”You can feel the spirit of Birgit Nilsson here.” Check out Latvia’s leading paper, Diena, which has published a huge four page feature in advance of this year’s Birgit Nilsson Days
When music fans say: «Opera art will never be the same again», they are talking about such a diva of the golden age as Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005). The Swedish singer was – no, she is! – unrepeatable Isolde, Brünnhilde, Elektra, Salome, Turandot and the Dyer’s wife. Birgit Nilsson’s voice lives on in many recordings. Even in her superstar status, she enjoyed working and often reiterated how interesting, exciting and enriching the rehearsal process was. When the artist had already sung Isolde a hundred and fifty times and Brünnhilde in Valkyrie – a hundred times, she continued to search for new, more precise nuances in the character of the heroine.
A FARMER’S DAUGHTER
Why are we waiting for Birgit Nilsson, the icon of the century, now? Every summer since 2010 when the Birgit Nilsson Museum was opened in her home village of Svenstad in southern Sweden, visitors are welcomed. The museum is located in the farm of the singer’s family, where cows, chickens, geese and pigs were once kept. In these rooms, in the garden and in the fields, you can feel the spirit of Birgit Nilsson. Nothing much has changed here since the singer was young.
People who knew the artist personally say: Birgit was a real farmer’s daughter – strong, witty, cheerful, she was not afraid of hard work. Birgit thinned beets, dug potatoes, harvested hay and milked cows. Her father, Nils Peter Svensson, had high hopes that his daughter would take over the family farm when she grew up. Now admirers of her talent are invited to follow in the footsteps of the artist: on these roads Birgit rode her bicycle, often to reach her destination – the purpose of the church. She had been singing in the church choir since she was 14 years old. It was back in the day when Birgit didn’t dream of opera, because she didn’t know anything about it. Following the recommendation of her singing teacher, Ragnar Blenov, in 1941, at the age of 23, she went to Stockholm to study vocal art; today I would say – too late!
”I grew up here, on the Skane farm, in the parish of Västra Karup, on the Bjäre peninsula. This farm has been in our family since the historical province of Skåne became Swedish territory. I am a seventh-generation descendant of the founder of the farm, Wahlberg, a cavalryman of King Charles XII,” writes Birgit Nilsson in her memoirs. During the Prima donna’s career, the country house in Svenstad was her haven of peace. Among relatives and friends, she devoted herself to cooking, baking cakes, gardening, taking care of the family cats and attending auctions. This summer, the museum is open from June 28 to August 28. From August 8 to 13, the annual Birgit Nilsson days will be held here, the program includes masterclasses, concerts and the honoring of Birgit Nilsson Stipendium artists.
The easiest and fastest way to get here is by direct train from Copenhagen – getting off at Båstad. Here, far from the hustle and bustle of the big city, you will discover the authentic environment of Birgit Nilsson. Currently, the relaxed charm of southern Sweden is a bonus that the very wealthy can afford. They spend the summer here (preferably in apartments with a sea view), but the rest of the time many houses stand empty. Birgit Nilsson loved the Bjäre Peninsula very much and, already at the height of her fame, always repeated that she was ready to take a few days off to return to her native home. She regularly came to listen to amateur choirs in the same church where she herself had sung in her youth. ”Our knees immediately began to tremble when we saw Birgit’s thick hairstyle in the audience,” says our guide, who has been one of the members of the local choir.
THE VIOLIN KEY MUST BE FOLLOWED
”In interviews, I am often asked where I have sung the longest and where I like to perform the most,” Birgit Nilson said in 1982. ”I have been singing at the Stockholm Opera for 35 years, in Vienna and Munich – twenty-eight years, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York – twenty-two. Only now did I realize that I have been singing in my native Västra Karup for the longest time.”
The Birgit Nilsson Museum is a cultural center that hosts various events. The exhibition in the museum is transformed and supplemented every year, the theme of this year’s exhibition is Dream. Passion. Legacy. It presents the course of the diva’s career – various artifacts, documents, memorabilia, letters, opera costumes and concert outfits can be viewed, audio recordings and a film can be listened to. Concerts and lectures are held in the museum hall.
Birgit Nilsson, who is a Latvian peer, grew up in modest circumstances – electricity, water supply and other modern conveniences in the family house (it is called Birgit’s childhood home) were not available until the 1930s. It later became the holiday home of Birgit and her husband Bertil – it can be visited with a guide. In a former barn (where Birgit milked cows the night before going to the entrance exams at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm) there is a cafe where you can taste desserts made according to Birgit Nilsson’s recipes, such as the hearty chocolate dessert Aida. Divas who sing the world’s hottest dramatic repertoire can afford not to count calories.
