Birgit Nilsson is regarded as the world’s leading Wagnerian soprano of the post-war generation. She spent a dozen years performing in her native Sweden and on the European continent before a 1959 debut at the Metropolitan Opera of New York that was heralded on the front page of the New York Times the next morning. Nilsson was the Met’s star for more than 20 memorable seasons, and came to be indelibly associated with the larger-than-life female leads written by German Romantic composer Richard Wagner. The Wagnerian repertoire, based largely on Teutonic mythology, includes Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde; many of them are productions known to exhaust their performers. After her 1959 debut as Isolde, Nilsson came to be considered the preeminent interpreter of the role, but she also won praise for her stellar performances in Turandot and Elektra.
Nilsson was born Birgit Marta Svennsson in 1918 in Vastra Karup (West Karup), a town in the southern Swedish province of Skene. Her father had wished for a boy, and to make up for his disappointment, gave the infant the Nilsson surname (“son of Nils”) that would have been bestowed on a son. She grew up in a farming community where her father was the sixth generation of his family to work the land, and was expected to marry a local boy, preferably a farmer. At the age of 10, however, Nilsson asked the choirmaster in a neighboring parish if she could join his choir, and he grudgingly allowed her to audition only when a member bowed out due to illness. Upon hearing her, he predicted, “You are going to be a great singer, “a profile on her in the New York Times reported. Nilsson had demonstrated innate musical talents: she was able to sight-read music, and possessed absolute pitch. But the choirmaster fell ill, and she was not able sing again for him for a few years. Meanwhile, her parents encouraged her to take home-economics courses at a local college, where she often won the lead in the school musicals instead. She also took over an increasing number of farm chores.
When she met with the choirmaster once again, he urged her to be more decisive about her future, and offered to recommend her to the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm; he also promised to help train for her audition. Her family was greatly upset by the news; no one in their family had ever even visited Stockholm, let alone relocated there entirely. Her mother provided her with a small inheritance she had received from a relative, but Nilsson’s father refused to say goodbye when she left home in 1941. She was also fortunate to win a scholarship, but often encountered snobbery from her fellow students and teachers, who poked fun at her simple origins and derided the operatic ambitions of a “farmer’s daughter.”
After 1943, Nilsson studied at the Royal Opera School, also in Stockholm, from which she graduated in 1946.
Born Birgit Marta Svennsson on May 17, 1918, in Vastra Karup, Skáne, Sweden; daughter of Nils Peter and Justine (Paulsson) Svensson; married Bertil Niklasson, September 1948. Education: Attended Stockholm Royal Academy of Music, 1941-43; Royal Opera School, 1943-46.
Made professional debut October 9, 1946, as Agathe in Der Freischütz, Royal Opera, Stockholm; appeared at Glyndebourne Festival, 1951; made Metropolitan Opera of New York debut as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde, 1959; retired from performing, 1984. Taught master classes at the Manhattan School of Music, 1983-91; published memoirs, My Memoirs in Pictures, 1981.
Awards: Swedish Royal Court Singer, 1954, Austrian Kammersaengerin and honorary member of the Vienna State Opera, 1968, and Bavarian Kammersaengerin, 1970; medal for promotion of art and music from Swedish Royal Academy of Music, 1968; Mus. D. from Andover University, 1970, Manhattan School of Music, 1982, and Amherst College; commander of the Order of Vasa, first class, 1975; Swedish Golden Medal illis quorum, 1981; D.F.A. from Michigan State University, 1982; honorary member of Royal Academy of Music (London).
