Märta Birgit Nilsson was born on May 17, 1918 in Västra Karup. Birgit was an only child, but Karin, who first came to Svenstad for the summers and later stayed several years, was almost like a sister to Birgit. Here is Birgit aged 3, together with Karin.
Birgit’s parental home was owned by her family for seven generations. Both the farm in Svenstad and its history, as well as many of the people who influenced Birgit as a child, contributed to her interest in her native neighborhood.
The farm in Svenstad has been carefully restored to house the Birgit Nilsson Museum.
Birgit’s parents Nils and Justina, in the garden at home in Svenstad.
In 1925, Birgit began her studies at the elementary school in Svenstad. Birgit impressed her teachers, especially in writing and singing. She graduated with top grades in every subject. Birgit is sitting in the middle row, sixth from the left, in a light-colored dress.
Birgit together with her friends in the village school, in which grades 3-6 were taught together. Birgit stands in the middle of the back row.
In 1933, Birgit was confirmed in the church of Västra Karup. At that time, confirmation was an important part of a young girl’s life, symbolizing her entrance into adulthood. Birgit is sitting on the far right in the second row from the bottom.
In 1940, Birgit began studying at finishing school on the west coast of Sweden in Ljungkile. Here is Birgit on the far right of the middle row, together with her classmates.
At age 23, Birgit applied to the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. From 1941-1946 she studied both in the solo vocalist class and the Opera school at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm.
Birgit’s acceptance notice to the Royal College of Music. Of the 47 applicants that year, only two were accepted, of which Birgit was number 1.
Birgit Nilsson’s first performance gown was sewn in Stockholm for a jubilee at the Stock Exchange building in 1942. Sweden’s King Gustaf VI Adolf was among the guests. The fee paid to Birgit was 50 crowns, but the dress cost three times that amount.
On October 9,1946, Birgit Nilsson made her opera debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, as Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz. The director was Anders Henrikson and Leo Blech conducted.
The role list from the Opera program for Birgit Nilsson’s debut in 1946.
In 1947, Birgit made her first real triumph at the Royal Opera, as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth. Hans Busch directed, and Fritz Busch conducted. Ten performances were given within 3 weeks.
Here is Birgit Nilsson in the dressing room at the Opera together with Anna-Greta Söderholm. After her success as Lady Macbeth, her career took off and Birgit received attention even outside of Scandinavia.
Birgit Nilsson and Bertil Niklasson were married on September 10, 1948. The marriage took place at the Swedish church in Copenhagen. They first met on a train ride between southern parts of Sweden and Stockholm in January 1945. Their engagement took place in 1947 in Nice.
Birgit was contracted as a soloist at Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm from 1948 until 1958. After that she often returned as a guest artist at the Opera until 1980. Here she is seen as Senta in Der fliegende Holländer 1949, one of her first roles at the Stockholm Opera. ”Senta has always been one of my favorite roles. Whenever I come to the phrase ”Ich bin ein Kind und weiss nicht was ich singe”, I always fear that the audience will burst out laughing. I have never really had the proper aura of naive childishness”, wrote Birgit in her book My Memoirs in Pictures 1977.
In 1951, Birgit makes her first foreign appearance at a concert in Berlin, Germany. She sings Sieglinde in the first act of Die Walküre.
In 1951, Birgit makes her first international opera performance, as Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo, in Glyndebourne, England.Foto: © Roger Wood Photographic Collection, ROH Collections.
In 1953, Birgit Nilsson makes her concert debut at Bayreuther Festspielhaus, as soprano soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Bayreuth is the stronghold for the Wagner Opera Festival. Birgit Nilsson participated in this festival for 16 summers, until 1970, with the exception of 1965 when the Ring was performed. Here she is as Elsa in Lohengrin for her opera debut in Bayreuth 1954.
In 1953 Birgit Nilsson makes her debut at the Staatoper in Vienna. She made guest appearances there in several different roles during 1954-1982. Vienna held a special place in Birgit’s heart. Here is Birgit as Isolde in 1967.
Birgit sang almost all her roles for the first time at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. The exceptions were Elettra, Fidelio and Amelia. Here Birgit gets ready for a performance of Götterdämmerung in 1954.
