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 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 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 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 on short notice as Lady Macbeth, on the invitation of conductor, Hans 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. Largely self-taught, she knew exactly what she could do with her voice and when.
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 Verdi’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.
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. Hindesmith / 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
During her career Birgit Nilsson sang the major roles in Wagner’s Ring cycle – Sieglinde in and Brünnhilde in , and .
In Brünnhilde she felt that there was a wide interpretive range to portray, from the young and struggling Brünnhilde in , to the loving woman awoken by Siegfried and the tragic heroine in .
Birgit Nilsson premiered all three Brünnhilde roles at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm – in 1949, in 1954 and 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 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
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 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.
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.
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.”
Die Färberin (Die Frau ohne Schatten)
Birgit Nilsson was for a long time undecided as to which role she preferred in – 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 . 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 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 “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.”