After judging the cake, you can burn calories by going on a nine-kilometer hike in the footsteps of Birgit Nilsson and enjoying the picturesque scenery of the Swedish countryside. In order not to deviate from the right path, you must follow the signs that depict the key of the violin. The hiking route starts and ends at the museum parking lot.
”She wasn’t just brilliant, she was unique,” recalls one of her old friends, who has followed the singer’s creative progress in the world, in a conversation with KDi Birgit Nilsson in Svenstad. ”Listen to the performance of the modern dramatic repertoire and how they sing Wagner – you will immediately feel the difference. Birgit had to be heard at the Vienna State Opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera! Maria Callas had competitors, but Birgit had none. She was optimistic, friendly, and everyone loved her. There were many problems with Callas, none with Birgit. For thirty years she was the highest paid singer in the world. Callas was paid a thousand dollars for a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, Birgit – five thousand. The manager of the theater said so – we will not pay anyone more than Birgit Nilsson,» my conversation partner continues his emotional story about the diva.
Another interesting aspect that sets Birgit Nilsson apart from other opera legends is the stewardship of her legacy. In the 1980’s, the singer together with her husband Bertil (he was a veterinarian by education and was responsible for his wife’s financial affairs) started thinking about establishing a foundation. The funds that were invested in it continue to generate profits (smart investments in the stock markets!), thereby providing funding for many initiatives that are associated with Birgit’s name.
One of the biggest projects is the presentation of the Prize named after Birgit Nilsson. The laureate receives a million US dollars (the idea of the award was born when the euro did not yet exist) – this is the most generous award in classical music presented to artists and institutions that have made a significant contribution to the development of music. The Prize is presented approximately once every three years. Its first laureate in 2009 was the singer and conductor Plácido Domingo, who was chosen by Birgit Nilsson herself. Placido Domingo was one of the Swedish diva’s favorite stage partners. Birgit Nilsson wanted the prize to be presented to the first laureate a few years after her death. The artist did not want this initiative to be perceived as a gesture of her self-promotion or self-aggrandizement.
The next laureates were recommended by an international panel of experts, and the winner was determined by a vote by the Birgit Nilsson Foundation board members. In 2011, maestro Riccardo Muti won the Prize, in 2014 – the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and in 2018, on the centenary of Birgit Nilsson, the dramatic soprano Nina Stemme. This year, on the 18th of October, cellist Yo-Yo Ma will receive the award at the gala ceremony in Stockholm’s concert hall.
Already in 1969, Birgit Nilsson decided to award a stipendium to promising young Swedish singers. She dedicated it to the memory of her first vocal coach, Ragnar Blennow. The artist knew how important it is to support young talents – not only morally, but also financially. The starting capital for the scholarship fund was the honorarium Birgit Nilsson received at the Malmö City Theater for performing Tosca. The first stipendium was awarded in 1973. Its recipients include Gita Maria Šeberg, Hillevi Martinpelto, Karl Magnus Fredriksson, Susanne Resmark, Mikael Weinius, Jon Lundgren, Anna Larsson, Nina Stemme, Malina Byström, Daniel Johansson, Sofia Asplund, Emma Sventelius and Johanna Wallroth. The stipendium is presented every year in the Västra Karup church, where Birgit Nilsson often sang throughout her life.
The 2022 stipenidum – 200,000 Swedish kroner (approximately 19,250 euros) – is awarded to the Swedish lyrical-dramatic soprano Cornelia Beskow. In 2015, she made her debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, playing Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Juan. In 2020, Cornelia Beskow sang Elsa in Wagner’s Lohgreen on the stage of the Vienna State Opera. In the spring of this year, she made her debut at the Oslo Opera House in the title role of Leoš Janáček’s Jenufa, and in the summer played Zenta in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman on the open air stage in Norway.
FINAL CONCERT IN THE MEADOW
The Birgit Nilsson Days program focuses more and more attention on young talents. The event will be opened by four days of public master classes led by singer Hillevi Martinpelto. The concert of young artists will take place on August 11 at the Ravinen Art Center in Båstad. On August 12, Cornelia Beskow, recipient of this year’s Birgit Nilsson Stipendium, will perform in Västra Karup church. On August 13, a concert will be held in the meadow of Birgit’s family farm, in which guest artists, a choir of one hundred local residents and the Helsingborg symphony orchestra under the direction of conductor Evan Rogister will take part. Arias and choruses will be sung from four operas in which Birgit Nilsson has shone – Der Freischütz, Lady Macbeth, The Flying Dutchman and Un ballo i maschera. Sopranos Joyce El Khoury, Elizabeth Strid, Christine Nilsson, Oksana Kramareva and Aleksandra Biechel, tenor Jonathan Tetelman, baritone Fredrik Setterström and bass Taras Štonda.
The Birgit Nilsson Days have been held since 2018. Although this is a fairly new initiative, the origins of the tradition of summer master classes and concerts can be traced back to the cultural events of Västra Karup throughout history, Birgit Nilsson herself has participated in them several times. In 1955, she was invited to perform at a benefit concert for the Bjäre Peninsula Heritage Preservation Society to raise funds for the creation of a local history park. Thus began a series of concerts that continued for more than fifty years. Birgit Nilsson herself sang for the last time in this concert in 1984, but also later until 2002, she was involved in organizing and managing events. She thought it was important to promote the preservation of local traditions and objects of cultural history.
Birgit Nilsson made her debut on the opera stage on October 9, 1946 in the role of Agatha in Karl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz at the Royal Stockholm Opera. Birgit had to replace another singer, and she found out three days before the show. ”I paid dearly for it with nerves and tears. I was poorly prepared and could not show my best performance under these circumstances. Moreover, the conductor of the show, Leo Blech, was 75 years old and had long since forgotten what it means to be young and inexperienced. Fortunately, the critics did not notice this and gave me good reviews the next day. However, the Royal Opera described me as ”non-musical and untalented”,» the young artist remembers her first experience in the opera.
The very next year, Birgit Nilsson returned to this theater in the role of Lady Macbeth in Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, in which she had to urgently replace her sick colleague Inga Sundström. ”In total, there were ten performances of Macbeth in 21 days, and I waited for each of them like a child waiting for Christmas. Suddenly the door, which had been hermetically sealed, opened. I started receiving offers from everywhere,” says Birgit Nilsson. In November 1948 in Stockholm, Birgit Nilsson made her debut as Senta in Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman under the direction of conductor Leo Blech.
In 1951, Birgit Nilsson sang her first Aida in Stockholm. She has said about this role in Verdi’s masterpiece: «For a dramatic soprano who sings Wagner’s roles, Verdi is more technically complex than Puccini. His colors and phrasing are considerably more subtle. To show that the composer really wanted the note to be sung softly, Verdi often doubled and sometimes even tripled the pianissimo marks, you can even find cues like pppppp in the scores. This makes a big impression on singers who are famous for their excessive power and energy and who are used to boldly singing forte. With the role of Aida, I started to limit my ”vocal enthusiasm” and learn the complicated art of finesse.
At the beginning of the 1950s, the singer had no desire to leave the Stockholm Opera in order to perform more often elsewhere: ”First of all, it seemed more sensible to me to become a first-class singer in Sweden than an average singer on an international scale. Secondly, I had not mastered foreign languages». But little by little Birgit Nilsson began to perform in other countries as well, she spent most of the summer of 1953 in Germany – she sang in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Bayreuth and in the opera Fidelio in Bad Hersfeld.
In 1954, the artist made her debut in Stockholm in the title role of Salome by Richard Strauss. ”This part was planned for me, but I was not excited about it and fought against it tooth and nail. Before that, I had only sung noble characters, the rendering of which required a powerful breath and seriousness. This time I would have to portray a 14-year-old animal pretending to be a person, and according to Strauss’s own instructions, with Isolde’s voice! (..) After closing the curtain, there was a long and almost uncomfortable silence. Then there was applause and it seemed like it would never end. The audience was clearly moved and left the hall in shock. Some lost consciousness, others felt sick, the finance minister’s wife had a miscarriage that evening. It was all Salome’s fault.”
In 1954, Birgit Nilsson stepped on the stage of the Bayreuth Festival for the first time – she sang Elsa in Lohengrin. In the same year, she made her debut in the Austrian capital – as the Vienna State Opera was closed after war damage, performances were held in the Theater an der Wien. ”I sang four different roles in nine days in this theater, and if that wasn’t the worst – it was the first time I sang each of these roles in the original language,” says the diva. In 1955, she conquered the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, in 1956 it was time for her debut in the USA – on the Los Angeles stage at the Hollywood Bowl, San Francisco and the Chicago Opera.
In the spring of 1957, at the renovated Vienna State Opera, Birgit Nilsson took part in her first Viennese premiere – she played Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Valkyrie directed and staged by Herbert von Karajan. ”Before that, I had only sung in repertoire shows in Vienna and there were very few rehearsals or none at all. Now, for the first time, I was able to participate in the creation of a production from the beginning, and I was thrilled. Life and passion vibrated in Von Karajan’s Valkyrie, and there was no lack of inner excitement and tension in any measure,” Birgit Nilsson describes this work.
