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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A Tribute to Pierre Boulez and the Centenary Ring

When I heard Pierre Boulez had passed away on January 5, I cannot say that I let his death pervade my thoughts or affect me significantly. One of the few performances I saw him conduct was Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Carnegie Hall in May of 2009. The piece was what it was, gargantuan and monumental, but I did not feel uplifted when I left the auditorium, which is normally a given after listening to the “Symphony of a Thousand”.

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Pierre Boulez, ca. 1976 ©Pierre Petitjean

That was until I was introduced to his Jahrhundertring, or the “Centenary Ring” production presented at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 for the one hundredth anniversary of Wagner’s four-part series of epic music dramas. In a collaboration with the legendary French director Patrice Chéreau, Maestro Boulez and he created a launching pad for “Regietheater”, advocating broad-mindedness for not only musical interpretation, but taking liberties with the staging and setting as well. The artists in this revolutionary production did not channel their characters in traditional mythological garb: Sir Donald McIntyre’s Wotan was dressed in a frock coat as a banker in the Industrial Revolution, and Gunther sports a tuxedo to contrast with his blood-sworn brother Siegfried, who is dressed in rags as a dragon-killing, mountain-climbing, fire-jumping hero. The Ring itself is born from gold stolen from a hydro-electric plant, not from the banks of the peacefully blue Rhine river.The struggle between capitalists (Wotan and the rest of the Godly race) and the working class (the Nibelungs) undermines the conventional Norse mythology found in Wagner’s work.

Boulez and Chéreau’s combined work was booed mercilessly at Bayreuth for years. After its final performance in 1980, however, it was given a 45-minute ovation, showing that the staging of opera was moving in a new direction and that audiences were conforming and opening up in response.

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Sir Donald McIntyre as Wotan in the final scene of Act III of Die Walküre

Nothing like Boulez and Chéreau’s collaboration had ever been done anywhere else previously, let alone atop the sacred Green Hill. Remember in 2013 when audiences for the Met’s new production of Parsifal were getting hot flashes because Jonas Kaufmann unexpectedly loses his shirt before his big smooch with the supernatural Kundry? That erotic style of staging for Wagner was very similar to the staging for Peter Hofmann, another very good-looking German tenor, as he loses his shirt during the Todesverkündigung with Brünnhilde. What seemed deranged and nutty back in the late seventies is perceived as typical on today’s stages. Maestro Boulez was a man ahead of his time.

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Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in Act II of Die Walküre

While I may not have enjoyed some of his speedy tempi and abrupt endings to phrases, I understand that his background of contribution to the development of innovations such as computer music, integral serialism, and controlled chanced allowed him to introduce opera to the future, and looking back from 2016, the longterm. The intense, dramatic acting and intimacy between characters implemented in the Centenary Ring has become a necessity for Ring productions today. Maestro Boulez created a new standard with which opera directors in the present day work, and for that, the music world should be forever grateful.