In 1954, Birgit Nilsson makes her debut as Salome, at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. The performance will be a success and "Salome-frency" affects Sweden. In the same year, Birgit Nilsson is awarded the title Hovsångerska in Sweden. "A perfect role for me", Birgit thought of Salome herself. But from the beginning she was completely against singing it. Here is Birgit as Salome at the Opera in Stockholm. Salome quickly became one of her parade roles.
In 1955, Birgit Nilsson made her debut at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, as Isolde. Birgit fell in love with Argentina and made many good friends there. Here is a picture from a later visit in Buenos Aires.
In 1957, Birgit made her debut at Covent Garden in London as Brünnhilde in the Ring. Foto: © Roger Wood Photographic Collection, ROH Collections.
On December 7, 1958, Birgit Nilsson opened the season at La Scala in Milan as Turandot. Foto: Erio Piccagliani - Teatro alla Scala.
No foreign singer had ever been allowed to open a season at La Scala before. Birgit herself considered this to be one of the biggest events in her life. Photo: Erio Piccagliani - Teatro alla Scala.
On December 18, 1959, Birgit Nilsson made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as Isolde. The première was noted by the international press and is seen as one of Birgit Nilsson’s greatest successes. Foto: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
Opening night at the Met was one of the greatest moments in Birgit Nilsson’s fairy tale-like career. The next day, journalists, television and radio crews queued outside her apartment in New York in order to interview the star. Foto: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
During 1959-83 Birgit does several appearances at Metropolitan. 1963 the season opens with Birgit as Aida. Foto: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
Salome was the only role that Birgit herself asked to sing during her career. In 1965, Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan in New York offered her the role. Photo: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
In 1967, Valkyrian was set up at the Metropolitan in New York, the 100th Brünnhilde at this opera. Photo: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
In 1975, Birgit Nilsson studied the final role of her repertory, Die Färberin in Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm.
Birgit Nilsson has especially been remembered for her role in Richard Strauss’ Elektra. Her final opera performance ever was with Elektra in Frankfurt on June 16, 1982.
In 2002, the last Birgit Nilsson concert took place in the church at Västra Karup. Here is Birgit together with the artists who performed that year. As part of the tradition at these church concerts, all the singers gathered on stage to sing a finale of Auld Lang Syne together with the audience.
Throughout the world, obituaries were written in the press. “With Birgit Nilsson’s demise, Sweden has lost one of its greatest artists. Those who have had the privilege of experiencing her both on stage and in private will never forget it, not least her warm sense of humor”, wrote King Carl XVI Gustaf in a statement issued from the Swedish court. Birgit was buried beside her mother and father in the cemetery of Västra Karup in southern Sweden. It was a quiet and private funeral with only her family and closest friends attending.
In 2009, the Birgit Nilsson Prize was awarded for the first time. The first recipient was Plácido Domingo, who was chosen several years previously by Birgit personally. The prize is awarded every second or third year and is presented to an artist or institution which has made a major contribution to musical life. The Birgit Nilsson Prize is today the world’s largest prize in the area of classical music.
In 2010, Birgit’s beloved family home Svenstad was opened as a museum. Birgit Nilsson’s involvement and interest in her hometown led her to request in her testament that her parental home be preserved as a place of remembrance.
Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) was one of the greatest opera singers of the twentieth century. Her superb voice and supreme stage presence were praised by critics and audiences alike, bringing her international recognition as the world’s leading dramatic soprano and a legendary interpreter of Wagner. She made her debut on the opera stage in Stockholm in 1946 and worldwide success was quick to follow.
Soon she was Sweden’s most recognized opera singer internationally. When Birgit Nilsson ended her long career in 1984, she had, through a combination of hard work, musical talent and great focus of purpose, successfully conquered many of the world’s operatic stages with an impressively broad repertoire. She sang everything from Mozart to operas by Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini, but it was the music of Richard Wagner that defined her career.
All trivial problems are blown away. It is wonderful to sing! Is there any more wonderful profession than mine?
Birgit Nilsson, 1974
When she was young, Birgit Nilsson took singing lessons locally from Ragnar Blennow. He immediately recognized her special vocal qualities, commenting ”Her pitch, which from the beginning had a deep timbre, soon also reached a light, amenable top.”
It was Ragnar Blennow who encouraged Birgit to apply for the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and years later, when many in the business claimed to have discovered her talent, Birgit would set them right by saying ”If anyone should be given that title, it would be Ragnar Blennow and no other!”
