Nilsson (family surname Svensson), (Märta) Birgit

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Nilsson (family surname Svensson), (Märta) Birgit

Nilsson (family surname Svensson), (Märta) Birgit, greatly renowned Swedish soprano; b. Vastra Karup, May 17, 1918. She began singing at an early age and was a member of the local church choir. At age 15, she began vocal studies with a nearby choirmaster. In 1941 she entered the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, her principal mentors being Hislop and Sunnegaard. Upon graduation in 1946, she made her operatic debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm as Agathe. Following her success as Lady Macbeth there in 1947, she joined its roster and sang leading roles in Italian and German operas with increasing success. On June 20, 1951, she made her British debut as Mozart’s Elettra at the Glyndebourne Festival. In 1954 she sang Elsa at the Bayreuth Festival and at the Vienna State Opera. That same year, she was accorded the title of a Swedish Court Singer and sang Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung that Dec. at the Royal Opera. After singing Isolde at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in 1955, she won critical acclaim for her portrayal of Brünnhilde in Siegfried at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence in 1956. On Aug. 9, 1956, Nilsson made her U.S. debut singing excerpts from Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung with the Los Angeles Phil, at the Hollywood Bowl. Her U.S. operatic debut followed on Oct. 5, 1956, when she appeared as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera, a role she then sang at the Chicago Lyric Opera. In 1957 she portrayed Brünnhilde in the Ring cycle at her first appearance at London’s Covent Garden, where she won outstanding critical acclaim. Another remarkable success followed in 1958 when she sang Turandot at her debut at Milan’s La Scala. On Dec. 18, 1959, Nilsson scored a triumph at her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Isolde, and immediately established herself as one of its foremost artists. Her subsequent critically acclaimed portrayals there included Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 1960, Turandot, Aida, and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung in 1961, Tosca in 1962, Salome in 1965, and Elekra in 1966. She remained on the roster there until 1975. On Oct. 9, 1976, she celebrated the 30th anniversary of her operatic debut singing Isolde at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. In 1979 she rejoined the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, where she portrayed Elektra in 1980 and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1981 with little evidence of any serious diminution of her vocal powers. Her final appearance there came on Oct. 22, 1983, as a participant in its 100thanniversary gala. In subsequent years, Nilsson devoted herself to giving master classes in the vocal art. She publ. Mina minnesbilder (Stockholm, 1977; Eng. tr., 1981, as My Memoirs in Pictures).

Nilsson was one of the foremost vocal artists of the 20th century, universally acknowledged as one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos of all time. In addition to Wagner, she also excelled in operas by Verdi and Strauss. Her resplendent vocal and dramatic gifts made her portrayals unforgettable. She was accorded numerous honors. In 1968 she was made an Austrian Kammersängerin, and in 1970 a Bavarian Kammersängerin. She was made a Commander of the Vasa Order, 1stClass, of Sweden in 1974, and was named a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres of France in 1991. In 1999 she was made an honorary member of the Vienna Phil.


La N.(Stockholm, 1995).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis Mclntire