Birgit Nilsson was indisputably one of the 20th century’s greatest Wagnerians. The Swedish soprano, who was the leading Brünnhilde and Isolde of her day, would have celebrated her hundredth birthday this year and her memory is honoured in this lavish volume from the foundation that bears her name. At first sight, Birgit Nilsson 100: An homage looks – and feels – like a doorstop, a giant brick containing a 712-page hardback book charting her career. It’s a heavyweight tribute, a coffee table book that requires the sturdiest of coffee tables to support it.

© Mark Pullinger
© Mark Pullinger

Once released from its linen-clad casing, the book is a fascinating chronicle of Nilsson’s career. There’s a touching introduction by Rutbert Reisch, President of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation and a man who knew Nilsson personally. It reveals facets of her character, such as her refusal to publicly admit to her cancer: “I could not stand the thought of being pitied.” Reisch enigmatically describes her as “complex not complicated”.

At $1 million, the Birgit Nilsson Foundation awards the largest prize in classical music. The first recipient was tenor Plácido Domingo, who leads the lengthy section of tributes, recollections and chronicles from colleagues and critics. Domingo describes Nilsson’s voice as “like a thunderbolt coming out of the sky” while others report how it wasn’t an overwhelming sound, but “it just had ‘ping’”, a word Nilsson herself used to describe her voice. Lady Solti describes Nilsson’s “iron discipline” while relating how her husband, Sir Georg, always wanted to use her in his recordings.

Singing Brünnhilde at The Met in 1963 © Louis Mélançon
Singing Brünnhilde at The Met in 1963
© Louis Mélançon

There are more formal surveys of aspects of Nilsson’s career – Rupert Christiansen’s appreciation of Nilsson’s performances at Covent Garden are reprinted in May’s issue of Opera magazine – but the best tributes are from those who knew Nilsson personally as colleagues or friends. Brian Large reveals how jugs of beer had been hidden in the scenery at Bayreuth to stop Nilsson’s throat drying up when she sang Isolde there, while director Otto Schenk recalls how she would “warble” the Queen of the Night in her dressing room as a warm-up!

Critic and former general director of Seattle Opera Speight Jenkins – an adoring fan as much as anything – relates the story of how part of the set collapsed during rehearsals of Götterdämmerung at The Metropolitan Opera, leading to Nilsson singing Brünnhilde with her arm in a sling. Jenkins had visited her in hospital and broke the story in The New York Post – which contradicted the official Met report quoted in The New York Times – and Nilsson was so pleased that she sent him a pair of cufflinks as a thank you.

Despite being the leading Wagnerian soprano of her era, the most memorable anecdotes relate to her Turandot and Tosca. It’s no irony that Nilsson said, “Wagner made me famous; Puccini made me rich.” Mirella Freni reminisces about singing Liù to Nilsson’s Turandot, while others chart her run-ins with tenor Franco Corelli – who often sang her Calaf.

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot at the Vienna State Opera, 1961 © The Birgit Nilsson Foundation | Fayer
Birgit Nilsson as Turandot at the Vienna State Opera, 1961
© The Birgit Nilsson Foundation | Fayer

Nilsson was clearly not one for a diva strop, but she invariably had a sharp riposte up her sleeve. There was a wonderful spat with Cecil Beaton during rehearsals of the Met’s new Turandot, which Beaton had designed: “You are ruining my Turandot!!” he complained. “YOUR Turandot?” Nilsson replied. “I thought it was Puccini’s.” Perhaps the loveliest remembrance comes from fellow Wagnerian soprano extraordinaire Astrid Varnay, who died less than a year after Nilsson: “Even with our helmets on, we never locked horns.”

Following the tributes, the book contains a magnificent collection of photo galleries charting Nilsson’s astonishing career, grouped by her stage roles. The sight of Nilsson’s Turandot in an amazing gown, train cascading down a staircase, in Vienna 1961 is stunning. There are then off-stage, curtain call, backstage and personal photographs, the latter including insights into her rural background in Skåne. Her father had expected Birgit to eventually take over the running of the family farm, grumbling “We don’t need any great singers in our family.”

The volume also includes beautifully reproduced newspaper clippings of reviews from throughout her career, along with articles and a series of obituaries. There’s even a facsimile of the 500 Swedish kronor banknote issued in her honour in 2016. You’d need roughly twice that to purchase this tribute – £100 is the recommended retail price – but it’s bound to offer hours of pleasure to committed Nilssonites in the opera world.

Click here for further information on this volume. 


This article was sponsored by M L Falcone Public Relations | The Birgit Nilsson Foundation