The Royal College of Music 1941-1946
In 1941 Birgit Nilsson travelled to Stockholm and sang “Elisabeth’s Prayer” from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser and Sibelius’ “Svarter rosor” for her Royal College of Music audition. She was 23 years old and doubted herself, as everyone around her seemed so cosmopolitan and experienced. Despite those doubts, she was immediately accepted. Among 47 applicants only two were offered places on the course and of those Birgit was number one.
The vocal course was a three-year program. In addition to song and choir studies, Birgit took classes in other subjects, including articulation, fencing and piano. She also studied Italian, German and French. The first year was not easy. The program in Stockholm was difficult and Birgit struggled with both her personal economy and the school’s vocal coaches. Her first teacher was Joseph Hislop but she later studied with, among others, Arne Sunnegårdh.
The Opera School
In 1944, Birgit was immediately accepted onto the two-year Opera School course in Stockholm without even having to audition. The program mainly consisted of musical and theatrical studies, but language, expression and oration classes were also included in the curriculum. After graduating, she was immediately engaged at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm.
On 9 October 1946, Birgit made her opera debut. It was at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in the role of Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. It was a sudden replacement with only three days notice. To learn an entire part in three days was not easy but Birgit had a talent for learning, with absolute pitch and a good visual memory. Despite her nervousness, little time for preparation and lack of encouragement from the director, she received brilliant reviews.
“It was well advised to allow the young singer Birgit Nilsson from Scania to make her debut as Agathe in Der Freischütz on Wednesday … Birgit Nilsson performed with an assurance and artistic balance one does not expect of a debutante. She has a fresh Nordic resonance, a clear top and a fine mezzo timbre in the low voice indicating a dramatic soprano. It is not often that a beautiful voice is accompanied by intelligence but such depth of expression and musical phrasing such as Birgit Nilsson’s must come from within; it cannot be learned.” – Ingmar Bengtsson, Svenska Dagbladet, October 10, 1946.
Despite critical acclaim, the head of the Opera was still not convinced of Birgit’s talent. She performed Agathe just twice more before the original singer returned. It took another year before Birgit was given a new chance on stage in Stockholm.
In October 1947, Birgit was once again asked to jump in on short notice at the Swedish Royal Opera. They had received a cancellation for the role of Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Inga Sundström had first been contracted for the part, but when she became ill five weeks before the opening, they were without a soloist. Director Hans Busch invited Birgit to audition and was enthusiastic. The performance was a success and was followed by brilliant reviews in the press. ”It was a fine role, this Lady, and I longed for every performance like a child does for Christmas”, said Birgit. Lady Macbeth became Birgit Nilsson’s breakthrough in the world of opera.
The Royal Swedish Opera
The 26 February 1948 was the premiere date for Birgit Nilsson’s first Strauss role, Fieldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, following which she was offered a permanent engagement at the Royal Swedish Opera.
In Stockholm she built up a steady repertoire of lyric-dramatic roles, including Donna Anna, Aida, Tosca, Sieglinde, Senta and the Marschalin, all sung in Swedish. The Royal Swedish Opera also toured giving Birgit her first international debuts in Edinburgh, Wiesbaden, Montreal and Copenhagen.
Her voice was her passport
Birgit Nillson was born with an enormous vocal capacity which she largely learned to master on her own. Her voice was unique, with an immense strength and impact, particularly in the high register.
Her voice became her passport to an international career and during the 1960’s and 70’s she was acknowledged as the world’s leading Wagner soprano. A Wagner soprano must be physically well-trained and have a powerful voice to be able to perform for 4-5 consecutive hours and be heard over the orchestra.
Following her debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, Birgit Nilsson was offered a permanent contract in Autumn 1948. Her first international engagement came in 1951 on the recommendation of Fritz Busch, when she was invited to perform Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo at Glyndebourne in England.
In 1958 Birgit’s contract with the Royal Swedish Opera was altered to a guest performance contract due to her increasing number of engagements abroad. During the 1950’s she studied new parts with incredible speed and had soon worked her way through a large repertoire of opera and oratorio, ranging from Mozart and Beethoven to Bartók and Hindemith. From the 1960’s onwards, Birgit concentrated on some dozen roles in operas by Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, Mozart and Puccini.
