Happy 100th Birthday, Birgit Nilsson!

One hundred years ago today, Birgit Nilsson was born on a farm in rural Sweden. She would go on to become not only the greatest Wagnerian specialist to date, but in my opinion, one of the greatest artists in the last century. I am not old enough to have had the honor of hearing Birgit live. As I have come to understand, it is impossible to experience the very same magnitude of her voice through recordings compared to live performances, however, that is the only way I, a 20-year old voice student, have been able to admire her.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, from the singer’s archives

I admire her for many reasons. If a group of people was gathered in a room, blindfolded, and asked to identify the singer on a recording of the Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung, it would be impossible to mistake Birgit for another singer, or deny it was her voice in the first place. Her voice is so versatile in its ability, color, impeccable intonation and steel that it has remained defiantly unique among thousands of other singers. For most other voices, it is far more difficult to distinguish one from another.

When discussing Brigit’s voice, many tend to spend time talking about how unbelievably resonant and voluminous it is. This is true, one only has to put on recordings of her Elektra or her Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’ Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten, respectively, to hear how “loud” she could be. One of her signature exciting moments is at the end of Act II of Turandot when she holds two forte, sustained high ‘C’s over the orchestra, chorus, and Calaf. Most Turandots are drowned out at that moment; not Birgit. One cannot deny hearing her resonant voice sail over the hundreds of people singing and playing at the same forte volume.

Birgit Nilsson as Isolde in 'Tristan und Isolde'

Birgit Nilsson as Isolde in her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1959

However, her soft singing is not to be overlooked. During a recent Toll Brothers Metropolitan Opera Quiz on which I was a panelist, we were asked to discuss our favorite long deaths in opera (as morbid as that sounds) and include lines from those deaths that were special to us. I chose to discuss the “Liebestod” at the very end of Tristan und Isolde, and I chose specifically to discuss Birgit’s interpretation of it on the 1966 recording from Bayreuth with Karl Böhm conducting. Isolde’s very last words are “höchste Lust”, which roughly translates to “sublime delight” as she sinks to die alongside Tristan. “Lust” is written on a long ‘F-sharp’ at double pianissimo for the voice and the orchestra. After singing at volumes far stronger than that for the five hours Tristan und Isolde lasts, it was as if Birgit took her Hummer of a voice, and parked it in a space the size for a smart car. Yet, she never parked outside the lines; she produced the most delicate, intimate sound imaginable.

As a person, Birgit was the quintessential “down-to-earth” diva, if a diva at all. Even at the height of her career, she would return home to her farm in Sweden to milk her cows. She was a human being living during an era in which many singers (especially sopranos) considered themselves important, or what others may call “holier than now”. While recording her signature role of Brünnhilde with the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Georg Solti, members of the recording team brought a live horse into the studio. While this fun jest may have ruffled the feathers of other singers, one sees Birgit on Humphrey Burton’s documentary The Golden Ring – The Making of Solti’s “Ring” break out into giggles.

According to those I know who were lucky enough to meet her, she was kind, approachable, and downright hilarious. There are so many funny stories from throughout her career, especially from her relationships with conductors. In 1967, the famously stern and serious Herbert von Karajan, who Birgit referred to as “Herbie”, directed a new production of the Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera with extremely dark sets and lighting. In a rehearsal for Die Walküre, Birgit entered onstage wearing a miner’s helmet donned with valkyrie wings.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde wearing a winged miner’s helmet as a joke in ‘Die Walküre’ at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967. Photograph: Louis Mélançon/Metropolitan Opera

Birgit’s legacy lives on in many forms. She made multiple recordings, both live and studio. In addition to many books written about her, she wrote two autobiographies: Birgit Nilsson: My Memoirs in Pictures and La Nilsson: My Life in Opera. Her childhood home has become a museum dedicated in her honor. The Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which she established late in life, continues to promote her artistry and awards the acclaimed Birgit Nilsson Prize for “outstanding achievement in opera, concert, ’Lieder’, or oratorio”. Just this week, the Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, who some consider to be one of Nilsson’s successors, was given the 2018 award.

While I never was able to meet her or hear her live, Birgit Nilsson is a singer who means a great deal to me. She was an artist who not only had astounding talent, but she was also a hard worker and an approachable, sensible person. Birgit is the kind of artist, musician, and person I aspire to be. Happy 100th Birthday, Birgit!

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