Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Happy Birthday: Birgit Nilsson

La Nilsson singing Wagner's Isolde at the MET Gala 1983
"The celebrated Swedish dramatic soprano who specialized in operatic and symphonic works, would have turned 93 today. Her voice was noted for its overwhelming force, bountiful reserves of power and the gleaming brilliance and clarity in the upper register. Birgit Nilsson came from a rural background and had to work hard to gain acceptance in the world of music, but she made so strong an imprint on many roles that they came to be known as the "Nilsson repertory". She sang the operas of Richard Strauss and made a specialty of Puccini's Turandot, but it was the music of Wagner that made her career; her command of his music was comparable to that
With her dog Nalle in Sweden
of Kirsten Flagstad, who owned the Wagner repertory at the Metropolitan Opera during the years before World War II. At her peak, Nilsson astounded audiences in live performance with the unforced power of her voice, which cut through dense orchestration, and with her remarkable breath control, which allowed her to hold notes for a remarkably long time. Her interpretive powers grew as her career developed, and she became a moving artist as well as a vocal phenomenon. Among colleagues, she also became renowned for her playful sense of humor."

Bing Gala at the MET 1972
"Una partita a poker" La Fanciulla del West (w/Andrea Mongelli)

"Starke Scheite, schichtet mir dort" Götterdämmerung

"La fatal pietra..." Aida (w/Luigi Ottolini & Grace Hoffman)

"Dich teure halle" Tannhäuser

"Mario, mario, mario!" Tosca (w/Franco Corelli)

"Der Engel" Wesendonck Lieder

"Ah! Perfido"

"Una macchia" Macbeth

"O Don fatale" Don Carlo

"Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen" Salome

"Crudele!...Non mi dir" Don Giovanni

A full biography and funny anecdotes are after the jump.

Birgit Nilsson was born Birgit Märta Svensson on May 17, 1918, to Nils Peter and Justine (Paulsson) Svensson on a farm at Västra Karup in Skåne, Sweden. When she was three years old she began picking out melodies on a toy piano her mother bought for her. She once told an interviewer that she could sing before she could walk, adding "I even sang in my dreams". Her vocal talent was first noticed when she began to sing in her church choir. A choirmaster near her home heard her sing and advised her to take voice lessons. She studied with Ragnar Blennow, in Båstad, and in 1941, with Joseph Hislop and Arne Sunnegard at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. However, she considered herself self-taught — "The best teacher is the stage", she told an interviewer in 1981. "You walk out onto it, and you have to learn to project." She deplored her early instruction and attributed her success to native talent. "My first voice teacher almost killed me", she said. "The second was almost as bad."

"Var det en dröm?" by Sibelius

In 1946, Nilsson made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm with only three days' notice, replacing the ailing Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. Conductor Leo Blech wasn't very kind to her and - as she wrote in her autobiography - she even contemplated suicide after the performance.
In 1947 she claimed national attention as Verdi's Lady Macbeth under Fritz Busch. A wealth of parts followed, from Strauss, and Verdi to Wagner, Puccini and Tchaikovsky. In Stockholm she built up a steady repertoire of roles in the lyric-dramatic field, including Donna Anna, Aïda, Lisa, Tosca, Venus, Sieglinde, Senta and the Marschallin, one of her favourite roles (though she later lamented that nobody ever asked her to undertake it), all sung in Swedish.

Under Fritz Busch's tutelage her career took wing. He was instrumental in securing her first important engagement outside Sweden, as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1951. Her debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1953 was a turning point — she would be a regular performer there for more than 25 years. It was followed by Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival in 1954, then her first Brünnhilde in a complete Ring at the Bavarian State Opera, at the Munich Festival of 1954. Later she returned as Sieglinde, Brünnhilde and Isolde until 1969, all to universal acclaim.