Birgit’s ability to interpret a role grew with time and she became a gripping actress as well as an internationally acclaimed singer. She is especially associated with Richard Strauss’ Elektra and was, for many years, the most sought-after interpreter of Puccini’s Turandot. Her own personal favourite opera was Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
Throughout her career, Birgit Nilsson worked with influential directors, elite fellow singers and great conductors, including Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Böhm. Critics were in agreement that a number of the most demanding, dramatic roles operatic roles seem to have been written specifically for her.
Key Milestones in her career
1946 – Debut Royal Opera Stockholm as Agathe in Der Freischütz / c. L. Blech
Oct. 1946 – Agathe / Der Freischütz; C. M. v. Weber / Stockholm
Dec. 1946 – Sigrun / Harald Viking; A. Hallén / Stockholm
1947 – Breakthrough as Lady Macbeth, Stockholm / c. F. Busch
Oct. 1947 – Lady Macbeth / Macbeth; G. Verdi / Stockholm
Nov. 1947 – Woglinde / Das Rheingold; R. Wagner / Stockholm
Dec. 1947 – Venus / Tannhäuser; R. Wagner / Stockholm
Feb. 1948 – Die Feldmarschallin / Der Rosenkavalier; R. Strauss / Stockholm
Nov. 1948 – Senta / Der Fliegende Holländer; R. Wagner / Stockholm
Dec. 1948 – Woglinde / Götterdämmerung; R. Wagner / Stockholm
1949 – First Brünnhilde / Siegfried, Stockholm
Apr. 1949 – Donna Anna / Don Giovanni; W. A. Mozart / Stockholm
Apr. 1949 – A priestess / Aida; G. Verdi / Stockholm
May. 1949 – Ariadne / Ariadne auf Naxos; R. Strauss / Royal Opera Concert, Stockholm
Oct. 1949 – Lisa / The Queen of Spades; P. Tchaikovsky / Stockholm
Dec. 1949 – Sieglinde / Die Walküre; R. Wagner / Stockholm
Dec. 1949 – Brünnhilde / Siegfried; R. Wagner / Stockholm
Mar. 1950 – Ursula / Mathis der Maler; P. Hindesmith / Stockholm
1951 – First engagement outside Sweden, Berlin concert / c. L. Blech Elettra / Idomeneo, Glyndebourne / c. F. Busch
Jan. 1951 – Tosca / Tosca; G. Puccini / Stockholm
Mar. 1951 – Aida / Aida; G. Verdi / Stockholm
Jun. 1951 – Elettra / Idomeneo; W. A. Mozart. / Glyndebourne
Nov. 1951 – Elsa / Lohengrin; R. Wagner / Stockholm
1953 – Debut Bayreuth, Sopran Solo in Beethoven IX / c. P. Hindesmith
First Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Stockholm
Feb. 1953 – Judith / Bluebeard’s Castle; B. Bartók / Concert Hall, Stockholm
Apr. 1953 – Elisabeth / Tannhäuser; R. Wagner / Stockholm
Jul. 1953 – Leonore / Fidelio; L. v. Beethoven / Bad Hersfeld Festival
Sep. 1953 – Isolde / Tristan und Isolde; R. Wagner / Stockholm
1954 – First Salome / Salome, Stockholm
Debut Vienna as Sieglinde / Die Walküre
Debut Munich as Aida / Aida Elsa in Bayreuth / Lohengrin / c. E. Jochum and J. Keilberth
First Brünnhilde / Götterdämmerung, Stockholm
Feb. 1954 – Salome / Salome; R. Strauss / Stockholm
Jul. 1954 – Ortlinde / Die Walküre; R. Wagner / Bayreuth
Dec. 1954 – Brünnhilde / Götterdämmerung; R. Wagner / Stockholm
1955 – First Brünnhilde / Die Walküre, Stockholm
Debut Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, as Isolde / Tristan und Isolde / c. F. Rieger
American Debut in Hollywood Bowl Concert / c. W. Steinberg.
Mar. 1955 – Penelope / Penelope; R. Liebermann / Stockholm
Apr. 1955 – Brünnhilde / Die Walküre; R. Wagner / Stockholm
Oct. 1955 – Amelia / Un ballo in maschera, in German; G. Verdi / Radio Concert, Munich
1956 – Debut San Francisco Opera as Brünnhilde / Die Walküre / c. H. Schweiger
Debut Lyric Opera of Chicago as Brünnhilde / Die Walküre / c. G. Solti.
