on Christmas Day, the Stockholm daily Svenska
Dagbladet reported. Her relatives kept her death a secret until the
funeral Wednesday in her native Vastra Karup, in Southern Sweden. The
cause of death was not revealed, but Nilsson was said to have had heart
trouble in recent years.
Nilsson’s prodigious voice and unrivaled
stamina thrilled audiences from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to La
Scala in Milan, and her high notes made her the greatest Wagnerian
soprano of the post-World War II era.
She sang a wide variety of
dramatic soprano roles, but her reputation was based especially on her
mastery of a handful of the most punishing in the operatic repertory.
Chief among these was Isolde, which she sang for her sensational debut
at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 18, 1959.
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. “What’s more, she was a
totally normal modest person with a lot of self-irony.”
Once asked what was the chief requirement for singing the role of Isolde, she replied: “Comfortable shoes.”
sang opposite many of opera’s greats. In 1969, Placido Domingo
performed Calaf for the first time, opposite her Turandot in Verona,
“She avoided all the kind of adulation that people gave
her. She was a very simple person,” Domingo said Wednesday. “Nobody has
sung Turandot like her. She was an unbelievable lady. She had a sense
of humor like nobody.”
As word spread of her death two decades
after she retired, the Swedish singer was remembered as one of opera’s
most dynamic performers.
“With Birgit Nilsson’s passing, Sweden has lost one of its greatest artists,” King Carl XVI Gustaf said in a rare statement.
on a farm, Nilsson reigned supreme at the world’s opera houses during
her career, which began in 1946 at the Stockholm Royal Opera as Agathe
in Weber’s “Der Freischutz” and continued until 1984. Her father wanted
her to work in agriculture, but for Nilsson, singing came natural.
“I couldn’t do anything else,” she said in a Swedish TV interview in 1977. “I was bad at everything else.”
was immediately hailed as a worthy successor to her fellow
Scandinavian, Kirsten Flagstad, the Norwegian who owned the Wagner
repertory at the Met during the years before World War II.
parts Nilsson made her own included Bruennhilde, the warrior maiden of
Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, the title role of Elektra in Richard Strauss’
opera, and the heroine of Puccini’s “Turandot.”
unique!” Met music director James Levine said in a statement. “Her
voice, her artistry, her sense of humor and her friendship were in a
class of their own. I was so fortunate to hear her sing many times over
the years, and eventually to work with her on several memorable
occasions with Wagner and Strauss.”
At her peak, Nilsson
astounded audiences in live performance with the unforced power of her
voice, which easily cut through the thickest orchestrations, and with
her remarkable breath control, which allowed her to hold onto the
highest note for seemingly endless amounts of time. Her interpretive
powers grew as her career developed, and she became a moving artist as
well as a vocal phenomenon.
Her reputation in operatic lore was
enhanced on December 28, 1959, when she sang a performance of “Tristan”
opposite three different tenors. Her scheduled co-star, Karl Liebel was
ill, and so were his two “covers,” Ramon Vinay and Albert DaCosta. Met
general manager Rudolf Bing persuaded each of them to go one for a
single act so the performance wouldn’t have to be canceled.
Fiedler, in her book about the Met, “Molto Agitato,” tells the story of
Nilsson’s unhappiness with the gloomy lighting on which Herbert von
Karajan insisted for his production of the “Ring.” To register her
objections, she appeared on stage during a 1967 rehearsal of “Die
Walkuere” wearing a coal miner’s helmet with searchlight and wings.
“Karajan just looked at her, put his head down and conducted,” Vickers recalled. “He wouldn’t look at her.”
legendary moment came after one of her frequent battle-of-the-high-note
contests with tenor Franco Corelli during the second act duet from
“Turandot.” Enraged that no matter how hard he tried she could hold
onto the climactic high C longer than he could, Corelli apparently got
his revenge during their third-act love scene by biting her on the neck
instead of kissing her. Nilsson is said to have telephoned Bing to
cancel her next performance with the explanation, “I have rabies.”
Nilsson recalled the episode in an October 30, 2003, phone interview with the AP following Corelli’s death.
“He neither bit nor kissed me. It all ended appropriately in any case,” she said.
sang with the Met 222 times in 16 roles, making her finale at the
October 1983 centennial gala. Her last appearance on the Met stage came
more than a decade later, when she took part in an April 1996 gala
celebrating Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company. After some
gracious remarks, she launched into Bruennhilde’s “ho-yo-to-ho” battle
cry from “Walkuere,” delivering — at age 77 — a performance that
would have been the envy of any younger soprano.
Nilsson made her
American debut at the San Francisco Opera on October 5, 1956, as
Bruennhilde, and performed with that company until 1981. She sang 39
times at the Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1956 to ’74 and was
Bruennhilde in the 1960s recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with Sir
Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, considered by many the
She appeared 232 times at the Vienna State
Opera from 1954 to ’82, and the Vienna Philharmonic, the company’s
orchestra, made her an honorary member in 1999.
education started at age 3, when her mother, an accomplished amateur
singer, bought Birgit a toy piano, on which she learned to pick out
“I sang before I could walk. I even sang in my dreams,” she told reporters soon after her opera debut.
After retirement, she continued to teach master’s level courses in singing.
Although she studied at Sweden’s Royal Academy of Music, Nilsson said she learned most of her musical skills on her own.
mostly self-educated. I discovered early how wonderfully easy it was to
sing in big localities. In small rooms my voice got tired,” she told a
Swedish reporter once.
Despite her worldwide recognition, Nilsson said she was nervous before every major performance.
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 married Swedish restaurateur Bertil Niklasson in 1949. The couple had no children.
When asked once if she had any dependents, she responded: “Yes, just one: Rudolf Bing.”