Birgit Nilsson at 100

Mike Ashman Wed 8th August 2018

As we celebrate Birgit Nilsson’s centenary in 2018, Mike Ashman explores the great Swedish soprano’s legacy through the memories and accounts of her friends and colleagues

A resplendent Birgit Nilsson as Turandot at the Vienna State Opera in 1961 (photography: Studio Fayer/Birgit Nilsson Foundation)

A resplendent Birgit Nilsson as Turandot at the Vienna State Opera in 1961 (photography: Studio Fayer/Birgit Nilsson Foundation)

Birgit Nilsson, whose 100th anniversary is commemorated this year, rapidly became a legend to those with a special interest in big Romantic repertoire who started their opera-going and record-collecting in the 1960s. She was especially esteemed because she had the large heroic voice for Wagner, Richard Strauss and the bigger Verdis believed to have been lacking in the dramatic soprano field for some time, and now seemingly magnificently restored.

‘It was glorious to know her’ – Sir John Tooley

Sir John Tooley was on the staff of the Royal Opera House during the whole time Nilsson sang there. Her Covent Garden debut was in 1957 with Die Walküre under Rudolf Kempe – ‘She was mightily impressive even then,’ says Tooley who, as General Director, oversaw her last performances in the house – as Elektra under Carlos Kleiber in the 1976-77 season and then when she made a guest appearance in Act 2 of Die Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve in 1978.

Both these appearances had their dramas. Tooley had to persuade Nilsson first of all that Kleiber was not just some young upstart; he said he would only do the performances if she sang Elektra. But then on the first day of rehearsals some imagined insult prompted the conductor to ask for another singer (‘Who’s this terrible woman?’). Tooley rapidly arranged a reconciliation and the performances were triumphs for both. The Fledermaus gala was only achieved after a heroic 15-hour journey by the singer in blizzard conditions from her home in Skåne.

‘It was glorious to know her,’ says Tooley. ‘She was very practical and never wasted time. She knew her parts well, was always secure in her music, and knew what was right for the house.’ He was struck particularly by how her voice projected in the theatre as much as by its size – ‘I’m surprised the back wall is still there!’ he says.

From farm girl to Wieland Wagner’s protégée

The 1950s and ’60s were less biographically obsessed than we are today but it was learned, by and by, that Nilsson had sprung out of true obscurity (a farm in the south of Sweden) and was not the product of some exclusive artistic pedigree or even of one particular teacher. She started, self-taught, on the piano her mother (a music lover but not a musician) had bought for her; meanwhile, her father wished she had been a boy and fought any move that would take her away from the farm.

Perhaps as a result of this she gained an instinctive desire to preserve what was most natural in her own singing and rejected any teaching, however prestigious, that would make her voice do what didn’t feel right. Perhaps this was also the beginning of a vocal technique that gave her seemingly inexhaustible stamina: she would sometimes amuse herself backstage after performing a huge role like Strauss’s Salome or Elektra by singing parts of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria or Brünnhilde’s war cry.

Nilsson was a late starter who, at 23, was still studying when her compatriot and contemporary Astrid Varnay was debuting at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. But having the fortune to study, and to start many of her roles, in Stockholm gave her two advantages. The first was the access she was given to the world of German opera and its conductors – Fritz Busch was particularly significant in inviting Nilsson to Glyndebourne in 1951. The second, in an age where – in most of America and Western Europe outside Germany – the stage director’s role was not as significant as it would later become, was the contact she had with the local tradition of cultivating acting skills in opera singers.

With her vocal gifts and dramatic soprano repertoire of, shall we say, many slow-moving and/or regal characters, Nilsson could easily have become one of those monstres sacrées who just stood and delivered. But as her career developed in the 1950s she became an appropriate subject for further ‘live education’ as a singing actor. And that education was imparted by someone no less musically instinctive than the director Wieland Wagner.

Nilsson had met Wieland early on in her career and been offered the part of Sieglinde in the Bayreuth Festival’s first Ring production after the war. As she was not available, her actual Festival debut took place two years later, in 1953, as the soprano soloist in the commemorative Beethoven Ninth conducted by Paul Hindemith (this controversial 1953 performance is one of the great missing broadcasts – its appearance would make an interesting contribution to Nilsson’s 100th-year celebrations). But this was followed by misunderstandings in Bayreuth. Wieland thought he’d discovered the new Maria Müller and begged Nilsson to avoid the heavy roles like Isolde and Brünnhilde; she told him that they were already in her diary.