Jun. 1956 – Dalila / Samson; G. F. Händel / Musikverein Concert, Vienna
1957 – First Turandot / Turandot, Stockholm
Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth / c. W. Sawallisch
Sieglinde / Die Walküre, Bayreuth / c. H. Knappertsbusch
Debut Covent Garden, London, as Brünnhilde in Ring / c. R. Kempe
Feb. 1957 – Turandot / Turandot; G. Puccini / Stockholm
Jul. 1957 – Dritte Norn / Götterdämmerung; R. Wagner / Bayreuth
1958 – Debut La Scala, Milan, as Brünnhilde / Die Walküre / c. H. von Karajan
Season Opening La Scala as Turandot / Turandot / c. A. Votto
Jul. 1958 – Minnie / Fanciulla del West, G. Puccini / Studio Recording, Milan
Sep. 1958 – Amelia / Un ballo in maschera, in Italian; G. Verdi / Vienna
1959 – Debut Metropolitan Opera, New York, as Isolde, new production Tristan und Isolde / c. K. Böhm
1962 – Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth / c. K. Böhm
1964 – Turandot / Turandot, in Moscow with La Scala tour / c. G. Gavazzeni
1965 – First Elektra / Elektra, Stockholm
Brünnhilde / Der Ring, Bayreuth / c. K. Böhm
May 1965 – Elektra / Elektra; R. Strauss / Stockholm
1966 – Debut L’Opéra de Paris, Paris as Isolde / Tristan und Isolde / c. G. Sebastian
1969 – Turandot / Turandot, Arena di Verona / c. F. Molinari-Pradelli
Mar. 1970 – Rezia / Oberon; C. M. v. Weber / Studio Recording, Munich
1971 – Metropolitan Opera, New York, Isolde, 2nd new production Tristan und Isolde / c. E. Leinsdorf
1973 – Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Théatre Antique, Orange / c. K. Böhm Opening Concert, Concert Hall Sydney Opera / c. C. Mackerras
Jul. 1973 – Kundry / Parsifal; R. Wagner / Studio Recording, Act II/2, London
1975 – First Dyer’s Wife / Die Frau ohne Schatten, Stockholm / c. B. Klobučar
Dec. 1975 – Dyer’s Wife / Die Frau ohne Schatten; R. Strauss / Stockholm
1976 – 200th Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Vienna State Opera / c. K. Böhm
30 Years Anniversary Stockholm Opera, Isolde / Tristan und Isolde / c. S. Varviso
1982 – Last opera performance, Elektra / Elektra, Frankfurt / c. R. Weikert
1984 – Last public concert performances
1983 – 93 – Masterclasses, New York, Manhattan School of Music
1989 – Birgit Nilsson Foundation established
During the course of her career, Birgit Nilsson had up to 25 different roles in her repertoire. Some of her most famous were Wagner’s Isolde and Brünnhilde, Puccini’s Turandot and Strauss’ Elektra and Salome.
Her first role was Agathe in Der Freischütz in 1946 and her last, Die Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1975. Birgit made almost all of her role debuts at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. Exceptions were Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo, Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio and Amelia in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.
Throughout her career Birgit sang many different and varied roles: Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Elsa in Lohengrin, Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser, Lisa in Pique Dame, Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Penelope in Liebermann’s opera of the same name, Ursula in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler etc. She also created strong interpretations in roles such as Aida, Tosca and Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier.
During her career Birgit Nilsson sang several of the roles in Wagner’s The Ring – Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Brünnhilde in Siegfried, Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. Brünnhilde in Die Walküre was one of her show-piece roles.
Birgit felt that that there was a wide range of parts to play as Brünnhilde, from the wise and peacefully struggling Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, to the loving Brünnhilde, as awoken by Siegfried. In 1949 she sang her first Brünnhilde in Siegfried at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. In 1954 she sang Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, again in Stockholm, and the following year she performed Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.
Between 1957 and 1970 Brünnhilde was also a recurring role for her in Bayreuth. On 27 November 1967 Birgit sang her 100th Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, at the Metropolitan in New York. Her personal favorite was Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. She called the final scene ”one of the most genial creations of musical drama.”
In 1951 Birgit Nilsson sang her first Tosca at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. Throughout her career she sang this role several times with many of the world’s most famous tenors including Jussi Björling, Beniamino Gigli and Franco Corelli. She also sang with Placido Domingo, who later had the honour of accepting the first Birgit Nilsson Prize in 2009. ”Tosca is generally number 1 on the wish list of all lyrical dramatic sopranos. Beautiful clothes and jewelry and a wide gambit as the celebrated and spoiled prima donna.” – Birgit Nilsson, My Memoirs in Pictures, 1977.
Birgit was of the opinion that many singers often placed their emphasis upon the prima donna rather than the person Tosca. ”I myself believe that it is the loving woman who is most important, not the prima donna. She murders for the sake of her love,” was Birgit’s interpretation.
Isolde in Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde was one of Birgit Nilsson’s show-piece roles, which she performed as many as 208 times in a career that spanned almost 40 years.
In 1953 she sang her first Isolde at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. ”Isolde is for all dramatic sopranos a dream come true, and I was blissful with happiness when I was able to take over the part.” – Birgit Nilsson, My Memoirs in Pictures, 1977.
For Birgit, the role of the Irish princess was the most interesting of all. She believed that there were great depths to the character and that one always found new dimensions with each new performance. In 1954 she sang her first Isolde abroad, at the Theater and der Wien, followed one year later by her debut at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Between 1957 and 1970 she performed Isolde a number of times in Bayreuth. It was also the role in which she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1959. The opening night became a high point in her career.
In 1954 Birgit Nilsson sang her first Salome at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. At first she was completely opposed to singing this role, but the director, Göran Gentele, eventually persuaded her. Salome became such an enormous success that all of Stockholm caught “Salome and Birgit Nilsson-fever”. King Gustav Adolf of Sweden saw the production several times. Shortly after, Birgit was named Singer to the Royal Court in Sweden.
”When I finally had, so to speak, Salome ’under my skin’, she became one of my favorite roles. It is not as long as Elektra and perhaps not as strenuous, as far as singing is concerned. But on the other hand Salome has a dance number that is twelve minutes long”. – Birgit Nilsson, My Memoirs in Pictures, 1977.
Salome was the only role Birgit actually ever requested to sing, following Rudolf Bing’s offer that she choose a role for the Metropolitan in 1965. Karl Böhm conducted and it became a success that was long talked-of in New York.
Birgit Nilsson was legendary as the cruel princess Turandot. She sang the part more than 300 times throughout her career and, for two decades, almost had an international monopoly on the role.
Birgit sang Turandot for the first time in 1957 at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. By the end of the 1970’s she held the world record many times over for the number of times she had performed the role. She felt that Turandot could be harmful to the voice and was careful in preparing for each performance, warming up very slowly so that her muscles, vocal cords and resonance were all ready for the challenge.
7 December 1958 was Birgit Nilsson’s breakthrough as Turandot at La Scala in Milan. Her performance featured as a part of the theatre’s 370th season celebrations and was particularly special as she was the first foreign singer ever to be invited to open a season on that important stage. Birgit herself felt it to be one of the most important events in her life.
Richard Strauss’ Elektra was a role that Birgit Nilsson had been warned about early on. One advisor commented ”whoever attempts such a voice-murdering role as Elektra will shorten their career by many years”.
Birgit sang her first Elektra at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1965. She waited a long time before attempting the role but finally decided that the rumours were exaggerated. It was strenuous as Elektra never leaves the stage during the entire opera, but Birgit felt that the role suited her voice perfectly. Elektra quickly became one of her favourite roles and she sang it at most of the large opera houses. Audiences were in awe and at one particular performance in Vienna in 1975 she made 72 curtain calls.
”Some of the foremost Elektra performances, musically speaking, that I have taken part in were at Covent Garden with Georg Solti conducting. They remain some of the absolute highlights of my career. Both audience and singers alike left there completely thrilled”, said Birgit Nilsson in My Memoirs in Pictures, 1977.
Her final opera performance ever was as Elektra, in Frankfurt 1982.
It took many years to convince Birgit Nilsson to sing the role of Die Färberin in Richard Strauss’ opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. It was also the last major role study in her repertoire.
Once again she made her debut in the role at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in 1975. At first she found the role very difficult with its varying tempos and difficult intervals and, during rehearsal, her confidence dropped and she was close to cancelling. When she at last began to sing the part with orchestra all her difficulties suddenly evaporated. ”Then your voice is borne upon light wings throughout all tribulations” she said.
The performance in Stockholm was a huge success and Birgit went on to perform the role internationally in opera houses including Munich, Frankfurt, Vienna and Hamburg.