About Birgit

Timeline 1918-2009

The artist

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

Education

Early studies

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 “Elisabeths Prayer” from Wagners 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 schoolvocal 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.

The Debuts

Breakthrough

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.

The Voice

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.

The Operas

The Operas

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

1946Debut 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

1947Breakthrough 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

The roles

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.

Brünnhilde

During her career Birgit Nilsson sang several of the roles in Wagner’s The Ring –  Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Brünnhilde in SiegfriedDie 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.”

Tosca

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

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.

Salome

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.

Turandot

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.

Elektra

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.

Die Färberin

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.