Energetic operatic soprano best remembered for her powerful Wagner roles and a heroic Strauss Elektra
Thursday 12 January 2006
Märta Birgit Svensson (Birgit Nilsson), opera singer: born Västra Karup, Sweden 17 May 1918; married 1948 Bertil Niklasson; died 25 December 2005.
Famous above all for her stupendous performances of the great Wagnerian dramatic soprano roles, Birgit Nilsson will also be long remembered as a mighty interpreter of Strauss's Elektra and Puccini's Turandot.
During a career that lasted for more than 35 years, the Swedish soprano sang many other parts, from Mozart's Donna Anna to Tosca, from Beethoven's Fidelio to Aida, but it was undoubtedly in Wagner and Strauss that her powerful, plangent voice and enormous physical energy were employed to their fullest and finest advantage. To hear Nilsson sing Brünnhilde's Immolation scene in Götterdämmerung, Isolde's Narration and Curse, and the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Salome's address to the head of John the Baptist, or Elektra's Invocation of Agamemnon, was to undergo an operatic experience of shattering emotional impact.
Born in 1918, the daughter of Nils Svensson, on a farm in Västra Karup, in Skane, a province of southern Sweden, Birgit Nilsson studied at the Royal College of Music and at the Opera School in Stockholm. Among her teachers was Joseph Hislop, the Scottish-born tenor. She had already begun her career as a concert singer when in 1946 she made her stage début at the Royal Opera, Stockholm, taking over Agathe in Der Freischütz at short notice.
During the next five years Nilsson sang a wide variety of roles at Stockholm; they included Lady Macbeth, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Donna Anna, Aida, Tosca and Lisa in The Queen of Spades. She also began to sing Wagner: Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, Venus in Tannhäuser, Sieglinde in Die Walküre and the Siegfried Brünnhilde.
Those years of relatively slow but continuous development within the framework of a long-established company were of inestimable value to Nilsson. Not only did they allow her to acquire a rock-solid vocal technique that would enable her to continue singing the heaviest roles until her middle sixties, but they gave her the opportunity of trying out new roles in a familiar environment, before an appreciative audience.
Her first major foreign engagement was at Glyndebourne in 1951, when she sang Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo. Her performance was well received, but there was little indication of the tremendous enthusiasm that her singing roused in later years. Back in Stockholm she continued to add to her repertory, with Elsa in Lohengrin, Leonore in Fidelio, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, followed by Salome and her first Isolde.
At Bayreuth she took the soprano part in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1953, then the following year she sang Elsa there. After singing Sieglinde and Elsa at the Vienna State Opera, in 1955 she broke new ground by taking on the title role of Rolf Liebermann's recent opera Penelope at Stockholm and sang her first complete Ring cycle at Munich (having already tried out the Walküre and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes in Sweden). Next she made her US début in 1956, singing the Walküre Brünnhilde first at San Francisco and then in Chicago. The following year she made her Covent Garden debut as Brünnhilde (in a complete Ring cycle) and returned to Bayreuth as Sieglinde and Isolde. In 1958 she sang Turandot in Chicago, then opened the season at La Scala, Milan, in the same role. Her ringing, steely tone was perfect for the cruel Princess, though she was rather less convincing as the woman whose icy heart is melted by love.
Birgit Nilsson had become an international star. Her voice, still bright and youthful in timbre, had greatly increased in volume and in expressive power. Her stamina was inexhaustible, so that she appeared perfectly fresh at the end of the most gruelling performance. Her interpretations, those of Isolde and Brünnhilde in particular, grew steadily deeper in their dramatic insight.
Continuing to appear with the Swedish Royal Opera, she sang Amelia in Goran Gentele's controversial new production of Un ballo in maschera, which visited Edinburgh in 1959 and Covent Garden in 1960. Meanwhile in 1959 she sang the first of innumerable performances of Brünnhilde at Bayreuth and made a spectacular Metropolitan début as Isolde.
Nilsson returned regularly to New York until 1975 in a wide repertory that included Turandot, Aida, Tosca, Lady Macbeth, Venus, Elisabeth, Salome and Elektra. At Covent Garden she was heard as Isolde, Turandot and Elektra, the role considered by some critics as her finest achievement; Nilsson's Elektra had not only the sheer vocal power required to surmount the huge Straussian orchestra without difficulty, but the emotional strength needed to give truly heroic proportions to the work.
A long battle with the US tax authorities kept Nilsson away from America for more than five years, but she continued to sing all over Europe during the 1970s and made a concert tour through Asia. She also acquired a new and very congenial part: the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, which she sang in Vienna, Munich, Hamburg, Buenos Aires and, after her tax problems were finally settled, in San Francisco and at the Metropolitan. There, in 1982, she took part in the Centennial gala concert, singing Isolde's Narration, whose overwhelming effect was undiminished. The following year she retired.
Nilsson recorded all her best roles, Italian as well as German, and also some, like Rezia in Oberon and Minnie in La fanciulla del West, which she had not sung in the theatre. In 1977 she published her autobiography, Mina Minnesbilder (translated as My Memoirs in Pictures, 1981). During her long career she received several honours from the Swedish government including the Gold Medal Illis Quorum Meruere Labores ("For those whose work has deserved it"), never before awarded to a woman or to a performing artist. When the medal was presented to her after a concert in Stockholm, the soprano expressed her gratitude with the Valkyrie's familiar cry of "Ho-yo-to-ho!"
Few singers have been able to express with equal cogency all the many different aspects of Brünnhilde's character: the young warrior maid, the disobedient daughter, the woman in love, the avenging fury, the instrument of redemption. Birgit Nilsson was one of those few.
She died on Christmas Day, and her funeral was held in Västra Karup yesterday.
Forty years ago I had the opportunity to study Birgit Nilsson's art at close quarters when I directed a BBC TV documentary about Georg Solti's landmark stereo recording of Wagner's Ring, writes Humphrey Burton.
A powerful actress on stage, she was also an ideal studio artist, moving closer to the microphone for intimate moments, standing well back before launching one of her fabulous top Cs. She loved a joke (not for nothing was she a strapping farmer's daughter) and laughed as loudly as anyone when, at the climactic moment - Brünnhilde calling for her steed Grane and preparing to ride into the flames of Valhalla - the Decca "boys" sent in a real horse. It's a measure of her strength as an artist that just a few minutes later she recorded what proved to be the "final take", which remains one of the superlative passages in the history of recorded sound.
She always took her art seriously but her personality was attractively down-to-earth. To show the conductor turned producer Herbert von Karajan how she felt about his excessively dark lighting plot for the 1965 Met production of Die Walküre she came on stage at a rehearsal with a miner's lamp attached to her forehead. On another celebrated occasion in New York she had the chutzpah to perform a Tristan und Isolde with three different tenors, one for each act and all suffering from vocal problems: the most important quality a soprano needed for the role of Isolde, she said, was a good pair of stout shoes.
She certainly loved fine furs and expensive jewels, which qualifies her for diva status. But off-stage there were no tantrums: she didn't need to behave like a diva because the star quality was there for all to see in her unforgettable performances, which for me began with her Amelia in Verdi's Masked Ball (Royal Opera House, 1960) and concluded on the same stage with Elektra under Carlos Kleiber two decades later.
Birgit Nilsson gave me a small but very valuable lesson in human kindness, writes Simon Fisher Turner. I was a 15-year-old schoolboy, living in London and studying ballet at Arts Educational Trust.
I'd listened to Birgit Nilsson at boarding school for years and she came to sing at Covent Garden. I was an awful child acting thing with no talent whatsoever, but pretty blue eyes and blond hair, and I turned up at the backstage door of the Opera House, hoping for her autograph. The stage-door manager told me to come back later. When I tried again, she still hadn't arrived, but was expected any minute - whereupon a hand touched my shoulder and a voice said, "I'm Birgit Nilsson, how can I help?"
She said she would be happy to give me her autograph - and then asked if I would like a cup of tea. She not only gave me tea and cake in the cafeteria, she took me all round the theatre. Her real treat she kept for the end. Had I actually seen the theatre from the stage, she asked? "Come with me," she said.
We went into a lift, which rose to the centre of the stage. The auditorium was empty, with stage hands running here and there, the whole stage buzzing and preparing for a show in the evening, and I'm 15 and grinning from ear to ear - a small boy being shown around the Opera House by the most famous singer in the world.
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