A Testament of Greatness

New documentary of Birgit Nilsson reminds us of what we had—and can still treasure

I’ve spent most of my life believing that Birgit Nilsson was the greatest Wagnerian soprano of my lifetime. A 2018 Unitel DVD, “Birgit Nilsson: A League of Her Own,” (distributed by Naxos), gives ample evidence to even make the argument she might have been the greatest opera singer ever.

My sole encounter of her artistry in person admittedly came at an impressionable age; it was December 1972 at the Metropolitan Opera. I was a senior in high school, and I was already under the spell of both Wagner and Nilsson’s unparalleled instrument. Karl Bohm conducted (as my music teacher had predicted, he got a standing ovation before a single note had been played). When the final curtain fell on Tristan und Isolde, I glanced at my watch: 11:45. When the ovations finally ceased, I looked again: 12:05 a.m.

Given $100 for a record buying spree as a graduation gift the following June, the bulk of it added Solti’s “Ring” cycle (with Nilsson as Brunnhilde, of course) and Bohm’s Tristan, also with Nilsson. As treasured as those recordings have been, the memory of her at the Met that night rings true with one of the pithiest quotes in the DVD, attributed to musicologist Jurgen Kesting: “Listening to Nilsson on recording is like driving a Porsche in your backyard.”

Which doesn’t mean of course that we can’t listen and adore records and videos (especially since that’s all we have now!). But what struck me in this documentary was how little I knew of her Italian repertoire (other than Turandot). Moreover, I was ignorant of her upbringing and early career. Born on a farm in southern Sweden, her father encouraged his daughter’s gift—to a point. Though trained to become a future farmer’s wife, Nilsson prayed “Please, Lord, let me become a singer.” She managed to get to the Royal Academy in Stockholm in 1941 (age 23). Even at that point she had some indifferent instruction, and miraculously discovered the foundation of her remarkable technique on her own.

Perhaps the most special quality of this disc is the plethora of clips from interviews with the BBC and various Swedish television appearances. We have ample opportunity to really get to know the warm woman whose integrity offstage equaled her artistry.

We are also treated to plenty of great insights into places like the Bayreuth Festival—not to mention singers such as Placido Domingo, Franco Corelli, Christa Ludwig and Marilyn Horne. Then there are the conductors: Solti, who she deeply appreciated for his attention to details such as rhythm, Karl Bohm with whom she triumphed at the Met and in Vienna…and her arms-length relationship with Herbert von Karajan.

In one of the Swedish television appearances, Nilsson begins by saying she just never understood why Karajan should be treated differently than anyone else—but she was one of the few artists who would stand up to him. Describing a rehearsal she recalled, “He said, ‘Frau Nilsson, do that again, but this time with heart. The heart is where your wallet is.’ ‘Then at least we have one thing in common,’ I replied…He wanted to control everything. Too bad. A great artist, but a small human being. What can you do?”

She enjoyed a long and happy marriage with a veterinarian turned businessman, and never lost touch with her roots. Near the end of her life she established the Birgti Nilsson foundation, which would give occasional prizes (of one million dollars—the single largest gift in the arts according to the documentary) to musicians or ensembles in outstanding achievement of the highest performance standards and that have made a major contribution to music history. She insisted that she choose the first recipient, but that it not be revealed until at least three years after her death. In 2009, Placido Domingo received the first award, and used the money to name two more prizes in his own Operalia competition, specifically for Wagnerian singers, and in Nilsson’s name.

The bucolic farm where Nilsson grew up is now a museum/special event venue, and she was buried next to her parents at the nearby church where she sang off and on for over seventy years. But she belonged to the world, and this new documentary makes her memory and the testimony of her achievements all the more precious.

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