Full Bayreuth appearances followed, first in Lohengrin (1954), then Tristan (1957) – but in productions by Wieland’s brother Wolfgang, of whose ‘discoveries’ Wieland tended to steer clear (first-time official releases of both these can be heard in the 31-CD box-set of live Nilsson material being released by Sony Classical for the centenary). It was not until 1962 that Wieland and Nilsson first worked together, on a Tristan for which she was apparently his (very nervous) last choice.

And it was high time in this soprano’s development. Nilsson’s repertoire now extended from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (as Donna Anna) via the title role in Beethoven’s Fidelio, most of the ‘big’ Wagners (and quite a few of the Verdis) to Puccini and Richard Strauss. The mythology surrounding her was already great – hence Wieland’s hesitation about using her in his ‘workshop Bayreuth’.

Already it was being said that her wide-ranging, seemingly inexhaustible supply of tone reflected what singing in the dramatic soprano repertoire used to be and should be, but rarely had been, since 1945. Nilsson’s achievements had already become such a phenomenon that both the first Wagner Ring cycles on disc (made a realistic proposition by the advent of the long-playing record, now in stereo) and new productions onstage came to revolve around this one singer’s availability.

Soprano flying high: Birgit Nilsson on a diving board while on holiday in 1960 (photography: Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Soprano flying high: Birgit Nilsson on a diving board while on holiday in 1960 (photography: Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

For example: in 1960, Decca’s opera team headed by John Culshaw knew they had to sign Nilsson for the Ring as Brünnhilde, a role that EMI’s Walter Legge had offered her but had somehow consistently failed to arrange. Nilsson wanted to do Isolde first – she’d already sung the role in Bayreuth and Covent Garden, then at the Metropolitan with ecstatic front-page reviews that harked back to Kirsten Flagstad’s New York debut in the 1930s. So, under pressure to keep her in play, the Culshaw team recorded Tristan in Vienna, even accepting a substitute for the planned Jon Vickers.

Later, at the end of the decade, the Metropolitan Opera’s Rudolf Bing flatly refused to take Herbert von Karajan’s Salzburg Ring in co-production without Nilsson leading the cast. She hadn’t even been in the original production but the maestro had no choice but to give way (the end result, with Karajan’s original Brünnhilde, Régine Crespin – who had agreed to return as Sieglinde – can be heard officially for the first time in the Sony Classical box-set).

Nilsson’s stage work with Wieland Wagner at Bayreuth between 1962 and his untimely death four years later had a radical effect on her performing career. ‘I have sung Isolde 87 times,’ she told Wieland. ‘But I have the intention of forgetting all the interpretations up to now and working with you as though from the beginning.’ The result – according to her uneven but moving and often entertainingly witty autobiography (La Nilsson; Northeastern University Press: 2007, translated from the German by Doris Jung Popper) – was ‘What heaven!’ She elaborates: ‘Wieland could bring out the most varied characterisations through the mere suggestion of a gesture. The complicated psychological problems he explained through contemporary, irreverent comparisons, which kept us all in a good mood … it was, in many ways, a new Isolde that saw the light of day.’ And there is, unbelievably, another almost lost monument – a scratchy black-and-white video of the production on tour in Osaka in 1967, available to view on YouTube.

Nilsson herself has rather deflected attention from this with her criticisms of what she regarded as an unprepared Pierre Boulez and an inexperienced (in Wagner) Japanese orchestra. But this is still an essential record of a production where, as her autobiography describes, ‘the role received a new dimension … Isolde’s lips speak of humiliation and revenge but her heart speaks only of love. Over Isolde’s entire persona must be written, “I love you! I love you!”’ Wieland described her performance of the role as ‘the loving Isolde’, and this film, quality notwithstanding, makes that abundantly clear.

If you look at Brian Large’s video of Nilsson’s Elektra under James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera (1980) you can see all of Wieland’s influence manifest itself in significant moments like the understated but emotionally overwhelming recognition of her brother Orest, demonstrated with minimal movement but with an enormous amount of expression in the eyes.

‘She always saw young singers as colleagues’ – Nina Stemme

The soprano Nina Stemme, fellow Swede and successor to Nilsson today in many of her leading roles, never heard Nilsson live but was quite regularly in touch with her as her own major career was just beginning. As Stemme explains, Nilsson ‘always saw young singers as colleagues, was keen on integrity and was very positive and encouraging. She was intelligent and witty and funny, and warm and suggestive if she thought you were insecure.’

