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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Summer 2013: Wagner’s International 200th Birthday Bash!

This year the classical and operatic music world are celebrating the 200th birthday of composer Richard Wagner. Many opera houses and festivals around the world have been pushing to perform more Wagner this year than ever before. That effort is showing particularly well at this point in the year. So many opera houses, radio stations, and festivals are putting on Wagner all at the same time, even while the Metropolitan Opera is closed for the summer (The Met did throw their Wagner Birthday Party by doing the Ring and Parsifal in the Winter and Spring)! Here are the numerous venues where Wagner is being performed this summer:

Royal Albert Hall: The BBC Proms

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For the first time ever the BBC Proms is presenting an entire, complete Ring Cycle. This is also the first time that Maestro Daniel Barenboim will conduct a Wagner opera in Britain. Das Rheingold was performed on Monday night, starring Iain Paterson as Wotan, Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka, and Stephan Rügamer as Loge. Die Walküre was performed on Tuesday night starring Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Simon O’Neill as Siegmund, Anja Kampe as Sieglinde, and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. These were Proms numbers 14 and 15. Proms 18 and 20 will be Siegfried on Friday night, starring Lance Ryan in the title role, and Götterdämmerung on Sunday afternoon, starring Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, Andreas Schager as Siegfried, and Mikhail Petrenko as Hagen. The whole Ring includes the wonderful orchestra of Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim.

IN BETWEEN the long Wagner operas of Proms 18 and 19, Tristan und Isolde will be performed as Prom 19. No, thank goodness, they are not working the same orchestra to death. The BBC Symphony Chorus will play under Maestro Semyon Bychkov, along with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Singers. It will star Violetta Urmana as Isolde and Peter Seiffert as Tristan.

In August, Tannhäuser will be performed on the 4th with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Donald Runnicles. Robert Dean Smith will sing the title role of Tannhäuser and Heidi Melton will sing Elisabeth. On the 25th of August, the Wagner fest will continue with Parsifal starring Lars Cleveman as Parsifal, Katarina Dalayman (who just outdid herself in the part at the Met) as Kundry, Sir John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz, and Iain Paterson as Amfortas. It will be conducted by Sir Mark Elder with Hallé, the Royal Opera House Chorus, the Hallé Youth Choir, and Trinity Boys Choir

Other excerpts of Wagner such as the Wesendonck Lieder and the overtures to Rienzi and Die Meistersinger will be performed. You can listen live to these Proms through their website (Click the link at the top and you can go to their site).

Bayreuther Festspiele (Bayreuth Festival):

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The Bayreuth Festival has been around since 1876. Wagner built it specifically to perform the Ring and Parsifal with the financial support of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. After Wagner’s son Siegfried, and after his grandson Wieland, and after his other grandson Wolfgang, the festival is now run by Richard’s two great granddaughters: Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, who are the daughters of Wolfgang Wagner.

Photo: Castorf’s set for Das Rheingold

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This season Bayreuth is performing an entire new production of the Ring, and revivals of Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. The new production of the Ring will be directed by Frank Castorf. The whole Ring will take place on Route 66 in the United States, making many people think it is going to be “regie”. Kirill Petrenko will conduct the Ring Cycle. Singers in the Ring include Johan Botha as Siegmund, Anja Kampe as Sieglinde, who is also singing it at the Proms, Lance Ryan as Siegfried, who is also singing it at the Proms, Wolfgang Koch as Wotan and the Wanderer, and Bayreuth’s new British Brünnhilde: Catherine Foster. Conductors include Kirill Petrenko for the Ring, Christian Thielemann for Der Fliegende Holländer, Andris Nelsons for Lohengrin, and Alex Kober for Tannhäuser. You can listen to broadcasts live from Bayreuth during their season through various internet streams, look on the internet!

WQXR’s Wagner Week

(One of many hilarious Ring cartoons WQXR has put out on its Facebook Page)

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This week WQXR’s station is holding its Wagner Week, celebrating his 200th birthday. They started out on Monday by playing broadcasts of the Ring from the Metropolitan Opera under James Levine. On Tuesday they played Wagner excerpts such as Wotan’s Farewell, the Magic Fire Music, and the overture to Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman).They also played Tannhäuser conducted by Daniel Barenboim with Staatskapelle Berlin (The same duo that is performing the Ring at the Proms). All of the Operavore shows on WQXR this week are Wagner themed as well. All day today, July 24, you can hear all four operas of the Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Wagner Week will continue all of this week on WQXR and Operavore.