She took the title role of Turandot, which is brief but requires an unusually big sound, to La Scala in Milan in 1958, and then to the rest of Italy. Nilsson made her American debut as Brünnhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre in 1956 with the San Francisco Opera. She attained international stardom after a performance as Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1959, which made front page news. She said that the single biggest event in her life was being asked to perform at the opening of the 370th(?) season at La Scala as Turandot in 1958. She became the second non-Italian (after Maria Callas) ever granted the privilege of opening a season at La Scala. She performed at many major opera houses in the world including Vienna, Berlin, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Tokyo, Paris, Buenos Aires, Chicago, and Hamburg.

She sang under Charles Mackerras with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the all-Wagner concert that opened the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. You can listen to the concert on australianscreen online. She also gave the first lieder recital at the Opera House, accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons.

Birgit Nilsson was widely known as the leading Wagnerian soprano of her time, the successor to the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, particularly in the role of Brünnhilde. However, she also sang many of the other famous soprano roles, among them Leonore, Aida, Turandot, Tosca, Elektra, and Salome. She had, according to The New York Times, a "voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina." Her career was long and distinguished and continued into the 1980s.

Nilsson was suspicious of opera's recent youth culture and often remarked on the premature destruction of young voices brought on by overambitious career planning. "Directors and managers don't care about their futures", she once said. "They will just get another young person when this one goes bad." In today's opera culture, the best managed voices tend to mature in the singer's 40s and begin to deteriorate during the 50s. Yet at 61, when most singers hang onto whatever career remains through less taxing recitals with piano and discreet downward transpositions of key, Nilsson sang a New York concert performance of Strauss and Wagner that met both composers head-on. "Ms. Nilsson did not sound young", Will Crutchfield once wrote in The New York Times. "Soft and low notes were often precarious; sustained tones were not always steady." He continued: "The wonderful thing is that she doesn't let this bother her. There was never a sense of distress or worry."

The conductor Erich Leinsdorf thought that her longevity, like Flagstad's, had something to do with her Scandinavian heritage, remarking that Wagner required "thoughtful, patient and methodical people." Nilsson attributed her long career to no particular lifestyle or regimen. "I do nothing special", she once said. "I don't smoke. I drink a little wine and beer. I was born with the right set of parents." In sheer power, Birgit Nilsson's high notes were sometimes compared to those of the Broadway belter Ethel Merman. One high C rendered in a "Turandot" performance in the outdoor Arena di Verona in Italy led citizenry beyond the walls to think that a fire alarm had been set off. Once urged to follow Nilsson in the same role at the Metropolitan Opera, the eminent soprano Leonie Rysanek refused.

Twice at the Met, Nilsson sustained injuries that kept her from performing. In February 1971, she sprained her ankle during a performance of Elektra that resulted in cancellation of one performance (that was substituted by a historical performance of Fidelio starring Christa Ludwig). Nilsson recovered to sing the broadcast performance of Elektra on February 27. More seriously, in March 1974 Nilsson fell and dislocated her shoulder during a rehearsal of Götterdämmerung. Although Nilsson was able to sing Brünnhilde for the first two performances with her arm in a sling her injury caused her to miss subsequent performances, including that season's Götterdämmerung broadcast. The New York Times' review of the production's March 8 opening night is reprinted in the Metropolitan Opera Archives.

Beginning at the summer of 1968 at the Bayreuth Festival, Nilsson was obsessively stalked by actress and model Nell Theobald until Theobald's tragic suicide nine years later in 1977. Nilson recounted her experiences with Theobald at length in her memoir La Nilsson where she referred to Theobald solely as "Miss N.". The stalking incident was later featured in Opera News magazine and The New York Times.

Birgit Nilsson was known for her witty one-liners:

When asked what was the most important requirement for a soprano to sing Isolde, Nilsson said, "a comfortable pair of shoes."

When Nilsson was asked if she thought Joan Sutherland's famous bouffant hairdo was real, she answered: "I don't know. I haven't pulled it yet."

Nilsson called Turandot, one of the most punishing roles in the soprano repertory, her "vacation role."
Rudolf Bing made a ritual joke of getting on his knees every time Nilsson returned to the Met. When he did this after having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth, Nilsson said, "You do that much better since you practiced for the queen."