Addresses: Home—P.O. Box 527, S-10127, Stockholm, Sweden. Agent—Eric Lemon Associates, Inc., Ill West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
That same year, she was invited to step in at the last minute for a Royal Stockholm Opera performer who had fallen ill. She accepted, and had only three days to prepare for her debut as Agathe in Der Freischütz, an opera from Carl Maria von Weber. Her nerves were frayed that October night, and she recalled walking to the Royal Opera from her modest apartment by herself that night in an interview with David Blum for his book Quintet: Five Journeys Toward Musical Fulfillment. She remembered feeling overwhelmed, and paused on one of the small bridges that dot the Swedish capital. “I was very depressed, and I thought, I’ve tried my best—I’ve struggled for all of these years—and it’s led to nothing but disaster, “she told Blum. “The future looked hopeless; I stared into the water and thought about jumping in. Somehow—I don’t know how—I found myself on stage. My knees were shaking so hard that I had to cover them with the cloth Agathe is supposed to be embroidering.” Nilsson made only one error that night, but she was not invited to sing any other roles until the next season, when she made her formal debut in the title role in Giuseppi Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.
The trajectory of Nilsson’s career gained speed as she became the star performer of the Royal Stockholm Opera. Her first appearance outside of Sweden came in 1951 as Elektra in Mozart’s Idomeneo, staged for the renowned Glyndebourne Festival in the United Kingdom. Officials at the Bayreuth Festival in Bavaria, which stages the works of Wagner in a world-famous rite, invited Nilsson to perform the very next week, but she was delayed by other contractual obligations; she made her Bayreuth debut as Elsa in Lohengrin in 1954. The famed Teatro alla Scala in Milan also offered Nilsson a contract, but she declined, feeling it was too early in her career for such a triumph. She made her American debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 1956, and sang with the opera companies of Chicago and San Francisco as well. Her London debut was dramatic one: she appeared as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s complete Ring cycle of four operas at Covent Garden in 1957. She was asked to open the 370th season at Milan’s La Scala in December of 1958 as Turandot, becoming only the second non-Italian, after Greek diva Maria Callas, to win such an honor.
Nilsson debuted at the Metropolitan Opera of New York in December of 1959 in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The next morning’s New York Times stated that Nils-son took on “one of the most demanding roles in the repertory and charged it with power and exaltation, “enthused Howard Taubman. “With a voice of extraordinary size, suppleness and brilliance, she dominated the stage and the performance. Isolde’s fury and Isolde’s passion were as consuming as cataclysms of nature.” The audience at the Met roared when she appeared for her solo bow, and critics hailed her as the heir to another famed Swedish soprano, Kirsten Flagstad, who had sang the role two decades earlier and received a similarly enthusiastic response. Taubman praised Nilsson’s voice. “It can be whitish, to use the jargon of the vocal trade, but it can also glow with warmth, “the New York Times critic wrote. “Miss Nilsson can do just what she wishes with this instrument. She can subdue it to a wisp of tone and she can modulate phrases with subtlety. She has a sure grip on the emotional curve of one of opera’s most challenging roles.”
By 1960, Nilsson was one of highest paid performers in opera. She was a frequent presence at the Bayreuth Festival and on stage with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich; after a performance with the Vienna State Opera, she once received 75 curtain calls, a post-performance honor that lasted nearly as long as the performance itself. The Brunnhilde, Elsa, and Turandot roles came to be her signature leads, but she eventually expanded her repertoire to include Tosca and Aída. Nilsson also came to be associated with the operas of another famed German composer, Richard Strauss, particularly in Die Frau ohne Schatten as the Dyer’s Wife, and in Strauss’s version of Elektra. She first sang this latter role in 1965, but was initially apprehensive about doing so: “I was worried that it would be a voice killer, “she told Blum in Quintet.” I had heard an Elektra over the radio—she was shouting and screaming all the time. But when I opened the score, I found that there are so many places, especially after Klytemnestra leaves, where Elektra can sing softly and lyrically.”
