Birgit Nilsson
Birgit Nilsson was a celebrated Swedish
Sweden , officially the Kingdom of Sweden , is a Nordic country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Sweden borders with Norway and Finland and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund....

 dramatic soprano
Dramatic soprano
A dramatic soprano is an operatic soprano with a powerful, rich, emotive voice that can sing over, or cut through, a full orchestra. Thicker vocal folds in dramatic voices usually mean less agility than lighter voices but a sustained, fuller sound. Usually this voice has a lower tessitura than...

 who specialized in operatic and symphonic works. Her voice was noted for its overwhelming force, bountiful reserves of power and the gleaming brilliance and clarity in the upper register.


Birgit Nilsson came from a rural background and had to work hard to gain acceptance in the world of music, but she made so strong an imprint on many roles that they came to be known as the "Nilsson repertory". She sang the operas of Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss
Richard Georg Strauss was a leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. He is known for his operas, which include Der Rosenkavalier and Salome; his Lieder, especially his Four Last Songs; and his tone poems and orchestral works, such as Death and Transfiguration, Till...

 and made a specialty of Puccini
Giacomo Puccini
Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was an Italian composer whose operas, including La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot, are among the most frequently performed in the standard repertoire...

's Turandot
Turandot is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, set to a libretto in Italian by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.Though Puccini's first interest in the subject was based on his reading of Friedrich Schiller's adaptation of the play, his work is most nearly based on the earlier text Turandot...

, but it was the music of Wagner
Richard Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, conductor, theatre director, philosopher, music theorist, poet, essayist and writer primarily known for his operas...

 that made her career; her command of his music was comparable to that of Kirsten Flagstad
Kirsten Flagstad
Kirsten Målfrid Flagstad was a Norwegian opera singer and a highly regarded Wagnerian soprano...

, who owned the Wagner repertory at the Metropolitan Opera during the years before World War II. At her peak, Nilsson astounded audiences in live performance with the unforced power of her voice, which cut through dense orchestration, and with her remarkable breath control, which allowed her to hold notes for a remarkably long time. Her interpretive powers grew as her career developed, and she became a moving artist as well as a vocal phenomenon. Among colleagues, she also became renowned for her playful sense of humor.

Early life

Born Birgit Märta Svensson, Nilsson was the only child of Nils Peter and Justine (Paulsson) Svensson on a farm at Västra Karup
Västra Karup
Västra Karup is a locality situated in Båstad Municipality, Skåne County, Sweden with 556 inhabitants in 2005. Birgit Nilsson was born there 1918....

 in Skåne (100 km/60 miles north of Malmö
Malmö , in the southernmost province of Scania, is the third most populous city in Sweden, after Stockholm and Gothenburg.Malmö is the seat of Malmö Municipality and the capital of Skåne County...


When she was three years old she began picking out melodies on a toy piano
Toy piano
The toy piano, also known as the kinderklavier , is a small piano-like musical instrument. The present form of the toy piano was invented in Philadelphia by a 17-year-old German immigrant named Albert Schoenhut. He worked as a repairman at Wanamaker's department store, repairing broken glass...

 her mother bought for her. She once told an interviewer that she could sing before she could walk, adding "I even sang in my dreams". Her vocal talent was first noticed when she began to sing in her church choir
A choir, chorale or chorus is a musical ensemble of singers. Choral music, in turn, is the music written specifically for such an ensemble to perform.A body of singers who perform together as a group is called a choir or chorus...

. A choirmaster near her home heard her sing and advised her to take voice lessons.

She studied with Ragnar Blennow, in Båstad
Båstad is a locality and the seat of Båstad Municipality, Skåne County, Sweden with 4,793 inhabitants in 2005.-Geography:The town of Båstad is located in a sheltered bay with the Hallandian ridge stretching behind it...

, and in 1941, with Joseph Hislop
Joseph Hislop
Joseph Hislop was a lyric tenor who appeared in opera and oratorio and gave concerts around the world....

 and Arne Sunnegard at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm
Stockholm is the capital and the largest city of Sweden and constitutes the most populated urban area in Scandinavia. Stockholm is the most populous city in Sweden, with a population of 851,155 in the municipality , 1.37 million in the urban area , and around 2.1 million in the metropolitan area...

. However, she 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 success to native talent. "My first voice teacher almost killed me", she said. "The second was almost as bad."

Early career

In 1946, Nilsson made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm with only three days' notice, replacing the ailing Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was a German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist and critic, one of the first significant composers of the Romantic school....

's Der Freischütz
Der Freischütz
Der Freischütz is an opera in three acts by Carl Maria von Weber with a libretto by Friedrich Kind. It premiered on 18 June 1821 at the Schauspielhaus Berlin...

. Conductor Leo Blech
Leo Blech
Leo Blech was a German opera composer and conductor who is perhaps most famous for his work at the Königliches Schauspielhaus Leo Blech (21 April 1871 – 25 August 1958) was a German opera composer and conductor who is perhaps most famous for his work at the Königliches Schauspielhaus Leo...

 wasn't very kind to her and, as she wrote in her autobiography, she even contemplated suicide after the performance.