Bing asked Nilsson to sing the final scene from Salome at his farewell gala in 1972. As an added inducement, he said that she could have his head on a platter. Nilsson replied, "Oh, that's not necessary, Mr. Bing. I will use my imagination."

Nilsson did not get along with the famous conductor Herbert von Karajan . Once when rehearsing on stage at the Vienna Staatsoper, her string of pearls broke. While helping her retrieve them, Karajan asked, "Are these real pearls bought with your fabulous Metropolitan Opera fees?" Nilsson replied, "No, these are very ordinary fake pearls bought with your lousy Vienna Staatsoper fees." When Nilsson first arrived at the Met to rehearse the production of Die Walkure conducted by Karajan, she said, "Nu, where's Herbie?" And Karajan once sent Nilsson a cable several pages long, proposing in great detail a variety of projects, different dates and operas. Nilsson cabled back: "Busy. Birgit."

There was a healthy competition between Nilsson and tenor Franco Corelli as to who could hold the high C the longest in Act II of Turandot. In one tour performance, after Nilsson outlasted Corelli on the high C, Corelli stormed off to Bing during the next intermission and said that he was not going to continue the performance. Bing, who knew how to handle Corelli's tantrums, suggested that he retaliate by biting Nilsson on the neck when Calaf kisses Turandot in Act III. Corelli didn't bite Nilsson but he was so delighted with the idea that he told her about Bing's suggestion. She then cabled Bing, informing him that she had to cancel the next two tour Turandot performances because she had contracted rabies.

Once, when Nilsson was unhappy with something at the Met, she told Bing, "You know, when the birds are not happy, they do not sing."

Others got in their own quips about Nilsson. Bing was once asked if Nilsson was difficult to work with. "On the contrary," said Bing, "she's very easy to work with. You put money in, and beautiful sounds come out."

When Nilsson started singing Aida at the Met, soprano Zinka Milanov was miffed; Aida had been her role. After one performance in which Nilsson was singing, Milanov commandeered and drove off in the Rolls Royce Nilsson had hired for after the performance. When asked about this afterwards, Milanov said, "If Madame Nilsson takes my roles, I must take her Rolls."

Nilsson was also famous for her ability to make money. She became one of the highest-paid singers in the field, in part because of the rarity of her skills. Being a shrewd businesswoman, she negotiated much of her own career. She never ranted or engaged in tantrums. She was also too proud to make outright demands. She would begin contract talks by refusing every offer and being evasive about her availability. This tack would continue until the impresario offered something she wanted. Nilsson's reply would be "maybe." Now in control, she would be begged to accept what she desired in the first place.

Once, asked what was her favourite role, she answered: "Isolde made me famous. Turandot made me rich". When long-time Metropolitan Opera director Sir Rudolf Bing was asked if she was difficult, he reportedly said, "Not at all. You put enough money in, and a glorious voice comes out." When Nilsson was preparing her taxes and was asked if she had any dependents, she replied, "Yes, just one, Rudolf Bing."

Nilsson was known for standing up to conductors. In a 1967 rehearsal of Die Walküre with Herbert von Karajan conducting, Nilsson responded to the gloomy lighting of the production by wearing a miner's helmet (complete with Valkyrian wings). When on some occasion Herbert von Karajan urged a retake 'and this time with our hearts - that's where your wallet has its place', Birgit Nilsson replied 'I'm glad to know that we have at least one thing in common, Maëstro von Karajan'! When Georg Solti, in Tristan und Isolde, insisted on tempos too slow for Nilsson's taste, she made the first performance even slower, inducing a conductorial change of heart. After a tiff with Hans Knappertsbusch, Nilsson reported: "He called me by a name that begins with "A" and ends with 'hole'".

As Oren Brown says in his vocal technique book, although not expected from a Wagnerian singer, Birgit Nilsson would warm up her voice by singing the Queen of the Night's arias from Mozart's D
ie Zauberflöte.

Despite her worldwide recognition, Nilsson said she was nervous before every major performance. "Before 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 often spoke of her limits. She said her voice was not a good fit with what she described as the softer textures and refined tones of Italian operas. Nonetheless, she sang roles in Italian operas such as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni.

Nilsson recorded all of her major roles. Partly because of her availability to play Brünnhilde, Decca Records undertook the audacious and extremely expensive project of making the first studio recording of Wagner's four-opera Ring cycle, conducted by Solti and produced by John Culshaw. The effort took seven years, from 1958 to 1965. A film of the proceedings made her a familiar image for arts-conscious television viewers.

Though a frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Opera, Birgit Nilsson did not always see eye to eye with its redoubtable general manager, Rudolf Bing (who was often said to dislike Wagner), nor with conductor Herbert von Karajan. Subsequently, she made fewer New York appearances than hoped in the early 1970s and was virtually excluded from the Salzburg Festival. Nilsson's American career was derailed in the mid-1970s by US Internal Revenue Service claims filed for back taxes. Several years later a schedule of payments was worked out, and Nilsson's hiatus from the United States ended. When she returned, Donal Henahan wrote in the New York Times, "The famous shining trumpet of a voice is still far from sounding like a cornet."

Birgit Nilsson appeared at the Metropolitan Opera 223 times in 16 roles. She sang two complete Ring cycles in the 1961-62 season, and another in 1974-75. She was Isolde 33 times, and Turandot 52. She played most of the other major soprano parts: Aida, Tosca, the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, Salome, Elektra, as Verdi's Lady Macbeth, Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, and both Venus and Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. She memorably appeared as replacement Sieglinde to Rita Hunter's Brünnhilde in the 1970s. She appeared 232 times at the Vienna State Opera from 1954–82, and the Vienna Philharmonic, the company's orchestra, made her an honorary member in 1999. "If there 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.

Nilsson's autobiography, Mina minnesbilder (My memoirs in pictures) was published in Stockholm in 1977. She retired in 1984 to her childhood home in the Skåne province of southern Sweden, where her father had been a sixth-generation farmer and she had worked to grow beets and potatoes until she was 23. In an interview in the mid-1990s, she appeared happy, serene and as unpretentious as ever. "I've always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me", she said. "Stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won't hurt so much."

In 1981, Sweden issued a postage stamp showing Nilsson as Turandot. She has received the Illis Quorum gold medal, today the highest award that can be conferred upon a Swedish citizen by the Government of Sweden. In 1988, the American Scandinavian Foundation named their prize for promising young American opera singers the Birgit Nilsson Prize. Nilsson personally chaired several of the competitions.

Birgit Nilsson died aged 87, on Christmas Day, 2005 in her home at Bjärlöv, a small village near Kristianstad in Skåne in the same county where she was born. She was survived by her husband Bertil Niklasson (who died in March 2007), a former veterinary student whom she had met on a train and married in 1948. They had no children.

Three years after Nilsson's death, in December 2008, the Birgit Nilsson Foundation announced that it would award a prize every two to three years to a concert or opera singer, a classical or opera conductor, or a specific production by an opera company. The Birgit Nilsson Prize was founded by Birgit Nilsson herself. The foundation said that Nilsson had chosen the first winner, to be announced in early 2009. On 20 February 2009, Spanish tenor Placido Domingo was announced as the inaugural recipient of the prize, which carried with it a cash award of $1,000,000. The first award ceremony took place in the Royal Swedish Opera on 13 October 2009. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden personally handed over the prize to the designated winner. A jury has been set up by the foundation to make recommendations for future prizes. The second winner of the Birgit Nilsson prize was Riccardo Muti who will receive the award in Stockholm on October 13th 2011.

On April 6, 2011, the Bank of Sweden announced that Nilsson's portrait will feature on the 500 kronor banknote, beginning in 2014-15. She was the recipient of the Sonning Award (1966; Denmark).

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