Birgit Nilsson with Nina Stemme, 1996
© The Birgit Nilsson Foundation

The criteria for the Birgit Nilsson Prize are nothing if not stringent. The winner, the guidelines stipulate, has to be an artist with a decades-long position at the very top of their profession, as well as an unimpeachable reputation for reliability and putting the composer first. This year, in the 100th anniversary of the great Swedish soprano’s birth, it had already been made known that the $1m prize was to go to a singer again – the previous winners had been Plácido Domingo, Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Anyone compiling their own mental shortlist of possible candidates will likely have come up with a list that was, if not short, then hardly long.

It is also likely to have included one singer who not only ticks all the boxes – to say the least – but whose win, announced at a press conference on 15 May, could hardly seem more apt. Nina Stemme: a Swedish soprano whose current reputation is built on peerless performances of precisely those heroic roles that Nilsson herself was peerless in: Strauss’s Elektra, Wagner’s Isolde and Brünnhilde. When I meet Stemme in Stockholm, the first of a half-dozen interviewers lined up for the day, she’s warm, friendly and down-to-earth – there’s charisma and an underlying sense of steely determination, but otherwise she is, in the best possible sense, strikingly normal. Rarely, I think to myself, can there have been larger gulf between the person I’m interviewing and the artist who’s been at the heart of several of my most memorable musical experiences: as the goddess-like Brünnhilde delivering her final scene from high up behind the orchestra in Daniel Barenboim’s Proms Ring five years ago, or the deeply complex and compelling Kundry with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic little over a month ago. 

Her down-to-earth professionalism is something that she also shares with the famously no-nonsense Nilsson. I feel I have to begin, then, by asking about the comparisons, as unhelpful as they are inescapable, between Stemme and her great forebear. She gives a slight sigh. “I will carry on being myself,” she replies, “and doing what I believe in. Each generation has its own ideas for an opera singer, for a music drama story-teller, so it’s not up to me. If people want to compare, OK, but how can they? I think this is the paradox about opera, that the audience, journalists, everyone needs this comparison factor all the time instead of enjoying the moment, and trying to make that best of the moment. It’s like a flower – you have it there and then it fades away.”

Nina Stemme as Kundry in Vienna State Opera's Parsifal, 2017
© Michael Pöhn

She’s quick to point out, too, that when she was growing up she was heading in a different direction. “Nilsson was of course iconic, and maybe I almost feared her voice a little bit, because it was so impressive, even when we heard it on the radio. But I was a lyric soprano, having also sung mezzo soprano a little bit as well in my training. And she was just finishing her career when I got interested at all in opera, so that was a pity.” Stemme did meet Nilsson, but, in a way that seems typical of her, never sought to impose herself. “I just felt that everyone wanted to get to her and try get a piece of her, and I didn’t want to do that. I liked her as a person, and she was very respectful and friendly, and I was almost shocked how she saw you just as a colleague. And she never tried to give you any advice unless you asked for it. Or if she felt it was really needed, then it would come as an aside – very clever!”

This is a collegial attitude that Stemme herself seems to have inherited, and she talks fondly about her four years in the ensemble at Cologne. Though she speaks of singers sometimes getting lost in ensembles in larger houses – she turned down a contract to join the Vienna State Opera – she found the experience of learning from more experienced colleagues invaluable. The Cologne experience also allowed her to expand her repertoire while keeping a hold on more lyrical roles. By this time, too, she had already had the experience of winning Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, as well being a finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. “I’m still very happy I didn’t win,” she says of the latter, “because I wasn’t there; it was too much repertoire for me to cover.” She’s grateful for both competitions, though: “I was able to make music with an orchestra, which I’d barely done before, and it put my name on the map.”

Things were hardly straightforward before that, however. Having originally studied business administration and economics, the young Stemme was accepted on the Stockholm Opera Studio course only at the third attempt, just a couple of months after switching from mezzo to soprano. “I got tired from the low tessitura of the mezzo, but I didn’t really have the technique. I was screaming and had a very raw-ish top, and not much of a top either. So I just had to start from scratch, note by note, starting from the freshest part of my voice, which was still the middle range.” She sang Mimì and Elsa’s two arias from Lohengrin at the audition, she tells me. “But I think what got me in was that I found a colour for the last aria of Traviata, which I did as a kind of encore. I worked psychologically a lot on the arias, and I feel that was what got me in.” 

Did acting, I ask, come naturally? Stemme answers with a characteristically matter-of-fact “nope”. “I worked on everything. I also joined a little theatre group one year, because I wanted to see what kind of an actress I would be. I would have hated to be mediocre.” Now at the peak of her career, it’s clear that exactly the same level of self-criticism is what keeps Stemme enjoying her job – at one point she describes doubt as her “motor” – and her friendly manner, calm responses and the sheer pleasure she communicates about her job leave one in no doubt that she unequivocally loves what she does. 

She adds the Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten to her repertoire in the Vienna State Opera’s centenary staging next year, the final Strauss role that Nilsson herself added to her repertoire, and sang her first Kundry last year. And while Nilsson always regretted that she got to sing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier only in Sweden early in her career, Stemme sang the role for the best part of a decade, although she admits that no one asked her any more once she took on Elektra for the first time, in Vienna in 2015 – just six months after she starred opposite Jonas Kaufmann’s in the same house in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West

Nina Stemme and Rutbert Reisch
© The Birgit Nilsson Foundation

There aren’t many more peaks to conquer, I suggest. She answers with a nonchalant “no”. But she goes on: “And I think that’s the way it should be, where I am now at my age. So we enjoy this for some more years and then we’ll see. I’m sure something will come up,” she says with a telling pause. Later in our conversation I press a bit further on that point. “I sang Marie in Wozzeck and Katerina Ismailova, in 2001 and 2003, but Maria never came back. And of course then we have the Janáček repertoire. If I could learn the role of Emilia Marty intravenously, that would be marvellous, and all the other roles. And I feel that if my voice hadn’t gone into the Wagnerian sphere, it would have definitely gone to Janáček and Czech music. I did Jenůfa, and I assume that Kostelnička will come up… we’re working on it,” she adds with a conspiratorial laugh. 

And what would she do if she had more time? “Having a garden or something would be nice! But there are so many other many musical projects that I’d like to explore, with the name that I have now. More new music, and also to do more recitals, Liederabende and the like. But there’s just too little time to study. I’m quite happy with the situation I’ve got,” she adds quickly, “and luckily there are other singers to do that.” 

There’s also the small matter of what to do with the hefty prize money. The Birgit Nilsson Foundation awards the prize with no strings attached, but previous winners have put their winnings towards their own worthwhile projects. It’s early days for Stemme, but she is determined to honour her predecessor’s famous integrity and good economic sense. “I’m conferring with Birgit Nilsson in heaven,” she says with yet another laugh, “and seeing what she wants!”


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