January 12, 2006


Birgit Nilsson, Soprano Legend Who Tamed Wagner, Dies at 87 (BERNARD HOLLAND, 1/12/06, NY Times)

Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish soprano with a voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina, died on Dec. 25 in Vastra Karup, the village where she was born, the Stockholm newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported yesterday. She was 87.

A funeral was held yesterday at a church in her town, the presiding vicar, Fredrik Westerlund, told The Associated Press.

Ms. Nilsson made so strong an imprint on a number of roles that her name came to be identified with a repertory, the "Nilsson repertory," and it was a broad one. She sang the operas of Richard Strauss and made a specialty of Puccini's "Turandot," but it was Wagner who served her career and whom she served as no other soprano since the days of Kirsten Flagstad.

A big, blunt woman with a wicked sense of humor, Ms. Nilsson brooked no interference from Wagner's powerful and eventful orchestra writing. When she sang Isolde or Brünnhilde, her voice pierced through and climbed above it. Her performances took on more pathos as the years went by, but one remembers her sound more for its muscularity, accuracy and sheer joy of singing under the most trying circumstances.

-OBIT: Birgit Nilsson (Daily Telegraph, 12/01/2006)

Birgit Nilsson, who has died aged 87, was considered to be the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her day; she had a rock-solid technique and a voice of such soaring, unforced power that it was able to cut through the massed forces of a Wagnerian orchestra with ease, yet a purity of tone which enabled her to switch to the most delicate pianissimo.

Nilsson in Person: The Glory of the Power (ANTHONY TOMMASINI, 1/14/06, NY Times)
When I started going to the Metropolitan Opera as a young adolescent, typically in the upper balconies or the standing-room sections, some opera goddess must have been looking out for me. I didn't really know what I was doing. Yet at my first "Bohème" the Mimi was Renata Tebaldi. My first Aida was Leontyne Price. And my first Turandot was Birgit Nilsson.

I did not know Puccini's "Turandot" at all when I attended this performance in 1965. I had never heard Ms. Nilsson. Imagine having had no idea of what was about to happen when Birgit Nilsson, as Puccini's icy and exotic princess in ancient China, descended the staircase of the Met's old Cecil Beaton set and started to sing the dramatic soprano showstopper "In questa reggia." In retrospect, I'm glad that I had not been prepped or heard a recording in advance, or done much more than scan a synopsis of the opera's plot. I will never forget the overwhelming impact of hearing Ms. Nilsson's stupendous voice soaring over the full orchestra and chorus in the climax of that scene. Her sustained high C's must have shaken dust off the ceiling of the old Metropolitan Opera House, the year before it closed.

Since the news this week that Ms. Nilsson had died at 87 in the Swedish farming village where she was born, commentators have been recalling her artistry and describing her singing. But it is almost impossible to convey what it was like to hear her in person. Even her recordings, many of them landmarks in the discography, do not do full justice to her singing.

It was not just the sheer size of her voice that overwhelmed recording studio microphones. It was the almost physical presence of her shimmering sound that made it so distinctive. Her colleagues often remarked that when they stood next to Ms. Nilsson on stage her voice did not seem all that big. Because she thoroughly understood the technique of supporting the voice from the diaphragm, her sound projected outward into the hall. There was never any sense of effort in her singing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 12, 2006 6:22 AM

I'll admit my cultural leanings are crude enough that when I saw the headline before I ready the story Tuesday night, I figured she either died due to steroid use or too much drug abuse from clubbing when she was with Sly and Mark Gastineau.

Posted by: John at January 12, 2006 9:47 AM

She will be missed.

What I always liked was her sense of humor. I remember reading that one time Franco Corelli, the tenor, got so frustrated that he could not hold a note longer than she could that he bit her neck during a love scene. She refused to sing the next night because she had rabies. One time with Karajan he insisted that the lights be very low for an opera he was conducting. She showed up wearing a miner's lamp so she could see where she was going.

When she was in full cry, she could be just devastating. There are no singers quite up to her standards now.

Posted by: dick at January 12, 2006 2:59 PM