She particularly remembers an exchange of faxes after she had sung her first Senta in 2000, in which she had told Nilsson, ‘I have probably reached my limit with this role’. Nilsson, up to speed as ever with what was happening in her profession, replied that she doubted this – and she had indeed just heard that Stemme had been offered Isolde (for Glyndebourne in 2003). ‘There was no warning finger about becoming a dramatic soprano so soon!’ Stemme says. Her only regret about Nilsson? ‘I was stupid and should have done more about contacting her if I had only had the courage. I didn’t want to impose myself or to come and see her and show off.’

So she did not take up an offer to work on Isolde at the older soprano’s home in Skåne. But she did listen to her on record, the live Karl Böhm Bayreuth version. ‘I was struck by her youthfulness and the brisk tempi. Also how, like in her Turandot, she tried to play the vulnerability. She was very loving. In Act 1 it was not “nur Hass” [only hatred] – as Rudolf Hartmann once dubbed Isolde’s character in that act – but a hatred that came from her own love for Tristan. She was quite modern and very good with the text – and you have to know it well to make the non-verbal emotions clear.’

Stemme continues to feel that Nilsson is inspiring her ‘in the background with her immense power and persona’.

A sharp wit on stage, in recordings, and in person

Of course not every production comes up smelling of roses in Nilsson’s memoir. Karajan’s relationship with her was, at best, ambivalent.

Once, when he had sent Nilsson a detailed offer of all the roles, repertoire and periods of work for which he would need her, he received a two-word reply: ‘Busy. Birgit.’ Nilsson, characteristically, had some respect for Karajan the conductor, less for him as theatre chief and fee payer, and absolutely none for his work as stage director and lighting designer. Hence the famous episode of her joke appearance on stage for a technical rehearsal of the Met’s Die Walküre wearing a miner’s hat with built-in lamp.

These stories, and many others, together with a repertoire of sharp one-liners that almost rivals Sir Thomas Beecham’s, can be appreciated in both the singer’s autobiography and also the vast doorstop of the newly published 100th-anniversary book, Birgit Nilsson 100: An Homage (Birgit Nilsson Foundation: 2018).

They should not, however, leave the impression that Nilsson, the farmer’s daughter, became in any way a difficult diva or prima donna – although she was always hostile to those not telling her the plain truth or trying to exploit themselves at her expense (thus her not-so-jokey listing of Met intendant Rudolf Bing as a tax dependent.) Talking to colleagues who connected with her in the profession, either through her work or their own, is to receive an impression of great warmth, affection and support.

Nilsson’s large recorded legacy becomes a little problematic to consider in the light of what she later wrote, and was quoted as saying, about certain parts of it (a rather vituperative interview with Sam Shirakawa is reprinted in the 100th-anniversary book). Naturally, her name became synonymous with the world’s first officially recorded studio Ring (for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Georg Solti).

With Solti in 1974 rehearsing Salome (Terry/the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

With Solti in 1974 rehearsing Salome (Terry/the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

The autobiography is always warm in her appreciation of Solti – who continued to be a regular live colleague both at the Royal Opera House and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and her fellow singers. But she is critical of producer John Culshaw and the technical results of the Ring and Salome recordings, mocking Culshaw’s enthusiasm about being able to hear the triangle part in Salome and engineer Gordon Parry’s description of the Vienna Philharmonic as ‘a hundred prima donnas who wished to be heard’. ‘Possibly the Decca Boys were so taken with the idea of getting in all of the effects previously unheard that they temporarily forgot that opera is actually singing with orchestral accompaniment.’ However, then she claims: ‘Later, in transferring the recording to CD, the balance was changed. Despite the hundred prima donnas, the opera was restored to its original form. I was very happy with the result, even though it took 25 years for my criticism to be validated.’

She also firmly states a preference for live recordings because ‘a studio version cannot escape the danger of substituting a lovely collage for a true interpretation’.

Sony Classical’s anniversary box-set helps complete the process – long begun on the radio broadcasts from which many of its selections were first pirated – of providing contemporary live doubles for many of Nilsson’s studio recordings. Despite her subsequent reservations (and, of course, a huge increase in competitive versions in the catalogue), Nilsson’s ‘grand slam’ for Decca of dramatic soprano roles in the German repertoire – Brünnhilde, Isolde, Salome and Elektra – remains one of the gramophone’s most impressive and pioneering achievements; she seemingly has no problem conveying committed, textually aware and often thrilling interpretations of her main stage roles.

