This year is a big year for the late, great Birgit Nilsson. Not only does 2018 mark the 100th anniversary of the Swedish soprano’s birth, but it will also mark the fourth time which the prize that bears her name will be awarded. With a headline-grabbing purse of $1m, The Birgit Nilsson Prize has been dubbed the Nobel Prize of music, and it is similarly given in recognition of achievements of the highest possible level.

Rutbert Reisch at the 2014 Birgit Nilsson Award ceremony
© Jan-Olav Wedin

Nilsson herself decreed that the first prize, awarded in 2009, four years after her death, should go to Plácido Domingo, and it has subsequently gone to Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. One can expect speculation to mount in the coming weeks as to who the fourth recipient will be.

When I meet Prof Dr Rutbert Reisch, President of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, it is too early in the decision process to try to extract any clues. Nor, I suspect, would Reisch be the sort to offer any. The impeccably presented former CFO of a major international corporation is the epitome of seriousness and integrity, qualities allied, it becomes immediately clear, with a deep love of music, as well as old-school Austrian charm and hospitality – we meet in a quiet room in the Hotel Sacher, and he wastes no time in ordering me a slice of the famous Torte.

What he does tell me is that the prize will go to a singer again, having now been given to recipients in each of the possible categories: it can go to any orchestra, conductor or singer for, to quote the Foundation’s website, ‘outstanding achievement in opera, concert, Lieder, or oratorio.’

The Prize is specifically designed to reflect the professional values and qualities that Nilsson herself embodied throughout her long career. And, as becomes clear during our wide-ranging two-hour conversation, there can’t be anyone on the planet who has a better understanding of Nilsson and that career than Reisch. He first heard the great Swede in Vienna in 1965, and saw her perform close to 200 times since, including no fewer than 35 times as Isolde (‘not one was like the other,’ he tells me).

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot at The Met (1966)
© Beth Bergman

When I ask him to recall that first encounter, he says he still gets emotional about it. It was Turandot and it took only six bars of ‘In questa reggia’ for him be bowled over by the voice: ‘I said to myself, “I’d like to know what kind of human being is behind it, that can produce a sound like this.” Three years later he and a couple of friends organised a collection among those in the Staatsoper’s fabled standing room to bestow upon her an ‘honorary ring’ as a gesture of thanks – he pauses to show me a photo of the ring in proofs for the lavish book being produced for the anniversary year, one of several such occasions throughout our meeting.

They were invited to present this small ‘surprise’ ahead of a performance of Tristan. ‘It was 24 November 1968. The date is etched in my mind,’ he recalls. ‘I expected to be five minutes in and out, but we were about half an hour. This was right before a performance as Isolde, but she was fun and relaxed. I’d only known her from the stage, exuding authority, the type of person who would dominate the stage without opening her mouth. But here was seemingly a perfectly normal human being, no prima donna personality.’

Reisch expected that to be the end of it, but there followed an invitation to dinner for the three friends. And he and the soprano obviously hit it off, meeting regularly thereafter and becoming even closer friends after Reisch’s work took him to the United States in 1971. The friendship was increasingly complemented, too, by Reisch’s growing role as confidant and advisor for Nilsson. At the beginning of the 1990s she asked him if he would be willing to run her foundation, something that would not be announced until 2008 – she stipulated a three-year wait after her death. She specifically wanted someone independent from the business, he recalls, and Reisch agreed on one condition. ‘She wanted to pay me, but I said, “If you force me to be paid, then I won’t do it, especially after everything you’ve given me in my life, no way.” And that’s one time she had to back down!’

Reisch’s uncompromising integrity comes across when we return to the subject of the prize, the size of which is unprecedented in a sphere where money is in ever shorter and shorter supply. But he makes no apologies. ‘The ultimate objective,’ he explains, ‘is to promote the art form, and there was no prize that really rewards the ultimate outstanding in the interpretative arts – these are the people that keep the art form alive.’ Rather than what he describes as the ‘watering can’ approach for those at the start of their careers, Nilsson wanted an award for those ‘at the finishing line, those at the summit. The idea was to create an enticement to young singers, that this should be something possible if they plan their career carefully, if they don’t sing Isolde at the age of 30.’