On December 7, 1958, Birgit Nilsson opened the season of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot – she became the first foreign soprano to be given the honor of singing at the season’s opening premiere. On December 18, 1959, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, singing Isolde. In 1962, the Swedish actress shone as Isolde at the Bayreuth Festival. ”When I found out that Wieland Wagner was planning a new production of Tristan and Isolde in 1962, I thought – now or never, this is my only chance to create this role from scratch together with Wieland. What bliss! Wieland could bring out all kinds of character nuances with the smallest movement of a gesture… I used to play Isolde in the first act as one full of hatred and thirsting for revenge, but now the role took on a new dimension. Except almost animalistic wildness in stormy moments, all Isolde’s longings were depicted in voice, body language and facial expression. With this Tristan Wieland achieved his greatest artistic triumph. He invited me to sing Brünnhilde in his 1965 production of the Ring. I sang Isolde in Bayreuth every season until 1970, with the exception of the 1965 festival.»
IT’S NOT A SHOW ANYMORE
In 1965, Birgit Nilsson performed the title role in Richard Strauss’ Elektra for the first time at the Vienna State Opera. ”Elektra is a role I was warned about all my life. Among other things, I was told that a singer who takes on this ”voice-killing” role shortens her career by several years. So I obediently waited until 1965 before taking it on. I soon discovered that all the warnings were greatly exaggerated. This role suited me perfectly. Elektra is no ”screaming role” as I was led to believe. After some dramatic outbursts in the first scenes, the rest of the role can be sung quite lyrically and with a slim tone. This role is, of course, challenging, because Elektra never leaves the stage and is musically active all the time. How gorgeous it is vocally and acting! Along with Isolde and Brünnhilde, it has become my favorite role. I made my debut in this role rather late, but I have sung it soon enough on all the main stages around the world.”
The singer adds: «From a musical point of view, one of the most outstanding performances of Elektra that I have participated in took place in 1969 at London’s Covent Garden Opera with George Solti at the helm. It is one of the peaks of my career. Both the audience and the performers left the theater with bated breath after the performance. In 1977, I played Elektra again in London, this time the conductor was Carlos Kleiber. He is the first conductor I have ever worked with who truly followed Richard Strauss’s own advice: ”Play it like Mendelssohn.”
Birgit Nilsson’s stage partners have included many notable tenors – Jussi Björling, Seth Swanholm, Carlo Bergonzi, Ramon Vinay, Carl Liebl, Wolfgang Windgassen, Jess Thomas, Franco Corelli, Giuseppe di Stefano, Max Lorenz,
Helge Brillot, Placido Domingo, Richard Tucker, James McCracken, Torsten Ralph, Jose Carreras and others. ”When I was very young, I even sang with Benjamino Gilgi,” said Birgit Nilsson. She dedicated especially warm words to John Vickers: ”He was completely different – both as an artist and as a person. I will always remember the film Tristan and Isolde, which we made at the 1973 Orange Festival in France. I have never seen any artist play Tristan more realistically, especially in the third act. His eyes! I can still see them. It was no longer a show, it was a real drama, and I almost started to worry about his well-being.”
In 1975, in Stockholm, Birgit Nilsson added the role of the Dyer’s wife in Richard Strauss’s opera Die Frau ohne Schatten to her repertoire. The artist did not hide that this role extended her career: ”The Dyer’s wife is a wonderful role. Compared to the fairies, valkyries, ice-cold princesses and other bloodthirsty heroines I’ve played, she’s one of the few real, flesh-and-blood women.” Birgit Nilsson sung this role in Munich, Vienna, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Buenos Aires, San Francisco and New York.
Birgit Nilson ended her career on the opera stage in June 1982. ”Everyone knew that my last performances were planned at the Vienna State Opera. I was afraid that after twenty-eight years of such close friendship with my Viennese audience, I would not be able to control the tears in my voice … Therefore, I canceled my last performance on June 30 and in a cool room explained my reasons to the director of the theater. My last opera performance was on June 16 in Frankfurt, where I sang Elektra. It was a great show, I felt I was at my best and it could be the highlight of my career. After Elektra, I told my colleagues that this was my last show. I had come to terms with this decision.»
From 1983 to 1993, Birgit Nilson taught master classes, although she was convinced from the beginning that she would never work in pedagogy. The singer died on December 25, 2005 at the age of 87. She is buried in the family grave next to her parents in the Västra Karup church cemetery. In 2018, the centenary of the artist was widely celebrated all over the world. The Bank of Sweden has put Birgit Nilsson’s portrait as Brünnhilde on the 500 kroner banknote. One of them, behind the badges, is the mini-text embedded in the singer’s hair, which can only be read with a magnifying glass, listing her thirty roles – from Agatha to Woglinde.
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