Nilsson’s interpretation of Elektra came to be considered one of modern opera’s finest moments. The conductor Sir Georg Solti praised her efforts, asserting, “When you thought that a high note couldn’t be sung better, she’d sing the next one equally gloriously, “Solti told Blum in Quintet “Her singing had boundless energy—musicality, security. She was a marvel of vocal distinction. There will not be a better Elektra in the coming 50 years.” Nilsson’s talents and capacity as a performer were so legendary that she once sang two roles in the same opera in the 1966 Metropolitan Opera staging of Wagner’s Tannhàuser. She has said that singing the dual roles of Venus and Elisabeth was, to her, one of her greatest achievements. The diva was often noted for her sense of humor and personal warmth. She never employed a staff, even at the height of her career, and preferred a cold beer after a performance instead of champagne.
Nilsson possessed a vocal range so impressive that her high notes were once mistaken for a fire alarm. She has shattered windows and even a turquoise gem-stone once; recording engineers usually cautioned her to step away from the microphone for the high notes. Some of her most impressive performances are available in recorded versions. Her first-ever German-language performance as Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Gòt-terdammerung, staged in Munich in 1955, was re-released on the Orfeo label in 1995. A critic for Opera News called Nilsson’s performance “vocally fearless and radiant.” Strauss: Elektra: Salome Final Scene, from 1992, is the recorded version of her 1965 Vienna State Opera performance in that role. One of her earliest live records, Wagner: DieWalküre, Act I, dating from 1953, was remastered by the BellaVoce label in 1998.
Nilsson gradually retired, taking on fewer roles each season, until she made her final curtain call in 1984. She had already started to teach master classes at the Manhattan School of Music, in which she encouraged her students to try horseback riding to improve their voice—” if your family has a horse, “the farm-born Nilsson conceded. “Some families don’t. But ride a bicycle uphill, in the lowest gear. The next day, where it hurts, there is your breath support.” She continued to teach such classes until 1991, when she retired to Sweden, where one of her two homes is the farmhouse where she grew up. She met her husband, Bertil Niklasson, who also hails from a Skâne farming family, on a train in 1945. The soprano wrote a memoir, Mina minnesbilder, in 1977 which was translated for English-speaking fans four years later as My Memoirs in Pictures.
Strauss: Elektra: Salome Final Scene, SRO, 1992.
Wagner: Gotterdammerung, Orfeo, 1995.
Puccini: Turandot/Leinsdorf, Nilsson, Tebaldi, BMG, 1996.
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde/Bôhm, Nilsson, Windgassen, Deutsche Grammophon, 1997.
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen/Solti, Vienna Philharmonic, London, 1997.
Birgit Nilsson Sings Wagner and Strauss, Gala, 1997.
Wagner: Lohengrin/Jochum, Windgassen, Nilsson, et al., Opera D’Oro, 1998.
Wagner: DieWalküre, Act I, BellaVoce, 1998.
An Evening with Birgit Nilsson, Opera D’Oro, 2000.
Blum, David, Quintet: Five Journeys Toward Musical Fulfillment, Cornell University Press, 1998.
International Dictionary of Opera, 2 volumes, St. James Press, 1993.
New York Times, December 19, 1959, pp.1, 31; December 1, 1959, p. 32; November 8, 1984, p. C32.
Opera News, January 30, 1993, p. 36; April 15, 1995, p. 34; April 11, 1998, p. 47.
Born Merta Birgit Svensson, May 17, 1918, in Västra Karup, Sweden; died December 25, 2005, in Västra Karup, Sweden. Opera singer. Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson was beloved by opera fans for her legendary performances in works by nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner. Nilsson would be indelibly associated with Wagnerian music for much of her four-decade career, but she was masterful in other roles, too. "Nilsson's distinctive soprano was unforgettable," declared Chicago Tribune music critic John Von Rhein. "It was more a force of nature than a voice. The top notes flashed like drawn swords; the voice was steady and secure throughout a wide range. The invincible sound cut through the thickest orchestral mass. The breath control was such that she could hold high notes seemingly forever."
