“ More milk! There’s another mouth to feed’ cried out the farmhand, Otto, on the morning I was born … For my father, Nils, and for the midwife, I was however a disappointment. He was hoping to have a son and had promised the midwife fifty extra kronor if a son was delivered, but I squelched the transaction.”
“I grew up here, on the farm in Svenstad, in West Karup parish on the Bjäre peninsula. It has been in our family since Skåne became Swedish territory, and I am the seventh generation descendant of its founder, Wahlberg, a cavalryman of Karl XII.”
“In this picture I am about three years old. I remember that I absolutely did not want to be photographed alone … The girl holding me is Karin. She came to our farm as a vacation child from a poor home in Gothenburg and stayed until she married … As I was an only child, she came to be a sort of big sister to me.”
"Even as a child, I was not supposed to say ‘father’ and ‘mother’, but ‘Nils’ and ‘Stina’ … Nils was very friendly, generous, and full of humor, but he was stubborn. Stina, on the other hand, was impulsive and temperamental even though her outbursts were over as quickly as they had begun."
"My mother played the accordion with the power of a man and she sang along with an unusually strong, clear, and beautiful voice. She was often asked to sing at the village festivities in various localities. She was slim, graceful and very pretty."
"When I was four Otto bought me a child’s piano at the football fair in Båstad. It was the size of a large cigar box and had the range of an octave in C-major. The black half tones were merely painted. On this little piano I played all the melodies I could and sang within the octave range. What heaven!”
“I sang and played from morning till night. When I was more proficient I ran over to our neighbours and begged them to let me play their organ. Nils did not want his daughter to be disturbing the neighbours all the time so he bought a house organ for me for seventy-five kronor … I shall never forget my father hitching the horses to the wagon to fetch my organ.”
Photo: Birgit and her father on the cart horse in front of the family farm house, summer holidays 1961
"When he returned with the long-awaited music instrument, I threw myself on the sofa and buried my face in a pillow; for a long time I did not dare to look for fear the whole thing was a dream. When I look back on this event, so significant for me, I can still remember the feeling of happiness I experienced then."
“In grade school we had a clever and friendly teacher named Erik Pamp … The teacher and I were agreed that I should study further because I possessed the qualifications. My parents were also of this opinion – so Pamp and I thought - but they abruptly changed their minds, which cancelled out my dreams of further study.”
“For me it was as though the sun had gone out of my world and I knew not where to turn. The duties on the farm did not appeal to me as they were at that time one step from slavery.”
“After a period of piano and singing lessons from the acting cantor, David Pålsson, he let me start in the church choir. I was 14 years old and newly confirmed. Pretty soon I also got to start singing solos … We sang at all the church festivals, at weddings and funerals and at some non-profit events.”
Photo: Birgit with friends from the church choir on a picnic
"Ragnar Blennow was an imposing figure; tall, strongly built and oozing authority, which made one feel quite small … We began with Widéen. When I finished the song, he removed his clouded-over glasses and polished them, lost in thought. Finally he said, ’that was very beautiful. You, young lady, will certainly become a great singer.’”
"Like a mad woman, I cycled my way home up all the hills of Båstad - no mean feat at any time - rushed into the house, and cried out, ‘I have been discovered! I am going to be a great singer!’ Stina was surprised, happy, and proud while Nils continued to believe that what I could do already was quite enough. He did not believe in my future as a singer and he felt I had a good enough life at home on the farm.”
“Unfortunately, I didn't receive many lessons. Blennow became seriously ill and was in a clinic for a long time. My every day work was harvesting, digging potatoes, pulling weeds, and milking without a glimmer on the horizon of anything Blennow had made me hopeful. It made my work even harder to bear.”
"I had been thinking over my uncertain future for some time before I renewed contact with Ragnar Blennow. He began with a dressing-down in which he asked how much longer I was going to put off making a decision … ‘So Birgit will come to me for six months once a week for voice lessons, and then in the fall I will register her for the entrance examination for the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm.’ And these words were what I needed finally to force me to make a decision.”
“There were already a lot of students gathered in the waiting room at the Academy and we could hear the singers as they auditioned in the next room. Everyone seemed so advanced and worldly-wise. A few had studied in Rome, some in Paris. When asked where I had studied I answered, ‘in Sweden.’”
“When all the tests were over it was just a matter of waiting for the results … With shaking knees I went up to the bulletin board and - I thought I would faint. There it was - Number One: Birgit Nilsson. I believe seeing my name there was the happiest moment of my twenty-three years.”
"It was a very proud girl who telephoned Nils and Stina. They were very happy for me and, I think, Nils was especially proud to have his daughter’s success to hold over the neighbours' heads."
“The newspaper Ord och Bild was to celebrate an anniversary in the stock exchange and I was invited to sing. It was the bitter cold winter of 1942. A skillful dressmaker made for me a white dress with gold sequins at the waist and on the shoulders. It cost 150 kroner, which was about three times as much as my fee.”
“When I was studying in the Music Academy in Stockholm I did not have such easy high tones; some who heard me thought I was a mezzo-soprano. One day I was sitting alone at home at the farm trying unsuccessfully to get a grasp of how to produce a high C. My mother came in (she was then over sixty) and said calmly, ‘That's easy. There is nothing to it. Here's how it should sound —–,’ whereupon she nailed a radiant high C. That was a lesson for me to live by, I believe. Even when I had difficulty with other notes at times, I could always, at three in the morning, if need be, belt out a high C."