Seattle Opera: The Ring

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The Seattle Opera gets to join the 200th birthday party with its Ring Cycle. It will be performed in three cycles, running from August 4 to 25. Das Rheingold will star Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Richard Paul Fink as Alberich, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, and Mark Schowalter as Loge. Die Walküre will star Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, Margaret Jane Wray as Sieglinde and Greer Grimsley as Wotan. Siegfried will star Stefan Vinke in the title role, Dennis Petersen as Mime, Greer Grimsley as the Wanderer, and Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde. Götterdämmerung will star Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, and Daniel Sumegi as Hagen. Single tickets and Cycles are on sale now!

Tanglewood:

Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have given several Wagnerian programs in the shed this summer. They have an All-Wagner program on July 21 with overtures from Rienzi, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, and Tannhäuser, and also the Siegfried Idyll, the “Liebestod”, Forest Murmurs from Siegfried, and the iconic Ride of the Valkyries. They also performed Act III of Die Walküre with Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde and Bryn Terfel as Wotan on July 20.

Glimmerglass Festival:

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The Glimmerglass Festival is performing Der Fliegende Holländer until August 24. It stars Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman, Melody Moore as Senta, Peter Volpe as Dalland, and Jay Hunter Morris as Erik. It is being conducted by Maestro John Keenan and the production is by Francesca Zambello.

The Sydney Opera House:

The famous and brilliant looking Sydney Opera House performed Der Fliegende Holländer in the land from down under on July 20 and July 22. David Robertson conducted Eric Owens in the title role, who was making his Australian debut, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The bicentennial of Wagner’s birth is a huge reason to celebrate, and opera companies, radio stations, and festivals all over the world are making it huge. It is incredible that all over the world, Wagner fans are invited and are attending one big birthday party for one composer. Happy 200th, Richard!

A Review of Jonathan Carr’s “The Wagner Clan”

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Through a massive amount of homework and auditions, I managed to read Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany‘s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family in between. For Wagner lovers, this book is filled with the gleaming treasures of the Wagner family history. It uncovers not only Richard and Cosima’s ordeals, but also Siegfried and his siblings, Wieland and Wolfgang and siblings, and generations after!

This book is not a light read (just like Wagner’s operas and personality were not “light”). The content of the book largely covers the history of the family and how Nazism was tied into it, rather than the musical aspects of Wagner. The book mainly deals with family rivals, the chosen heir for the parent of “baby Bayreuth”, Nazism, and how marriages and extended family affected the roots of “The Wagner Clan”.

Surprisingly, this book may not be for those who appreciate Wagner solely for his music, let alone general opera lovers. In other books on Wagner, the chromatics of the famous “Tristan chord” are analyzed. The Wagner Clan, however, simply identifies which operas were performed by which conductor in what year, such as Hans Knappertsbusch conducting Parsifal  and The Ring at Bayreuth in 1951. In other words, Jonathan Carr provided readers with historical facts about the performances, rather than actual musical criticism of those operas.

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Photo: Adolf Hitler with Siegfried Wagner’s daughters Verena (left) and Friedelind (right). Friedelind trashed Hitler and the Nazis in her book Heritage of Fire.

For those who enjoy not only Wagner’s music but also the crazy family history, The Wagner Clan is pure rhinegold! The book starts with the Richard and Cosima generation and their involvement with King Ludwig II, then it moves to the children of Cosima, fathered by both Richard and Hans von Bülow. The Wagner torch is passed to Siegfried who takes over Bayreuth, while also competing with Winifred, his wife, and her close friendship with Adolf Hitler. Siegfried’s children then take over, particularly Wieland and Friedelind. Wieland stayed close to his mother and the Nazis, and directed newer, more modern productions in many German opera houses, while Friedelind escaped Nazi Germany, headed to Britain and the United States, and trashed the Nazis in her book Heritage of Fire. The book ends with Wolfgang and the inheritance of the Bayreuth throne by Eva, who sits on the throne today, and the refusal by Gottfried. The content of the book is a mapped family tree while also a timeline of the multiple generations of the Wagner family.

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Photo: All the children of Cosima Wagner with Maestro Hans Richter (from left: Eva, Isolde, Siegfried, Daniela, and Blandine)

I enjoyed The Wagner Clan immensely. Ever since I set foot on the “Green Hill” at Bayreuth last summer, I have been fascinated by its history and Wagner’s history. This book was the answer. It was well written, organized, and gave juicy details that Wagner lovers lust after. The Wagner family history is so crazy and full of operatic twists, that an opera could be written about the family itself!

I would recommend this book to Wagner enthusiasts, not general opera lovers, and those interested or studying the Third Reich. There are so many fascinating (and even funny) stories about Hitler and his closeness with the Wagner family, that a student or reader could get a good idea of Hitler and his interests. As a Wagner enthusiast and a student in Advanced Placement US History, I enjoyed Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan!