Västra Karups, Sweden May 17, 1918 — December 25, 2005
The death of Birgit Nilsson, the farm girl who rose to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest dramatic sopranos, was announced today in her native town of Västra Karups in southern Sweden. Fredrik Westerlund, vicar of the local church, said that Nilsson’s funeral was held there on Wednesday morning, January 11. The cause of death was not disclosed, but it is known that the soprano had been in failing health in recent months and had undergone bypass surgery.
Nilsson studied at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Music with Scots tenor Joseph Hislop, among other teachers, and made her debut in Stockholm as Agathe in Der Freischütz at Royal Opera in 1946. Her clarion soprano, its seemingly endless resources of power and brightness deployed with canny intelligence, soon marked her as an artist to watch; within a few seasons she had become one of her home company’s most valuable artists. Significant international attention came her way during the early 1950s. She was Elettra in Glyndebourne’s celebrated 1951 revival of Mozart’s Idomeneo, and made her Munich debut in 1954-55 as Brünnhilde in the complete Ring. Before the decade was out, she had given notice at Vienna, Bayreuth, Covent Garden, San Francisco and Chicago that she was an artist fully equal to the challenges of the great roles of Wagner, Verdi and Richard Strauss.
Nilsson at the Metropolitan
Opera Centennial Gala,
© Beth Bergman 2006
Nilsson’s 1959 Met debut, as Isolde in the first of two Tristan productions that the company mounted for her, made the front page of the next day’s New York Times. Her international stardom was now set, and she remained at the very top of her profession for the rest of her performing life. Rarely — if ever — has an artist established so firm and enduring a relationship with an audience as did Nilsson with the New York public. Met audiences adored her. She appeared with the company in two hundred and twenty-four performances, her tenure including the title roles in new productions of Turandot, Aida, Tosca, Salome and Elektra, as well as Brünnhilde in new stagings of Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Her last appearance at the Met in a fully staged opera was in 1981, as the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten. She sang in the company’s internationally televised centennial gala, in 1983, the year before she retired from singing. Nilsson continued to remain active teaching master classes — many Nilsson fans remember with pleasure her 1987 stint at the Manhattan School of Music, when her students included a young mezzo named Susan Graham — and made her final Met appearance in 1996, in a gala tribute to her frequent colleague James Levine on the occasion of his twenty-fifth anniversary with the company.
Nilsson knew her own worth, but never took herself or her profession too seriously; she delighted in skewering the stuffy and mocking the pretentious. She was shrewd, practical and strong, with uncompromising standards in her private life as well as in the theatre. Nobody ever got the better of her in an argument or a negotiation. Nilsson’s generosity of spirit, her good humor and her wit were the stuff of legend, making her an artist who was as beloved as she was admired.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
Growing up, Saturdays were spent with the sound of the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. Birgit Nilsson was one of the first sopranos I learned to recognize and appreciate.