“My opera debut - as Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz on October 9, 1946 - was a substitute on three days’ notice, and I paid for it dearly in nerves and tears … I was poorly prepared, of course, and could not possibly do my very best under the circumstances. Moreover I had a conductor - Leo Blech - who was 75 years old and had long forgotten what it was like to be young and inexperienced …”
“Fortunately none of this was apparent to the critics, who gave me fine reviews the next day. But the Royal Opera put me on ice, labeled ‘unmusical and untalented.’"
Photo credit: © Enar Merkel Rydberg, Royal Swedish Opera Archives
“The summer in Skåne was wonderful, not least because I had recently become engaged to be married. I was happily oblivious to the Stockholm Opera which was closed for two months. When the season began I had absolutely no desire to return to Stockholm ... The moment I let myself into my apartment the telephone rang. It was the opera telling me that at 10 the next morning I was scheduled for stage rehearsal with Hans Busch. Inga Sundström was ill and had cancelled her engagement for Lady Macbeth."
“In all, there were 10 performances of Macbeth within the relatively short time of 21 days, and I looked forward to every one as a child looks forward to Christmas …Suddenly doors that had been hermetically sealed were open. I received offers from everywhere.”
Photo credit: © Enar Merkel Rydberg, Royal Swedish Opera Archives
“In the coming season I was to sing the role of Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer of Richard Wagner. The premiere was to take place on November 4, 1948, with Leo Blech conducting."
“With all that was happening professionally that year, I also got married. On September 10, I attained the elevated status of becoming Mrs. Bertil Niklasson. The wedding trip was postponed because of Leo Blech’s rehearsal schedule, but we managed to go to Paris in the spring of 1950 for our honeymoon."
"I sang my first Aida in the Spring of 1951 at the Stockholm Opera, where I have sung most of my roles for the first time… For a Wagnerian dramatic soprano, Verdi is technically more difficult than Puccini. His shadings and phrasings are considerably more subtle. In order to make it clear that he really wanted a note sung softly, Verdi often doubled and sometimes even tripled his pianissimo markings - one can even find such indications as pppppp. Such notations make a real impression on singers with an overabundance of power and energy who are used to singing a bold forte. With this role I began to restrain my vocal enthusiasm and to learn the difficult art of subtlety. “
Photo credit: © Enar Merkel Rydberg, Royal Swedish Opera Archives
"At this time I had not the slightest desire to leave the Stockholm Opera. First, I thought it expedient to become a first-class singer in Sweden rather than an average one internationally. Second, I commanded no foreign languages.”
"The guest conductors however, did not share my opinion. With Leo Blech, I already had a lovely success in Berlin; Knappertsbusch had plans to engage me in Bayreuth; Issay Dobrowen and La Scala offered me the role of Jaroslavna in Prince Igor. And now Fritz Busch came with an offer to sing Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo in Glyndebourne in the summer of 1951. I hesitated as long as I could but finally “Father“ Busch`s persuasiveness won out and I accepted the engagement.”
Foto: © Roger Wood Photographic Collection, ROH Collections.
“I spent the greater part of the summer of 1953 in Germany, singing the soprano part in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Bayreuth and six performances of Fidelio in the festival at Bad Hersfeld. The opera was given in the ruins of a medieval church. What an atmosphere for Beethoven's music! The church had been inadvertently burned by Napoleon’s soldiers, who were using the sanctuary for their camp. The many intervening years had given the place a noble patina.”
“In the spring of 1954 the opera Salome by Richard Strauss was to be given in a new production … It was planned that I would sing the Salome, but I was not at all happy about that and fought against it tooth and nail. Until then I had sung exclusively noble characters with epic breath and seriousness. Here I would have to portray a 14-year-old animal disguised as human - with, however, by Strauss’ own indications, the voice of an Isolde!”
Photo credit: © Enar Merkel Rydberg, Royal Swedish Opera Archives
"After the curtain fell at the premiere there was at first a long and almost uncomfortable silence. But then the applause broke forth and seemed never to end. The audience was clearly moved and left the hall shattered. Some fainted, some felt ill, and the wife of the minister of finance suffered a miscarriage that night. The perverse and deprived Salome got the blame for it all.”
“Elsa in Lohengrin was my debut role in Bayreuth in 1954. Wolfgang Windgassen sang the part of Lohengrin, and Ludwig Weber played the King. We would later meet many times on the legendary Wagnerian stage.”
“There is something very special about the Viennese. Even on my first visit my heart started beating in three-quarter time … In Spring 1954 I was to make my first guest appearance. During the 10 years that the Staatsoper was not operational (because of war damage), operas were performed in the Theater an der Wien.”
“In this theatre I came to guest in four different roles within the space of nine days. And that was not the worst: I was singing each role for the first time in its original language.”
"It was September 1955 when Bertil and I, after a 48-hour (!) flight landed in Argentina's capital city … Teatro Colón had engaged me for four performances of Isolde … After our second performance, the threat of revolution in Buenos Aires became serious … Then it happened! At two in the morning, shellfire and a hail of bullets broke out … In my entire life I have never been so afraid. I promised myself, in the event that I survived this, never to come here again.”
"… In spite of my promises, the following year found me there once again … all in all, I was in Buenos Aires seven times. I sang Isolde in two different productions and sang in two different productions of the Ring … During my guest appearance in 1965, I sang Salome and Turandot. My artistic life would surely have been poorer had I not experienced Argentina and the unforgettable Teatro Colón.”
Photo credit: Tristan und Isolde, 1971 © Centro de Documentación Teatro Colón
"Offers streamed in from all parts of Europe and now there was interest from America. In 1956 I appeared at the Hollywood Bowl and at the San Francisco and Chicago operas … The Stockholm Opera began to see that it was going to be difficult to keep this bird in its cage. Therefore they suggested that I take a guest contract instead of a full engagement."
"My first première in Vienna came in the Spring of 1957 – now in the ‘new’ opera house – as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. Up to then I had sung repertory productions, with very few rehearsals or none at all. Now for the first time I got to work on a production 'from the bottom up' and I was delighted. Herbert von Karajan conducted and directed ... His Walküre was vibrant with life and passion, and not a single bar lacked its own inner excitement.”
Photo credit Fayer © Birgit Nilsson Foundation
"This was not just any premiere at the opening of the 1958 season. The traditional day of the opening of La Scala is December 7. At that time I was the first non-Italian soprano to be given the honor of singing in the opening performance. On the day of the premiere fog lay so thick over Milan that I could hardly breathe … The fog actually crept into the auditorium.”
“The ten-yard-long train was unusually heavy and hard to move. In addition, it got caught on a nail as I made my way up the staircase, almost causing me to fall backwards. Finally I ascended to the top of the stairs and could begin singing … Hardly had the final tone been sung when the aristocratic public jumped out of their seats screaming, jubilant, embracing one another … Not in my wildest fantasy had I dreamed of such a reception! The fog disappeared.”
Photo credits © Erio Piccagliani / Teatro alla Scala
“It was Friday, December 18, 1959; in a few hours I would be singing for the first time on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. I hoped to crown my career with this debut as Isolde in the opera of all all operas, Tristan und Isolde.”
Photo credit Louis Mélançon © Metropolitan Opera Archive
“The act ended and the moment the curtain opened I was greeted with deafening jubilation. An uproar had broken out in the auditorium. The audience had risen to its feet and was screaming, stamping the floor, and applauding wildly … The ovation was deafening.”
Photo credit Louis Mélançon © Metropolitan Opera Archive
"It took quite some time for us to leave the opera house. I had given away most of the flowers but even for those I took we had to order an extra taxi. When the taxi driver saw the flowers he asked if I was ‘the girl’ in the interview he had read: ’who on the evening before her entrance exam for the Music Academy in Stockholm had milked 10 cows?’ I couldn't deny it, whereupon he replied, ‘then you deserve every single one of these flowers!’”
"The Met’s 1959 Tristan und Isolde was honoured as "The Best Show on Broadway,” but the performance became legendary for another reason. Without warning, all three Tristan tenors fell ill, but Met director Rudolf Bing solved the problem: Ramón Vinay, Karl Liebl and Alberto da Costa each sang an act - no Isolde has ever consumed so many Tristans in one night!”
Photo credit Louis Mélançon © Metropolitan Opera Archive
“For the festival of 1961 a new production of Turandot was planned. My ten-yard long, dark blue velvet train, lined with blood-red silk, was a heavy burden to ‘schlep’ up the many steps - and I had to sing the big aria from the back of the deep stage. They said it was as though I was singing from the Hotel Sacher, across the street from the rear of the Staatsoper. I was standing so high on the top of the steps, the audience in the balcony could see only my shoes. But they still claimed to have heard me. The distance to the conductor was overwhelming; I saw him as through the reverse end of opera glasses."
Photo credit Fayer © Birgit Nilsson Foundation
"When I learned that Wieland (Wagner) was planning a new production of Tristan und Isolde in 1962, I thought, "It's now or never. This will be my only chance to work on a role from the ground up with Wieland. What heaven! Wieland could bring out the most varied characterizations through the mere suggestion of a gesture … “
“Before, I always played Isolde in the first act as filled with hate and seeking revenge. But now the role received a new dimension. Except for an almost animal wildness in the tumultuous moments, Isolde’s longing was brought out in her voice, her body language, and her facial expression.”
Photo credit: Siegfried Lauterswasser © Deutsche Theater Museum
"Wieland achieved his greatest artistic triumph with this Tristan and engaged me for the Brünnhilde in the Ring he was going to direct in 1965. With exception of the year of the 1965 Ring, I sang Isolde every season until 1970.”
Photo credit: Siegfried Lauterwasser © Deutsche Theater Museum
“Signing autographs after Aida. At the Met, on October 14, 1963, I sang Aida in a new production. It was the season’s Opening Night … I had a serious gallstone attack the evening before and was awake all night, but after almost a month of intense rehearsal I thought it would be a terrible shame to miss the premiere. Somehow I managed, although I suppose I have given better performances.”
“In 1965 came a new production of The Ring of the Nibelungen, this time under the direction of Wieland Wagner. Once again the rehearsals were enormously interesting, in spite of the fact that Wieland was already showing the signs of serious illness. He had hoped to do further work on the production the following year - although it was tremendously effective from the beginning - but by then he was in the hospital. His death in 1966 was a hard blow to the world of opera.”
Photo credit: Siegfried Lauterwasser © Deutsche Theater Museum
“Elektra is a role I had been warned about all my life. Among other things, I was told that a singer who undertook this “voice-killing” part would be shortening her career by several years. And so I dutifully waited until 1965 before taking it on. I soon found that all the warnings had been greatly exaggerated. The part suited me perfectly. Elektra is no “screech role” as I had been led to believe. After a few dramatic outbursts in the first scenes, the rest of the part can be sung quite lyrically and with a slender tone.
Photo credit: Fayer © Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen
“The role is taxing, of course, for Elektra never leaves the stage once she is on and she is musically active throughout the rest of the opera. But what a magnificent singing and acting part it is! Next to Isolde and Brünnhilde, it has become something of a favorite of mine, and, in spite of my rather late debut in the part, I have sung it on most of the principal operatic stages of the world.”
Photo credit: Fayer © Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen
"An exclusive concert on the stage of the Stockholm Opera with my father as the entire audience.”
"On November 27, 1967, I sang my one hundredth Brünnhilde in Die Walküre … It was a new production, directed and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and everyone had been complaining about the dense gloom that prevailed on stage. On opening night I received an anonymous present - a miner’s helmet with a lamp in front and Valkyrie wings on the sides."
photo credit © Louis Melançon / Metropolitan Opera Archives
“A new production of Tristan und Isolde was scheduled for December 1967. It was the third production in which I had participated in Vienna and without question the most beautiful …”
“I had by then sung Isolde about 150 times and I feared I was immune to any new ideas … But it is exciting and instructive to look at the situation from various angles when a better characterization is the goal. And very important: one is never too old to learn something new, particularly in this profession.”
photo credit Fayer © Birgit Nilsson Foundation
"In 1968 I became engaged – literally – to the standees of the Vienna Staatsoper! They took up a collection for a fantastic gift: a gold ring in which Isolde’s image is engraved. It is one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received.”
Photo credit Fayer © Birgit Nilsson Foundation
““Musically, some of the most distinguished performances of Elektra in which I have ever taken part were at Covent Garden with Solti conducting. They stand out as high points in my career. Public and performers alike left the theatre breathless.”
“In 1977 I did Elektra at Covent Garden again. This time the conductor was Carlos Kleiber … the first conductor I had ever worked with who took to heart Strauss’s own suggestion, ‘play it like Mendelssohn’.”
Photo credit: Zoe Dominic
“I gave my last performance at Bayreuth in this production, in August 1970, after sixteen seasons of hard work and unforgettable experiences. It was the final performance of Wieland’s Tristan, and I didn’t want to sing in any other.”
“Despite the many curtain calls, there was an atmosphere of sadness and regret hanging over this performance. As the last chord died away, there was a great stillness that seemed to last forever until the audience could bring itself to applaud. It was one of the strongest experiences I have ever had.”
Photo credit: Nationalarchiv der Richard Wagner-Stiftung, Bayreuth
“I have had many tenors. I should say, I have had many wonderful tenors on stage. There were Jussi Björling, Set Svanholm, Carlo Bergonzi, Ramón Vinay, Karl Liebl, Wolfgang Windgassen, Jess Thomas, Franco Corelli, Giuseppe di Stefano, Max Lorenz, Helge Brilioth, Plácido Domingo, Richard Tucker, James McCracken, Torsten Ralf, José Carreras, to mention a few. There was even Beniamino Gigli, when I was very young.”
“But Jon Vickers was different, very different, both as an artist and as a human being. I will always remember the Tristan film that we did together at the 1973 Orange Festival in France. I have never seen an artist perform a role more realistically, especially in the third act. His eyes! I can still see them. That was no longer make-believe, that was real drama - and I was almost fearing for his well-being.”
“In 1973, after ten years of toil, the opera house in Sydney was finally to be dedicated … I was soloist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the opening concert in the large hall. Sir Charles Mackerras, an Australian well known in Europe and the United States, conducted, and, because the building had cost several million dollars over its original budget, he asked me to begin the concert with Elisabeth’s song of greeting from Tannhäuser, ‘Dich teure Halle.’”
“On March 4, 1974, I had a serious accident during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan. During the quick scene change in the first act of Götterdämmerung, the stagehands somehow failed to properly attach some steps leading to a raised platform. When I started to make my exit down these steps, they collapsed, and I fell with them. I landed hard and then discovered I couldn’t move my right arm. Still in full Brünnhilde gear, I was taken to the Roosevelt Hospital. My shoulder was dislocated, and I had to be anaesthetized before they could put it back into place.”
Photo credit: Beth Bergman
“The premiere of the new production of Götterdämmerung was only four days off, and I simply couldn’t bear the idea of not singing. By the morning of the opening, my dreadful headache had almost disappeared, and I decided to go ahead with the performance … I will never forget the ovation when Jess Thomas and I made our entrance. A lump came to my throat, and I was close to tears. It took me several minutes to get control of myself. What a fantastic evening. The audience virtually helped me up with their approval and good will. Several critics maintained that it was the best Götterdämmerung I had ever sung. But it was two years before I had the full use of my arm again.”
Photo credit: Beth Bergman
“Ultimately I decided to add another role to my repertoire: the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten.”
“The Dyer’s Wife was a wonderful role. Compared with the goddesses, Valkyries, ice-cold princesses, or other bloodthirsty characters that I often portrayed, she was one of the few women of flesh and blood."
“In December 1975 I sang the role for the first time with Klobučar conducting in Stockholm. In 1976 I sang it with Sawallisch in Munich and in 1977 came Vienna …”
“My opera career, which I had intended to close earlier, was prolonged … Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, New York - all offered me guest appearances as the Dyer’s Wife, and I did really love the role. So it wasn't until June 1982 that I finally ended my opera career.”
photo: Vienna State Opera, 1977 photo credit: Fayer © Birgit Nilsson Foundation
“Everyone knew that my last performances in Vienna were planned as part of the festival … I feared that after twenty-eight years of such a close friendship with my wonderful Viennese public, I would never be able to keep the sound of tears out of my voice … Therefore I cancelled my final performance on June 30 and wrote a letter to the director in which I stated my reasons.”
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera 1980 © James Heffernan
“Instead of June 30, my last opera appearance was in Frankfurt on June 16, where I was engaged to sing Elektra. It was a great performance and I felt I was in my best form, as though it was the high point of my career. At the end of that Elektra I said to my colleagues: "this was my final performance. And I was at peace with this decision.”
Photo credit: © Beth Bergman, 1980
Birgit Nilsson had long been convinced that she would never teach, with her own experience of disastrous singing teachers it felt like too much of a responsibility. But it would turn out that she became a highly valued and popular singing teacher during the large number of master courses she gave when her career was over.
Photo credits: © Beth Bergman
Birgit Nilsson had long been convinced that she would never teach, with her own experience of disastrous singing teachers it felt like too much of a responsibility. But it turned out that she became a highly valued and popular singing teacher during the large number of master courses she gave when her career was over.
Photo credits: © Erika Davidson
"In interviews, it often happens that a journalist can ask in which place I have sung the longest, or where I preferred to perform. Quite reflectively, I usually say that at the Stockholm Opera I have sung for 35 years, in Vienna and Munich 28, at Metropolitan 22 and so on. It was not until now that it struck me that in my hometown Västra Karup I have sung the longest.”
"For many years I have given benefit concerts for the Bjäre Heritage Society. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from being able to lend a helping hand to the preservation of traditions, buildings and artifacts from the area where my family has lived for so many generations and where I was born and spent my childhood and youth.”
From 1965 to 1984 Birgit Nilsson sang regularly at these local charity fundraising concerts, following which she remained closely involved both as organizer and presenter until 2002. In that year she joined the young singers on stage in the church at Västra Karup to sing Auld lang Syne and presented the Birgit Nilsson Stipendium.
Birgit Nilsson encountered many difficulties during the first years of her career and knew how important it was to have support and encouragement. She also saw many young colleagues who could not resist the temptation of accepting difficult roles far too early in their careers. So when her teacher and mentor, Ragnar Blennow, died in September 1969 and she was unable to attend the funeral, Birgit honored him by creating a Stipendium for young singers.
The first Stipendium was awarded in 1973 and today it is presented annually at the church of Västra Karup, where each new recipient performs and is presented with 200 000 Swedish Krona. Previous recipients have included Gitta-Maria Sjöberg, (pictured in 1998), Hillevi Martinpelto, Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, Susanne Resmark, Anna Larsson, Nina Stemme and Malin Byström.
Birgit Nilsson also established a Stipendium for young singers at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
"It's summer, and the beautiful Bjäre has dressed in her most beautiful attire. I sit by the stone circle, which is located at the highest point of the farm and look out over the sparkling sea. My ancestors once sat here, ready to defend their village from invaders. To the southwest, Kullaberg rises towards the waters of Skälderviken and straight to the west, Hallands Väderö is glimpsed, softly embraced by the Kattegatt's salty waves ... Bjäre only gets more beautiful with each passing year. Here I sit and think back on sunny and carefree childhood days in Bjäre - about life here and elsewhere - and about the people I have met along the way.”
On 25 December 2005, Birgit Nilsson passed away at the age of 87. The private funeral took place in January 2006 and Birgit was buried in the family grave at Västra Karup church, alongside her parents. Her husband and "faithful companion", Bertil Niklasson, was to die a year and months later and was buried alongside her.
In 2009 the Birgit Nilsson Prize was awarded for the first time. Plácido Domingo (secretly chosen by Birgit Nilsson before her death) was presented with the Prize by H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf at a festive ceremony at the Royal Swedish Opera.
The Prize is usually awarded every third year to an artist or institution that has made a major contribution to classical music. At one million US dollars, it is the largest prize in classical music. Subsequent recipients have been Riccardo Muti (2011), the Vienna Philharmonic (2014) and Nina Stemme (2018).
Photo credit: © Kristian Löveborg
In accordance with her will, Birgit Nilsson’s family home in Svenstad was converted into a museum and opened in 2010. Today visitors can take a guided tour of the farm-house, explore exhibitions about her life and career in the converted barn, follow a 9km hiking trail across the rolling countryside which Birgit loved so dearly and drink coffee in the stable where she once milked the cows.
With masterclasses, recitals and concerts which take place each August during the Birgit Nilsson Days, her legacy lives on.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth, the Metropolitan Opera in New York mounted a major new exhibition and the Birgit Nilsson Foundation produced three special products documenting her career; a 700 page commemorative book titled An Homage; a DVD documentary titled A League of her Own; and a 31 CD box set of The Great Live Recordings.
Also celebrating the 100th anniversary, Sweden’s ‘Riksbank’ created a new 500 SEK bank note dedicated to Birgit Nilsson.
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 especially Wagner, Strauss and Puccini.
Birgit Nilsson made her operatic debut at the Swedish Royal Opera in 1946 and achieved international stardom in the mid 1950’s with her debuts in Vienna, Bayreuth, Buenos Aires, San Francisco and Chicago.
She added a chapter to opera history with the opening of La Scala, Milan, December 1958 in the title role of Turandot and December 1959 at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, with her debut as Isolde.
Birgit Nilsson ended her long career as Sweden’s most internationally recognized opera singer in 1984. Through a combination of hard work, musical talent and great focus of purpose, she successfully conquered all of the world’s leading operatic stages with an impressively broad repertoire, ranging from Mozart, Verdi and Puccini to Richard Strauss and Wagner. It was particularly the music of Wagner that defined her career.
It is wonderful to sing! Is there any more wonderful profession than mine?
Birgit Nilsson, 1974
In her early years, Birgit Nilsson took singing lessons locally from Ragnar Blennow. He instantly 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
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 plagued by self-doubts, as everyone around her seemed so cosmopolitan and experienced. But amongst the 47 singers who auditioned, only two were offered places with Birgit as 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 program in Stockholm was difficult and Birgit struggled with both her personal economy and the school’s vocal coaches.
The Opera School
In 1944, Birgit was accepted onto the two-year Opera School course in Stockholm without audition. The program comprised musical and theatrical studies, additionally language, expression and elocution. After graduating, she was directly engaged by the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm.
On 9 October 1946, Birgit made her opera debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in the role of Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. It was an unexpected 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 conductor, 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.
Irrespective of critical acclaim, the head of the Opera was still not convinced of Birgit’s talent. She performed Agathe just three times before the original singer returned and it took another year before she was given a second chance.
In October 1947, Birgit was once again asked to replace an ailing singer at short notice as Lady Macbeth, on the invitation of conductor, Fritz Busch. The performance was a success and received brilliant reviews. ”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.
The Royal Swedish Opera
On 26 February 1948 Birgit Nilsson sang her first Strauss role in Der Rosenkavalier. This led to her permanent engagement at the Royal Swedish Opera.
In Stockholm she gradually expanded her repertoire of both lyric-dramatic and dramatic roles to include Donna Anna, Aida, Tosca, Sieglinde, Senta, Salome, Brünnhilde and Isolde, all sung in Swedish.
"Oceans of Sound"
Birgit Nilsson’s voice was capable of flooding an opera house with “oceans of sound” and one of her hallmarks was the ability to grow constantly, both in purely musical terms and in dramatic intensity.
Her musicianship was impeccable, her diction clear and expressive. Her voice commanded a brilliant top, a rich middle range, especially in her later years, and could float a delicate piano, or soar over an orchestra with apparent ease, never sounding forced.
The trajectory of Birgit Nilsson’s career gained speed as she became the star performer of the Royal Swedish Opera. Her first operatic appearance abroad came in 1951 when she performed Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo at Glyndebourne.
Her debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1954 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 cycle at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 1955.
In 1958 she sang the title role of Puccini’s Turandot at the season opening at La Scala in Milan, making history as the first non-Italian singer to be given such an honour.
In 1959 she made front page news on the New York Times with her performance of Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s Birgit Nilsson performed at all the major opera houses and was heralded the world over. Her career lasted almost forty years. For some twenty-five years – from the late Fifities to the early Eighties – she was the dominant force in the dramatic / heroic soprano repertoire and undisputed “Queen of Wagnerians” of her generation, one of the all-time Greats in the history of opera.
Arguably the last of the “true” Wagnerians, she was by no means limited to Wagner. Her Isolde and Brünnhilde together with Salome, Elektra, Dyer’s Wife and Turandot were often collectively referred to as the “Nilsson repertoire”.
During the course of her career, Birgit Nilsson had almost 30 roles in her repertoire. Some of her most famous were Wagner’s Isolde and Brünnhilde, Strauss’ Elektra and Salome, Puccini’s Turandot and Tosca, and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.
She also created strong interpretations as Aida and Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and her repertoire additionally included roles ranging from Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Lisa (Pique Dame) and Judith (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle) to contemporary works such as Penelope in Liebermann’s opera of the same name.
Birgit Nilsson 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. Her debut role was Agathe in Der Freischütz in 1946 and her last new role was Die Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten 1975.
Her final opera performance was in Frankfurt in 1982 in the role of Elektra and her last public concert followed two years later. Neither occasions were marked by official farewell celebrations as, in her typically understated way, Birgit Nilsson did not tell anyone it was her final performance until after she had left the stage.
During her career Birgit Nilsson sang the major roles in Wagner’s Ring cycle – Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, Siegfriedand Götterdämmerung.
In Brünnhilde she felt that there was a wide interpretive range to portray, from the young and struggling Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, to the loving woman awoken by Siegfried and the tragic heroine in Götterdämmerung.
Birgit Nilsson premiered all three Brünnhilde roles at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm – Siegfied in 1949, Götterdämmerung in 1954 and Die Walküre in 1955. She performed her first complete Ring cycle at the Munich Opera Festival in 1955 with Hans Knappertsbusch. Between 1957 and 1970 she performed Brünnhilde frequently in Bayreuth and on 27 November 1967 she sang her 100th Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“Since her debut at the Stockholm Opera 25 years ago, Miss Nilsson’s apparently tireless, infallibly on-pitch voice has brought her a virtual monopoly in the big Wagnerian roles. Her place in the history books is secure.” – The New York Times, 1971
“Der diese Liebe mir ins Herz gelegt …” from Die Walküre recorded at the New York, Metropolitan Opera in 1969. Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
“Heil Dir Sonne …” from Siegfried recorded at the Bayreuth Festival in 1967. Conductor: Otmar Suitner
“Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort” from Götterdämmerung recorded from the Sydney Opera House in 1973. Conductor: Charles MacKerras
Following her 1953 Stockholm role debut, Birgit Nilsson performed Isolde 208 times on stage – including 35 times at Bayreuth, 33 at the New York Metropolitan Opera, 31 at the Vienna State Opera and 25 at the Royal Swedish Opera.
She considered Isolde to be one of the most complex and demanding characters to perform in the operatic literature and the one that was the most dramatically varied. “You are never finished with Isolde” she said, noting that there were always different dimensions to discover with each new performance.
Birgit Nilsson first performed Isolde internationally in 1954 at the Basel Opera and Vienna State Opera, followed one year later by her debut at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. It was also the role in which she made her debut in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera in 1959. The opening night became a high point in her career and featured on the front page of the New York Times: ”the Swedish soprano assumed one of the most demanding roles in the repertory and charged it with power and exaltation. With a voice of extraordinary size, suppleness and brilliance, she dominated the stage and the performance. Isolde’s fury and Isolde’s passion were as consuming as cataclysms of nature.”
Reviewing her performance in another new production of Tristan und Isolde in 1971, the New York Times commented “Empires can rise and fall, but not Miss Nilsson. She is a constant, the empress in her field.”
Birgit Nilsson was one of only three artists in the history of the Metropolitan Opera to have two new productions of the same work especially mounted for her.
”Mild und leise” from Tristan und Isolde recorded at the Festival d’Orange in 1973. Conductor: Karl Böhm
Birgit Nilsson sang her first Elektra at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1965. She had waited a long time before attempting the role but finally decided that the rumours regarding how dangerous it was for the voice were exaggerated. It is a particularly strenuous role as Elektra never leaves the stage during the entire opera, but the vocal part was uniquely suited to her.
Elektra quickly became one of Birgit Nilsson’s favourite roles and she sang it at all of the major opera houses. Audiences were in awe and at one particular performance at the Vienna State Opera with Karl Böhm in 1975 she made 72 curtain calls and the standing ovations took more than half as long as the entire performance itself. “I remember the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic at the end of the performance put aside their instruments and went to dinner” she wrote in her memoirs. “When they returned to get their instruments, the audience was still applauding.”
Other landmark performances were with Karl Böhm in New York (1971), and at the Royal Opera House in London with Georg Solti (1969) and Carlos Kleiber (1977).
Sir Georg Solti praised Birgit’s performances of Elektra by saying “When you thought that a high note couldn’t be sung better, she’d sing the next one equally gloriously … Her singing had boundless energy—musicality, security. She was a marvel of vocal distinction. There will not be a better Elektra in the coming 50 years.”
Of the 1977 production conducted by Kleiber Opera Magazine commented:“Birgit Nilsson is a phenomenon. There is virtually no trace of the passing years on her technique. Pianissimo high B flats – no problem. Her dramatic interpretation has been slightly simplified, her dance less frieze-like, her gestures less plastique, but without any loss in intensity and indeed with a gain in regality.”
Her final opera performance ever was as Elektra, in Frankfurt 1982 at the age of 64.
”Traumbild, mir geschenktes Traumbild ” from Elektra recorded in Montreal, on tour with the Vienna Staatsoper in 1967 Conductor: Karl Böhm
In 1954 Birgit Nilsson sang her first Salome at the Royal Swedish Opera and the success was sensational. In her memoirs she recalls “Salome mania was rampant in Stockholm. At the opera the rarely seen “Sold Out” light was switched on for every performance. Myrstedts Carpet Corner christened a new rug “Salome” which sold like hot cakes.”
Offers flooded in and Birgit Nilsson went on to perform Salome in many of the international opera houses including Munich, Milan and Vienna. It was the only role she 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 legendary New York performance.
“Despite forebodings in some minds, including mine, that our leading Brünnhilde might not make the ideal Salome, Birgit Nilsson’s appearance in the title role of Richard Strauss’s shocker at the Metropolitan was a total triumph. I have never heard the role so magnificently sung. What surprised me, though, was that I have seldom seen it so magnificently acted … As for the famous Dance of the Seven Veils, it was done as tastefully and convincingly as circumstances permitted. After all, how many full-voiced dramatic sopranos have really brought off this dance in such a way as to give the illusion of teen-age agility? – New Yorker, 1965
Birgit wrote ”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 to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils.”
“Ah, ich habe Deinen Mund geküsst …” from Salome recorded at the New York, Metropolitan Opera in 1965. Conductor: Karl Böhm
Die Färberin (Die Frau ohne Schatten)
Birgit Nilsson was for a long time undecided as to which role she preferred in Die Frau ohne Schatten – Die Fäberin (Dyer’s Wife) or Die Kaiserin (The Empress) – but she finally decided for Die Färberin.
At first she found the tessitura problematic because of its two and half octave range, but when she began to sing the part with orchestra everything fitted naturally into place. “The Dyer’s Wife was a wonderful role” she wrote. “Compared with the goddesses, Valkyries, ice-cold princesses, or other bloodthirsty characters that I have often portrayed, she was one of the few women of flesh and blood.”
Birgit followed her Stockholm role debut in December 1975 with performances in Munich (1976) and Vienna (1977). “My opera career, which I had intended to close earlier, was prolonged by the success of my Dyer’s Wife” she wrote. “Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, New York – all offered me guest appearances as the Dyer’s Wife, and I did really love the role.”
Of her Met role debut in 1981 the New York Magazine wrote “Once regarded merely as a phenomenon of nature, Nilsson at 63 is now held in awe as a geriatric miracle. Most singers her age prolong their careers by making discreet adjustments in repertory to accommodate declining vocal resources. Not Nilsson. The Dyer’s Wife is a killing assignment that keeps a soprano trumpeting at the top of her lungs for most of the evening.”
Birgit Nilsson was legendary as the icy princess Turandot but she acknowledged that, although short, it was a dangerous role for the voice because of its high tessitura. Following her first performance in December 1957 in Stockholm she went on to sing Turandot more than 300 times and, for two decades, practically had an international monopoly on the role.
December 7, 1958 was Birgit Nilsson’s great triumph 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 the season on that important stage. Birgit herself felt it to be one of the most important artistic events in her life.
“How to have justified the imposing set without an exceptional Turandot? Such was found in la Signora Birgit Nilsson, already lauded last year in Die Walküre. Nilsson proved to be not only a great Wagnerian singer but also one who can aspire to a more extensive repertoire. The ample voice, of purest tone and prodigious expansion, capable of “nailing” a high C with astounding ease, along with her impressive stagecraft, make this artist a Turandot that would seem unimaginable in our time.” – Corriere della Sera, December 1958
”In questa reggia” from Turandot recorded at the New York, Metropolitan Opera in 1961. Conductor: Leopold Stokowski
In 1951 Birgit Nilsson sang her first Tosca at the Royal Swedish Opera. Throughout her career she sang this role with many of the world’s most famous tenors including Jussi Björling, Franco Corelli, Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano, Richard Tucker and Placido Domingo – who was awarded the first Birgit Nilsson Prize in 2009.
Birgit was of the opinion that many singers often placed their emphasis upon the prima donna rather than the real character of Tosca. ”I myself believe that it is the loving woman which is most important, not the prima donna. She murders for the sake of her love,” she said.
Her personal approach to performing Tosca was acknowledged in the New York Post review of 1962: “Unlike queens of nations, more than one may reign in an opera house, and Miss Nilsson has without doubt earned the title in the Wagnerian wing, and as Turandot. But Puccini’s princess is an iceberg, and Wagner’s ladies are either warriors, or odd in other ways … The soprano’s voice has always displayed a meteoric brilliance but as Tosca it became luscious. And she acted with an impassioned intensity that brought her ovations from the dressy non-subscription audience.”
Birgit Nilsson’s debut in the title role of Verdi’s opera in 1947 at the Royal Swedish Opera was her breakthrough moment. Reviewing the performance the Svenska Dagbladet commented “to awaken one day and be famous is a fortune given to very few … the young singer can without exaggeration, include herself in this select group as the Friday newspapers have simply showered her with praise on her debut as Lady Macbeth.”
“I myself was delighted to be unanimously acclaimed in the next day’s newspapers” wrote Birgit in her memoirs. “The only negative thing written was that I had too beautiful a voice for Verdi’s ideal of Lady Macbeth … Had Verdi for one moment truly desired the singer to have a character voice, without cultivation, he would surely have written different music for her. In fact the role is one of the most diva-demanding in all Italian opera. It requires a beautiful voice with vocal refinement, one that cannot devolve into a raw devil’s voice.”
Noted Italian music critic, Elvio Giudici, paid tribute to Birgit Nilsson’s characterisation of this role in Birgit Nilsson 100, An Homage: “Lady Macbeth, in my opinion, remained one of Birgit Nilsson’s greatest masterpieces …. the tremendous voice of Nilsson produced sounds of a spectacular facility and clarity, both aimed at an expressive nuance. She knew Lady Macbeth well from other places, having tackled her since 1948 in Stockholm under the direction of Busch, but having thoroughly rethought her specifically for the Scala engagement, which would be followed barely a month after by one in New York. Hence the precise articulation; an ability to communicate the sense of each phrase through the most nuanced interplay of dynamics and intensity and a commendable job with Italian diction, all things that precede a palette of colour and accents.”
1946 – Debut Royal Opera Stockholm as Agathe in Der Freischütz / conductor 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 / conductor 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
Mar. 1948 – Soprano Soloist / Missa Solemnis; L van Beethoven / Stockholm / conductor E. Kleiber
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. Hindemith / Stockholm
1951 – First engagements outside Sweden
Berlin concert / conductor L. Blech
Elettra / Idomeneo, Glyndebourne / conductor F. Busch
Jan. 1951 – First 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, Soprano Solo in Beethoven Symphony No. 9 / conductor P. Hindemith
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 / conductors E. Jochum and J. Keilberth
First Brünnhilde / Götterdämmerung, Stockholm
Feb. 1954 – Salome / Salome; R. Strauss / Stockholm
Spring 1954 – Soprano Soloist / Requiem; G. Verdi / Brussels
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 / conductor F. Rieger
American Debut at the Hollywood Bowl / conductor 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 / conductor H. Schweiger
Debut Lyric Opera of Chicago as Brünnhilde / Die Walküre / conductor G. Solti.
Jun. 1956 – Dalila / Samson; G. F. Händel / Musikverein Concert, Vienna
1957 – First Turandot / Turandot, Stockholm
Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth / conductor W. Sawallisch
Sieglinde / Die Walküre, Bayreuth / conductor H. Knappertsbusch
Debut Covent Garden, London, as Brünnhilde in Ring / conductor 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 / conductor H. von Karajan
Season Opening La Scala as Turandot / Turandot / conductor 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 / conductor K. Böhm
1962 – Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth / conductor K. Böhm
1964 – Turandot / Turandot, in Moscow with La Scala tour / conductor G. Gavazzeni
1965 – First Elektra / Elektra, Stockholm
Brünnhilde / Der Ring, Bayreuth / conductor K. Böhm
May 1965 – Elektra / Elektra; R. Strauss / Stockholm
1966 – Debut L’Opéra de Paris, Paris as Isolde / Tristan und Isolde / conductor G. Sebastian
Sep. 1967 – Elektra, Elektra / Opera de Montreal / World Expo / Vienna State Opera on tour / conductor K. Bohm
1969 – Turandot / Turandot, Arena di Verona / conductor 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 / conductor E. Leinsdorf
1973 – Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Théatre Antique, Orange / conductor K. Böhm Opening Concert, Concert Hall Sydney Opera / conductor Mackerras
Jul. 1973 – Kundry / Parsifal; R. Wagner / Studio Recording, Act II/2, London
1975 – First Dyer’s Wife / Die Frau ohne Schatten, Stockholm / conductor B. Klobučar
Dec. 1975 – Dyer’s Wife / Die Frau ohne Schatten; R. Strauss / Stockholm
1976 – 200th Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, Vienna State Opera
30 Years Anniversary Stockholm Opera, Isolde / Tristan und Isolde / conductor S. Varviso
1982 – Last opera performance, Elektra / Elektra, Frankfurt / conductor R. Weikert
1984 – Last public concert performances
1983-93 – Masterclasses, New York, Manhattan School of Music
1989 – Birgit Nilsson Foundation established