Birgit Nilsson Dies
By Karl Ritter
January 11, 2006
STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) -- Birgit Nilsson, whose prodigious voice,
unrivaled stamina and thrilling high notes made her the greatest
Wagnerian soprano of the post-World War II era, has died. She
A funeral was held Wednesday at a church in her native town of
Vastra Karup in southern Sweden with only her closest relatives
attending, said Fredrik Westerlund, the church's vicar. He did
not know when Nilsson died or the cause of death.
Born on a farm in Vastra Karup, Nilsson reigned supreme at opera
houses around the world during her long career, which began with
her debut in 1946 at the Stockholm Royal Opera as Agathe in
Weber's "Der Freischutz" and continued until the mid-1980s when
She sang a wide variety of dramatic soprano roles, but her
reputation was based especially on her mastery of a handful of
the most punishing in the operatic repertory. Chief among these
was Isolde in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde,"which she sang for
her sensational debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1959.
She was immediately hailed as a worthy successor to her fellow
Scandinavian, Kirsten Flagstad, the Norwegian soprano who owned
the Wagner repertory at the Met during the years leading up to
Other parts Nilsson made her own included Bruennhilde, the warrior
maiden of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, the title role of Elektra in
Richard Strauss's opera of the same name, and the heroine of
At her peak, Nilsson astounded audiences in live performance
with the unforced power of her voice, which easily cut through
the thickest orchestrations, and with her remarkable breath
control, which allowed her to hold onto the highest note for
seemingly endless amounts of time. Her interpretive powers
grew as her career developed, and she became a moving artist
as well as a vocal phenomenon.
Her reputation for dependability was sealed and a piece of
operatic lore was written on Dec. 28, 1959, when she sang a
performance of "Tristan" opposite three different tenors. Her
scheduled co-star, Karl Liebel was ill, and so were his two
"covers," Ramon Vinay and Albert DaCosta. Met general manager
Rudolf Bing perusaded each of them to go one for a single act
so the performance wouldn't have to be canceled.
Nilsson also was renowned among her colleagues for her playful
sense of humor. Once asked what was the chief requirement for
singing the role of Isolde, she replied: "Comfortable shoes."
Johanna Fiedler, in her book about the Met, "Molto Agitato,"
tells the story of Nilsson's unhappiness with the gloomy lighting
on which Herbert von Karajan insisted for his production of the
"Ring." To register her objections, she appeared on stage during
one rehearsal wearing a coal miner's helmet with searchlight.
Another legendary Nilsson moment occurred after one of her
frequent battle-of-the-high-note contests with tenor Franco
Corelli during the second act duet from "Turandot." Enraged that
no matter how he tried she could hold onto the climactic high C
longer than he could, Corelli apparently got his revenge during
their third-act love scene by biting her on the neck instead of
kissing her. Nilsson is said to have telephoned Bing to cancel
her next performance with the explanation, "I have rabies."
Nilsson's last appearance on the Met stage came more than a
decade after she retired, when she took part in an April 1996
gala celebrating music director James Levine's 25th anniversary
with the company. After some gracious remarks, she launched
into Bruennhilde's "ho-yo-to-ho" battle cry from "Die Walkuere,"
delivering -- at age 77 -- a performance that would have been
the envy of any younger soprano.
Nilsson made her Swedish debut at the Stockholm Royal Opera
in 1947 in Verdi's "Macbeth." In 1954 she received the title
"Hovsaangerska," or court singer, for her contributions to Swedish
Even before that, she had dazzled audiences. Her first major
foreign engagement came on June 20, 1951, at the Glyndebourne
Festival near London, then as Elettra in Mozart's "Idomeneo."
Early in 1954, she performed with the Vienna State Opera, and
later that year made her first appearance at the Bayreuth Festival.
She sang at the opera houses of Milan _ where she scored one of
her greatest -- successes in 1958 in "Turadnot" -- Naples, Venice,
Rome, Florence, Munich, Zurich, Lisbon and Barcelona as well as
major cities in France and Belgium.
Her music education started at age 3, when her mother, an
accomplished amateur singer, bought Birgit a toy piano, on which
she learned to pick out melodies.
"I sang before I could walk. I even sang in my dreams," she
told reporters soon after her opera debut.
After retirement in 1982, she continued to teach master's level
courses in singing.
Although she studied at Sweden's Royal Academy of Music, Nilsson
said she learned most of her musical skills on her own.
"I'm mostly self-educated. I discovered early how wonderfully
easy it was to sing in big localities. In small rooms my voice
got tired," she told a Swedish reporter once.
Nilsson married Swedish restaurateur Bertil Niklasson in 1949.
The couple had no children.