From a Swedish farm
No-one could have predicted that Birgit Nilsson would one day become an icon among the interpreters of Wagner, Strauss, Puccini and Verdi and perform at the world’s leading opera houses.
Born on 17 May 1918 in Västra Karup, a town in the southern Swedish province of Skåne, the young farmer’s daughter was at first simply seen as an exceptional vocal talent who was welcome to sing in the local church choir. Even on the night before her audition to study at the Stockholm Royal Academy of Music, she was expected to milk the cows on her parents’ farm…
Birgit Nilsson then completed her professional training as a soprano at the Stockholm Opera School, and in 1946 made her debut as Agathe in ‘Der Freischütz’ at the Kungliga Teatern in Stockholm. But her stage repertoire quickly broke through the lyric and youthful-dramatic roles. The highly gifted singer went on to perform the great dramatic soprano parts at a young age. She soon achieved great acclaim at international level, both from her audience and the critics. Early recordings were made of her concerts and opera performances, and the first studio recordings soon followed.
…via Bayreuth to the Met
Wagner’s ‘Isolde’, ‘Brünnhilde’, Puccini’s ‘Turandot’, Richard Strauss’ ‘Elektra’, ‘Salome’ and the Dyer’s Wife in ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ - these were parts that became the core repertoire of Birgit Nilsson. Her incomparable performance of ‘Isolde’ was legendary; she sang it more than 200 times, working with the world’s best conductors, who ranged from Karajan, Soti and Sawallisch to Böhm, to whom she felt artistically particularly close.
"Of all the – 33, to be precise – ‘Tristan’ conductors with whom I have worked, I would assert that no-one can match Böhm’s musical interpretation", Nilsson said in Bayreuth in 1991.
A life dedicated to opera
After 36 years, Nilsson suddenly retired from the stage in 1982, without giving a farewell performance, remarking in her typical style: "It’s better to be retiring two years too early than two years too late!" There followed a concert tour in 1984, after which she devoted her time to promoting young talented singers. Her life continued to be dedicated to opera even after leaving the stage. Having been literally showered with honours and awards, including the honorific titles of Swedish Royal Court Singer and Austrian and Bavarian Kammersängerin, she now embarked on teaching vocal master classes in Stockholm, Hannover and New York.
One of the many anecdotes that have grown around Nilsson speaks for itself: Karl Böhm is said to have told her with effusive enthusiasm after a ‘Tristan’ performance: "Birgit, if ever you stop singing, I will stop conducting". The then Lord Mayor of Bayreuth, Hans Peter Wild, who was sitting next to her, didn’t want to be left behind. He placed his hand on her arm and said: "Mrs. Nilsson, we want to bury you here in Bayreuth!" However, this wish was not granted to Bayreuth. Birgit Nilsson died on 25 December 2005, age 87, in her Swedish homeland, where she was buried in a quiet ceremony.