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Vincent Vargas is a foreign language teacher at a private school in New York City. He runs websites dedicated to Casablanca (www.vincasa.com) and Richard Wagner (www.wagneroperas.com).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Birgit Nilsson: NY Times Bernard Holland Article


The New York Times

January 12, 2006
Birgit Nilsson, Soprano Legend Who Tamed Wagner, Dies at 87
By BERNARD HOLLAND

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.

Her long career at the Bayreuth Festival and her immersion in Wagner in general, began in the mid-1950's. No dramatic soprano truly approached her stature thereafter, and in the roles of Isolde, Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, she began her stately 30-year procession around the opera houses of the world. Her United States debut was in San Francisco in 1956. Three years later she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing Isolde under Karl Böhm, and some listeners treasure the memory of that performance as much as they do her live recording of the role from Bayreuth in 1966, also under Böhm. The exuberant review of her first Met performance appeared on the front page of The New York Times on Dec. 19, 1959, under the headline, "Birgit Nilsson as Isolde Flashes Like New Star in 'Met' Heavens."

Playing opposite Karl Liebl as Tristan, Howard Taubman wrote, "she dominated the stage and the performance."

When she appeared at the end of the first act to take a solo bow, he wrote, the audience "roared like the Stadium fans when Conerly throws a winning touchdown pass."

Like so many distinctive artists, Ms. Nilsson considered herself self-taught. "The best teacher is the stage," she told an interviewer in 1981. "You walk out onto it, and you have to learn to project." She deplored her early instruction and attributed her survival to native talent. "My first voice teacher almost killed me," she said. "The second was almost as bad."

Birgit Nilsson was born in 1918. Her mother, evidently a talented singer, began Ms. Nilsson's musical education at 3, buying her a toy piano. She began picking out melodies on it.

She once told an interviewer that she could sing before she could walk. "I even sang in my dreams," she added. A choirmaster near her home heard her sing and advised her to study. She entered the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1941.

Ms. Nilsson made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1946, replacing the scheduled Agathe in Weber's "Freischütz," who was too ill to go on. The next year she claimed attention there as Verdi's Lady Macbeth under Fritz Busch. A wealth of parts followed, from Strauss and Verdi to Wagner, Puccini and Tchaikovsky.

Her first splash abroad was 1951, as Elettra in Mozart's "Idomeneo" at the Glyndebourne Festival in England. From there, it was a short hop to the Vienna State Opera and then to Bayreuth. She took the title role of "Turandot," which is brief but in need of an unusually big sound, to Milan in 1958 and then to the rest of Italy.

Ms. Nilsson was suspicious of opera's recent youth culture and often remarked on the premature destruction of young voices brought on by overambitious career planning. "Directors and managers don't care about their futures," she once said. "They will just get another young person when this one goes bad."

In today's opera culture, the best managed voices tend to mature in the singer's 40's and begin to deteriorate during the 50's. (Singers like Plácido Domingo, flourishing in his 60's, might dispute such generalizations.) Yet at 66, when most singers hang onto whatever career remains through less taxing recitals with piano and discreet downward transpositions of key, Ms. Nilsson sang a New York concert performance of Strauss and Wagner that met both composers head-on.

"Ms. Nilsson did not sound young," Will Crutchfield wrote in The Times. "Soft and low notes were often precarious; sustained tones were not always steady." He continued: "The wonderful thing is that she doesn't let this bother her. There was never a sense of distress or worry."

The conductor Erich Leinsdorf thought that her longevity, like Flagstad's, had something to do with her Scandinavian heritage, remarking that Wagner required "thoughtful, patient and methodical people." Ms. Nilsson attributed her long career to no particular lifestyle or regimen. "I do nothing special," she once said. "I don't smoke. I drink a little wine and beer. I was born with the right set of parents."

In sheer power, Ms. Nilsson's high notes were sometimes compared to those of the Broadway belter Ethel Merman. One high C rendered in a "Turandot" performance in the outdoor Arena di Verona in Italy led citizenry beyond the walls to think that a fire alarm had been set off. Once urged to follow Ms. Nilsson in the same role at the Met, the eminent soprano Leonie Rysanek refused.

Ms. Nilsson was known for her one-liner humor. The secret to singing Isolde, she said, was "comfortable shoes." After a disagreement with the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, Ms. Nilsson was asked if she thought Ms. Sutherland's famous bouffant hairdo was real. She answered: "I don't know. I haven't pulled it yet." After the tenor Franco Corelli was said to have bitten her neck in an onstage quarrel over held notes, Ms. Nilsson canceled performances complaining that she had rabies.

Ms. Nilsson was also a shrewd businesswoman and negotiated much of her own career. She never ranted or engaged in tantrums. She was also too proud to make outright demands. She would begin contract talks by refusing every offer and being evasive about her availability in general. This tack would continue until the impresario offered something she wanted. Ms. Nilsson's reply would be "maybe." Now in control, she would be begged to accept what she desired in the first place.

She could stand up to intensely wired conductors like Georg Solti as well. When Solti, in "Tristan und Isolde," insisted on tempos too slow for her taste, she made the first performance even slower, inducing a conductorial change of heart.

Partly because Ms. Nilsson was on the scene, Decca Records undertook the audacious and mammothly expensive project of making the first studio recording of Wagner's four-opera "Ring" cycle conducted by Solti and produced by John Culshaw. The effort took seven years, from 1958 to 1965. A film of the proceedings made her a familiar image for arts-conscious television viewers.

Ms. Nilsson's American career was derailed in the mid-70's by a squabble with the Internal Revenue Service, which had filed claims for back taxes. Several years later, cooler heads intervened: a schedule of payments was worked out, and Ms. Nilsson's ill-tempered hiatus from the United States ended. When she returned, Donal Henahan wrote in The Times, "The famous shining trumpet of a voice is still far from sounding like a cornet."

Ms. Nilsson appeared at the Met 223 times in 16 roles. She sang two complete "Ring" cycles in the 1961-62 season, and another in 1974-75. She was Isolde 33 times, and Turandot 52. The big soprano parts were all hers: Aida, Tosca, the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's "Frau Ohne Schatten," Salome, Elektra, Lady Macbeth, Leonore in Beethoven's "Fidelio," and both Venus and Elisabeth in Wagner's "Tannhäuser." For much of this time, the Met's general manager was Rudolf Bing. Ms. Nilsson, when signing a contract, was asked to name a dependent. She wrote in Bing's name.

James Levine, who conducted her in Wagner and Strauss at the Met, said yesterday: "Birgit was unique. Her voice, the dedication of her artistry, her wonderfully wicked sense of humor and her loyal friendship were in a class by themselves. I miss her already, as does the entire Met family." At Mr. Levine's 25th-anniversary gala at the Met in 1996, she spoke briefly and wittily, throwing in a brief and wholly professional Valkyrie hoot at the end.

Ms. Nilsson had by then retired to her childhood home in the Skane province of southern Sweden. Here her father had been a sixth-generation farmer, and here she had worked to grow beets and potatoes until she was 23. A decade ago an interviewer for The Times found her there: happy, serene and as unpretentious as ever. "I've always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me," she said. "Stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won't hurt so much."

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