This attitude was in part informed by the hardships of Nilsson’s own early years, punctuated with professional knocks as well as personal ones: Reisch movingly explains how her mother, who supported her career in the face of opposition from her farmer father, heard her only once before being killed in a car crash. He then asks for the interview to go off the record as he goes on to explain another major setback in her life, not generally known, but which he writes about in the new book.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth (1960)
© Siegfried Lauterwasser

The picture he builds is of an artist of the most unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a woman whose professionalism saw her sing Elektra with a 38.5 degree fever and Brünnhilde four days after dislocating her shoulder. Reisch brings out the book proofs again to show me a photo of her on stage in Götterdämmerung, arm in a sling. ‘The applause at her entrance there,’ he adds, ‘I’ve never heard a sound like it!’

And what about the sound of the voice itself? ‘This gets us into an area where words won’t suffice,’ Reisch replies. ‘This is the secret, the mystery of music – it affects you so deep down you can’t verbalise that.’ Our conversation is nevertheless littered with telling descriptive snippets, not least with regard to the imperfect picture we get of her from recordings. Reisch, as Nilsson was herself, is critical of ‘the commercial recordings of one particular company, which in the early ’60s was geared to putting the singers in the Sacher Hotel and the mikes and the orchestra over at the Musikverein.

‘It was a voice that needed to open up, that needed wide-open spaces. The Decca people demanded that when she had a high note she take a few steps back, but otherwise the mikes were closer to her than we are at this table – totally unsuitable for this voice.’ He goes on: ‘I know some singers who told me that when you sang next to her on stage, you didn’t have the feeling it was such a big voice, but when it opened up in the auditorium, it was capable of flooding the whole place.

‘It was incredibly focused, but never pinpoint, always rich. She never pierced through the orchestra; she always soared over it and was capable of floating a delicate piano. You could never hear any effort, just pouring out this sound like opening floodgates. With these recordings for the most part we have the skeleton of a voice. She was very unhappy about them. “One day when people hear this,” she would say, “they will wonder what was so special about this woman.”’ A compilation of live recordings released by the foundation this year, Reisch hopes, will go some way to offering a better idea.

Part of Nilsson’s own problems early on came with teachers, Reisch goes on to explain, who had little understanding of the essential need for support, and the soprano ended up having to discover and hone her own remarkable technique: the technique that allowed her to sing while unwell or injured, which meant she never put pressure on the voice. I mention one anecdote about Karl Böhm finding her backstage after a performance of Götterdämmerung singing the Queen of the Night. ‘I was there!’ Reisch responds. ‘She said: “Now I’m just warmed up”. I heard it myself, and it sounded as fresh as a daisy, like a genuine coloratura. She was very happy after that performance, felt the need to sing something, and that’s what came to her mind!’

Birgit Nilsson returning to The Met (1979)
© Beth Bergman

When I ask whether such a career is possible today, Reisch is by no means unrealistic about the challenges facing younger singers, reserving harsh criticism for unscrupulous managers and conductors, as well as for singer-unfriendly directors. He expresses concern, too, about the general shift towards casting for looks rather than voice. ‘They all have to look like Twiggy or Elizabeth Taylor,’ he says, ‘but you can’t expect a nightingale to roar’, quoting Lauritz Melchior.

Nevertheless, singers and conductors clearly need to possess some of Nilsson’s determination and integrity if they are ever to come into consideration for the five-strong panel that, with Reisch handling the civilised selection process, decides on the recipient of the Birgit Nilsson Prize. A reputation for unnecessary cancellations serves as an immediate disqualification, and a commitment to serving the composer is paramount. The prize is also resolutely apolitical, with any activities beyond the musical sphere discounted from the selection process.

And while the choices of the previous prize-winners – as well as the sheer size of the prize itself – have come in for some criticism, Reisch remains unapologetic. He puts up with the comparison with the Nobel Prize grudgingly, one senses, but does at least find it useful in one regard. ‘Nobody asks what those winners do with their money. And I’m not even going to start with why nobody complains why Messi gets 35 million for pushing a piece of leather from one corner of a lawn to the other, year after year!’

It must also be gratifying that, though the decision was made early on that the prize should have no strings attached, previous prize-winners have nevertheless all used the money for their own worthwhile projects. Domingo funds a Wagner prize in his Operalia competition with it, Reisch reiterates, while the Vienna Philharmonic has used it to digitise their archive. Muti, I venture, has apparently put his towards his own youth orchestra projects. But Reisch is not keeping tabs. ‘That may well be, but I wouldn’t ask him. That’s not my business!’


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