A tribute to artists and institutions

The Birgit Nilsson Prize is awarded approximately every 3 years and pays tribute to active artists and institutions who have made a major contribution to the perpetuation of their art form.

The fifth recipient of the Birgit Nilsson Prize, Yo-Yo Ma, was announced on 17 May 2022 – Birgit Nilsson’s birthday – and he received his prize at a Prize Ceremony in Stockholm October 18.


As an aspiring young artist, Birgit Nilsson encountered many difficulties that were not generally known to the public. It was her candid approach and strength of mind that helped her to steer away from the pitfalls that many of her colleagues fell into – in particular, failing to resist the temptation of accepting unsuitable roles too early. Even when she had reached the peak of her career she never forgot the principle she learnt from an early age:.”I’ve always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me” she memorably said. “Stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won’t hurt so much.”

By emphasising the importance of planning, sustaining and reaching the full potential over the long term, Birgit Nilsson hoped to generate an incentive for artists at the beginning of their careers. In 1969 she created a Stipendium for talented young singers in Sweden and from 1981-1991 gave annual masterclasses at the Manhattan School of Music, where she also established a Scholarship. Towards the end of her long and distinguished career she then conceived the idea for an international Prize honouring established artists for their important contributions to music. By setting up a foundation and investing her financial assets she created the Prize of 1 million dollars.

First award

It was Birgit Nilsson herself who stipulated the criteria for the Prize and personally chose Plácido Domingo as the first recipient, writing his name on a piece of paper that was sealed in an envelope and not opened until three years after she died. Domingo received the Prize in 2009 in a moving award ceremony at the Royal Swedish Opera, on the same stage where Birgit Nilsson launched her operatic career more than half a century earlier.

Subsequent awards

Successive recipients have been proposed by an international Advisory Panel of experts and voted on by the Board of the Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen. Riccardo Muti was the Prize recipient in 2011, followed by the Vienna Philharmonic in 2014 and in 2018, the year which celebrated the 100th anniversary of Birgit Nilsson’s birth, the Prize was awarded to Swedish dramatic soprano, Nina Stemme. In 2022 the Birgit Nilsson Prize was announced to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the first instrumentalist to receive the Prize.

In 2019 the Foundation was transferred to the care of The Royal Swedish Academy of Music and renamed Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen. 

The criterias

The Prize may be split between two recipients. It may never be awarded twice to the same artist or institution.


Obligatory criteria: Impeccable musicianship and expressiveness, interpretive prowess, unquestionable commitment to serve first and foremost the composer and, in the case of singers, quality and beauty of voice. An exceptional performance record, preferably over two decades or more and a distinctive performance style. Thorough professionalism in observing contracts and keeping commitments.

Desirable and precluding

Desirable criteria: An active interest in young artists, through master classes, training opportunities, tutoring or other means of sharing valuable professional experience. An image consistent with classical music, that is recognition through artistic achievement alone. Humanitarian engagement, though not of a political nature.

Precluded criteria: The candidate’s gender, nationality, ethnicity, creed or political conviction. Political considerations of any kind are not admissible in the selection process.

Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen is responsible for the Birgit Nilsson Prize

Birgit Nilsson established the Birgit Nilsson Foundation for the Prize in 1989. Full responsibility was entrusted to the care of her long-time friend, Rutbert Reisch, in 2005. As President of the Foundation until 2018 Professor Reisch oversaw the organisation of the first four Prize ceremonies and the investment portfolio, together with the support of the Board. In the 100th anniversary year of Birgit Nilsson’s birth he also curated three major centennial tributes; a commemorative book published by Verlag für moderne Kunst; a documentary film released on DVD by C major entertainment and broadcast internationally; and a 31 CD box set of live performances released on Sony Classical.

Following the 2018 Birgit Nilsson centenary celebrations, Professor Reisch transferred the Foundation into the care of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and President, Susanne Rydén. In accordance with Swedish practice the Foundation was then renamed Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen. The Academy is grateful to Professor Reisch for remaining on the Board.

Founded in 1771, the purpose of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music is to promote musical life by taking initiatives to advance performance and support education, research and artistic development. Birgit Nilsson was elected as a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1960 and was active throughout her life supporting the next generation of singers.

“With the Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen now based in Sweden, I am delighted that we have the possibility of creating a close relationship with the legacy of Birgit Nilsson as well as being a vital part of Sweden’s thriving community. It is our intention to be responsible and active for the living art form on both a national and international level.

Susanne Rydén, President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

The Board of Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen

  • Susanne Rydén, President of the Board & President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music
  • Staffan Thorslund, Tax Lawyer
  • Bengt Hall, acting Managing Director of the Malmö Opera and former General Manager of the Royal Swedish Opera Stockholm (Sweden)
  • Fredrik Wetterqvist, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music

The Advisory Panel

Birgit Nilsson chose the first Prize recipient. Since 2011 each successive recipient has been proposed by an international Advisory Panel chaired by the President and voted on by the Board of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation.

Since 2019 the Advisory Panel comprises:

  • Susanne Rydén, Chairperson / President of the Birgit Nilsson Stiftelsen
  • John Allison, Editor of Opera Magazine and critic of the Daily Telegraph (UK)
  • Manuel Brug, opera and classical music critic for Die Welt (Germany)
  • Stefan Forsberg, Executive and Artistic Director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (Sweden)
  • Ara Guzelimian, Dean and Provost, Juilliard School of Music (USA)
  • Elaine Padmore: consultant, broadcaster, author and former Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (UK)

Between 2011 and 2018 the Advisory Panel comprised:

  • Rutbert Reisch, Chairperson / President of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation
  • Rupert Christiansen, Opera Critic of the Daily Telegraph and Member of the Editorial Board of Opera Magazine (UK)
  • Bengt Hall, Managing Director of the Malmö Opera, and former General Manager of the Royal Swedish Opera Stockholm (Sweden)
  • Clemens Hellsberg, President of the Vienna Philharmonic (Austria)
  • Speight Jenkins, former General Director of the Seattle Opera (USA)
  • Eva Wagner-Pasquier, Co-Director of the Bayreuth Festival (Germany)
    NB: Clemens Hellsberg recused himself from the 2014 panel