Nilsson certainly found a way – as did the ‘hundred prima donnas’ – of getting the best out of, and being lifted by, Solti’s sometimes manic vitality. The rival live performances are all conducted by Karl Böhm – completely alternative versions, generally more lyrical and, yes, less focused on the orchestra. One set is a man-made product absolutely of its period, the other a form of industrial espionage into what was happening in our theatres.

But both are essential for hearing the work of this soprano.

Do not forget that in this sea of ‘German-ness’ Nilsson was also recording exciting and fulfilling versions of (in particular) Un ballo in maschera and Turandot – she relates skilfully to the characters in both. A double CD set entitled ‘Ritorna vincitor’ seems to be the only current way of obtaining tracks from a Decca album (conducted by Bertil Bokstedt) of Scandinavian songs which the singer particularly loved.

‘She had a fantastic instrument and the technique to use it’ – Valerie Solti

Lady Solti comments that her husband and the soprano ‘worked willingly together – he always wanted her if she was available. She had a fantastic instrument and the technique to use it. I always remember how, after a big concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Elektra I think it was, she just started singing Brünnhilde’s “Ho-jo-to-ho”. The voice had a silvery quality, tender and wonderful.’ Professionally, Nilsson was always ‘focused on the job in hand. She didn’t have the trappings of a prima donna or the dressings of a Callas, walking around with a big black bag and white shoes’.

Physically, she was ‘big, not tall – you could imagine her moving a heifer around the farm at home’, and she was also ‘extraordinarily natural and very funny. After she’d been [bestowed the title of] Kammersängerin in Vienna, she announced at a party in Decca’s Sofiensaal flat, “Watch this”, and got on the telephone. “Hier spricht Frau Kammersängerin Nilsson. Ich brauche einen Taxi”. (This is Frau Kammersängerin Nilsson speaking. I need a taxi.)’

Nilsson’s far-reaching legacy

Looking back at Nilsson’s career – with the benefit of hindsight – is to see a fascinating bridge between ancient and modern, between the carrier and employer of a great voice and a singing actress. She set the highest of vocal standards in the roles for which she is best known, bringing a groundbreaking physicality to them onstage. And despite her often rather tongue-in-cheek comments about detailed work (‘Singing Lieder is like being a clock repair man; I was a house builder’), her use of text in her Strauss roles – not forgetting the Dyer’s Wife (Die Frau ohne Schatten), her last new major undertaking – is remarkable for its dramatic awareness. Her continuing enthusiasm for her profession was exceptional.

Sony Classical’s ‘Birgit Nilsson - The Great Live Recordings’ is released in September. For information, please visit: birgitnilsson100.com

Recommended recordings

R Strauss Elektra

VPO / Sir Georg Solti

Decca (11/67)

Perhaps her single greatest studio achievement in terms of outright passion and virtuosity – and, interestingly, the most recently learned role in her repertoire at the time of recording. It also enshrines one of her finest collaborations with Sir Georg Solti.

 

R Strauss Salome

VPO / Solti

Decca (3/62)

Controversial because of the amount of control-room/mixing-desk intervention in the sheer musical colour as recorded (and the manic intensity of the conducting) but Nilsson does sound every inch Strauss’s dream of the teenage princess with the voice of an Isolde.

 

Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Karl Böhm

DG (1/67)

Virtually every revival of this ’60s production has appeared on some recording. This is the ‘official’ version, made in a single year (1966) and recorded one act at a time for maximum focus and concentration. A great three-way musical interchange of conductor, soprano and tenor (Windgassen).

 

Wagner Götterdämmerung

Bayreuth / Karl Böhm

Philips/Decca

No longer available on its own, but included as part of the complete Ring (and also in Decca’s new ‘La Nilsson’ collection), this is perhaps less pile-driver virtuosic than its famous Decca studio predecessor but especially moving in Nilsson’s evident pain at the loss of Siegfried.

 

Puccini Turandot

Rome Opera Orchestra / Erich Leinsdorf

RCA (4/61)

Nilsson noted that Puccini made her ‘rich’ – and she may well have got bored with standing immobile on the inevitable staircase in Act 2 – but this is one of her great roles both for sheer carrying power and her surprising vulnerability, here with her compatriot Jussi Björling as a lyrical, flexible Calaf.

 

‘Ritorna vincitor!’

Various artists

Decca

A fine survey to download or stream, this collection includes many of Nilsson’s most famous Verdi, Strauss and Wagner roles as well as Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and 14 songs by Grieg, Sibelius and Rangström … as well as ‘I could have danced all night’!

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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