Born in 1918, Nilsson grew up on a farm in Västra Karup, in southern Sweden, on a parcel of land that had been tilled by five generations of her family before her father. She inherited her musical talents from her mother, an amateur singer, who gave her a toy piano on which the three-year-old Nilsson quickly proved adept at picking out melodies. Unlike many of her modern counterparts, she had very little formal training, save for some classes at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in the early 1940s. She originally planned for a career as a concert singer, and gave a few performances before being drafted into taking a stage role in a Royal Opera of Stockholm event in 1946 as a last-minute replacement. The following year, she made her formal debut on the same stage in the Verdi opera Macbeth.
Over the next decade, Nilsson took on a series of progressively more challenging roles, and the steady development of her voice was said to have trained it well enough to make it strong enough for the more challenging Wagner roles that came later, as well as allow her to perform well into her sixties. She gained a fair amount of international attention in the opera world when she made her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1951 in Britain, performing in Mozart's Idomeneo as Elettra. Three years later, she made her first appearance at Germany's Bayreuth Festival, the illustrious summer event founded by Wagner in 1876 as an annual showcase for his operas.
Nilsson's first performance in the United States came at the San Francisco Opera in 1956, followed by a Lyric Opera of Chicago appearance. A year later, she debuted at London's Covent Garden as Brünnhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre, from his legendary four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Her New York Metropolitan Opera debut—as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde in 1969—made the front page of the New York Times the next morning, and from that point forward Nilsson was heralded as the opera world's leading Wagnerian soprano.
Wagner's operas were seemingly designed for only the heartiest of performers: They were lengthy events, with lead roles feared by singers as both difficult to master and punishing to the vocal cords. Furthermore, Wagner's music was written to be played loudly by the orchestra, which forced singers to compete to be heard above it. Nilsson had little trouble with any of those formidable requirements, and remained the best-known Wagnerian soprano on the international circuit throughout the 1960s and '70s. "Her stamina was inexhaustible, so that she appeared perfectly fresh at the end of the most gruelling performance," declared Elizabeth Forbes in London's Independent. "Her interpretations, those of Isolde and Brünnhilde in particular, grew steadily deeper in their dramatic insight."
Nilsson's career was not confined exclusively to Wagner's operas. She was also outstanding in the title role of Richard Strauss's Elektra, as well as in Turandot, a Puccini opera. But much of her career was devoted to the Wagner cycle, both on stage and in the recording studio. One of Nilsson's most impressive contributions to her art was a complete Ring cycle recorded for the Decca label, which was the first ever to be done of the series in the studio and took seven years to complete.
A tax battle with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service kept Nilsson from performing in the United States during for a number of years during the 1970s, but she was widely heard on the European stage. She penned an autobiography Mina Minnesbilder ("My Memoirs in Pictures"), published in 1977 and four years later in English translation, and by 1984 had formally retired from the stage and was teaching master classes. In 1996, at the age of 77, she appeared once again on the Metropolitan Opera stage for a gala honoring its longtime music director, James Levine, and spoke warmly of him before ending with a signature "ho-yo-to-ho," Brünnhilde's famous battle cry from Die Walküre.
Nilsson spent her remaining years on the Västra Karup farm, and died on Christmas Day of 2005 at the age of 87. The cause of death was unknown, but she was thought to have suffered from a heart ailment. She is survived by her husband, Bertil Niklasson, whom she had married in 1949; the couple had no children. Returning to her childhood home might have seemed an unusual way for the world's most famous soprano to spend her retirement, but Nilsson gave an interview a decade before her death in which she said, "I've always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me," the New York Times' Bernard Holland quoted her as saying. "Stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won't hurt so much."
Chicago Tribune, January 12, 2006; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/Music/01/12/obit.nilsson.ap/index.html (January 12, 2006); Independent (London), January 12, 2006, p. 38; New York Times, January 12, 2006, p. A1; Washington Post, January 12, 2006, p. B7.