Nilsson, Birgit (1918—)

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Nilsson, Birgit (1918—)

Swedish soprano, best known for her major Wagnerian roles—all three Brünnhildes in the Ring cycle, Isolde in Tristan, Elsa in Lohengrin, Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser. Born in Vastra Karups, Sweden, in 1918; daughter of Ole Nilsson (a farmer); studied with Joseph Hislop; married Bertil Niklasson, on September 10, 1948.

Formal debut with Stockholm Opera as Lady Macbeth (1947); appeared at Glyndebourne as Elektra in Idomeneo (1951); appeared as Elsa in Bayreuth (1954), singing there for 16 years; made debut at Covent Garden (1957), Teatro alla Scala (1958), and Metropolitan (1959), singing there until her retirement (1982).

Birgit Nilsson was universally regarded as a world-class Wagnerian soprano and heir to Kirsten Flagstad . The power and force of her voice were legendary. Born in 1918 on a farm in southern Sweden, she was expected to follow the career path of her parents. Long days in the rows of beet fields cooled her enthusiasm for farming, but she did agree to attend a domestic science college. Her studies there came to an abrupt end, however, when a voice teacher from the town of Aastrup heard her sing. He arranged for an audition at the Stockholm Royal Academy of Music where she was accepted in 1941, earning first place over 47 applicants for two vacancies.

Nilsson made her informal debut in 1946 as Agatha in Der Freischütz. She was a substitution with only three days' notice and paid for it in nerves and tears and contradictory reviews; critics raved about the volume and musicality of her singing, while the Royal Opera labeled her "unmusical and untalented." The fact that she premiered all but three of her later roles at the Royal Opera in Stockholm proves there was a change of opinion.

Her actual breakthrough came with the role of Lady Macbeth in 1947. She sang ten performances in three weeks and looked forward to each, she said, "the way a child looks forward to Christmas." The part was an invitation to demonstrate her considerable dramatic talent, underscored by her ability to glide from one pitch or tone to another with perfect progression.

Nilsson's first important foreign engagement was as Elektra in Mozart's Idomeneo at Glyndebourne in 1951. It was followed by her appearance as Elsa at Bayreuth in 1954 and as Brünnhilde in a complete Ring cycle in Munich in 1955. Best known for main Wagnerian roles, Nilsson eventually sang Isolde in Tristan und Isolde, all three Brünnhildes in the Ring cycle, Elsa in Lohengrin, and both Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser. In the 1960s she and Wieland

Wagner would collaborate at Bayreuth for memorable productions of the Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde.

On her American debut in San Francisco in 1956, as Brünnhilde in Die Walkürie, one critic called Nilsson "the nearest thing we have heard to Flagstad since Flagstad herself." London, too, hailed her as Flagstad's heir when she made her Covent Garden debut as Brünnhilde in the Ring. As Turandot, she opened the 1958–59 season at La Scala during the Puccini centenary celebration, a supreme distinction for a non-Italian performer. In 1959, her debut at the Metropolitan Opera received glowing front-page coverage in major New York City newspapers.

Although chiefly known as a Wagnerian—she performed Tristan and Isolde 209 times—Nilsson also sang Mozart and Strauss, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Elektra being her best roles. (Noting the importance of lighter roles for maintaining the flexibility of her voice, she once commented, "I have not been good to Mozart, but Mozart has been very good to me.") Turandot, Tosca, and Aïda also were Italian specialties. Before her retirement in 1984, Nilsson had appeared in all the great opera houses in the world, most frequently at the New York's Metropolitan Opera, Milan's La Scala, and London's Covent Garden. She had also sung for 16 summers at the Bayreuth Festival. Nilsson has left a fine series of recordings, including an especially distinguished Ring cycle in collaboration with conductor Sir Georg Solti. She spent some of her time during her retirement at the farm on which she had been born, and continued giving occasional, highly anticipated master classes through the 1990s.


International Dictionary of Opera. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1993.

Nilsson, Birgit. My Memoirs in Pictures. Translated by Thomas Teal. NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Rosenthal, Harold. Great Singers of Today. London: Calder and Boyars, 1966.

Tommasini, Anthony. "An Isolde Legend Salutes the Future," in The New York Times. December 18, 1999. pp. B1, B16.

Inga Wiehl , Yakima, Washington

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Nilsson, Birgit (1918—)

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