In 1947 she claimed national attention as Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was an Italian Romantic composer, mainly of opera. He was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century...

's Lady Macbeth
Macbeth (opera)
Macbeth is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi, with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and additions by Andrea Maffei, based on Shakespeare's play of the same name...

 under Fritz Busch
Fritz Busch
Fritz Busch was a German conductor.Busch was born in Siegen, Province of Westphalia. He held posts conducting opera at Aachen, Stuttgart and Dresden. In 1933 he was dismissed from his post at Dresden because of his opposition to the new Nazi government of Germany...

. A wealth of parts followed, from Strauss and Verdi to Wagner, Puccini, and Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Russian: Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский ; often "Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky" in English. His names are also transliterated "Piotr" or "Petr"; "Ilitsch", "Il'ich" or "Illyich"; and "Tschaikowski", "Tschaikowsky", "Chajkovskij"...

. In Stockholm she built up a steady repertoire of roles in the lyric-dramatic field, including Donna Anna, Aïda, Lisa, Tosca, Venus, Sieglinde, Senta and the Marschallin, one of her favourite roles (though she later lamented that nobody ever asked her to undertake it), all sung in Swedish
Swedish language
Swedish is a North Germanic language, spoken by approximately 10 million people, predominantly in Sweden and parts of Finland, especially along its coast and on the Åland islands. It is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Danish...


International engagements

Under Fritz Busch's tutelage her career took wing. He was instrumental in securing her first important engagement outside Sweden, as Elettra in Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , baptismal name Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart , was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical era. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music...

's Idomeneo
Idomeneo, re di Creta ossia Ilia e Idamante is an Italian language opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The libretto was adapted by Giambattista Varesco from a French text by Antoine Danchet, which had been set to music by André Campra as Idoménée in 1712...

 at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1951. Her debut at the Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera
The Vienna State Opera is an opera house – and opera company – with a history dating back to the mid-19th century. It is located in the centre of Vienna, Austria. It was originally called the Vienna Court Opera . In 1920, with the replacement of the Habsburg Monarchy by the First Austrian...

 in 1953 was a turning point; she would be a regular performer there for more than 25 years. It was followed by Elsa in Wagner
Richard Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, conductor, theatre director, philosopher, music theorist, poet, essayist and writer primarily known for his operas...

's Lohengrin
Lohengrin (opera)
Lohengrin is a romantic opera in three acts composed and written by Richard Wagner, first performed in 1850. The story of the eponymous character is taken from medieval German romance, notably the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach and its sequel, Lohengrin, written by a different author, itself...

 at the Bayreuth Festival
Bayreuth Festival
The Bayreuth Festival is a music festival held annually in Bayreuth, Germany, at which performances of operas by the 19th century German composer Richard Wagner are presented...

 in 1954, then her first Brünnhilde in a complete Ring
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Der Ring des Nibelungen is a cycle of four epic operas by the German composer Richard Wagner . The works are based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied...

 at the Bavarian State Opera
Bavarian State Opera
The Bavarian State Opera is an opera company based in Munich, Germany.Its orchestra is the Bavarian State Orchestra.- History:The opera company which was founded under Princess Henriette Adelaide of Savoy has been in existence since 1653...

, at the Munich Festival of 1954. Later she returned as Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, and Isolde until 1969, all to universal acclaim.

She took the title role of Turandot
Turandot is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, set to a libretto in Italian by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.Though Puccini's first interest in the subject was based on his reading of Friedrich Schiller's adaptation of the play, his work is most nearly based on the earlier text Turandot...

, which is brief but requires an unusually big sound, to La Scala
La Scala
La Scala , is a world renowned opera house in Milan, Italy. The theatre was inaugurated on 3 August 1778 and was originally known as the New Royal-Ducal Theatre at La Scala...

 in Milan
Milan is the second-largest city in Italy and the capital city of the region of Lombardy and of the province of Milan. The city proper has a population of about 1.3 million, while its urban area, roughly coinciding with its administrative province and the bordering Province of Monza and Brianza ,...

 in 1958, and then to the rest of Italy. Nilsson made her American debut as Brünnhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre
Die Walküre
Die Walküre , WWV 86B, is the second of the four operas that form the cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen , by Richard Wagner...

 in 1956 with the San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera is an American opera company, based in San Francisco, California.It was founded in 1923 by Gaetano Merola and is the second largest opera company in North America...

. She attained international stardom after a performance as Isolde
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan und Isolde is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner to a German libretto by the composer, based largely on the romance by Gottfried von Straßburg. It was composed between 1857 and 1859 and premiered in Munich on 10 June 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting...

 at the Metropolitan Opera
Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera is an opera company, located in New York City. Originally founded in 1880, the company gave its first performance on October 22, 1883. The company is operated by the non-profit Metropolitan Opera Association, with Peter Gelb as general manager...

 in New York City in 1959, which made front page news. She said that the single biggest event in her life was being asked to perform at the opening of the 181st season at La Scala as Turandot in 1958. She became the second non-Italian (after Maria Callas
Maria Callas
Maria Callas was an American-born Greek soprano and one of the most renowned opera singers of the 20th century. She combined an impressive bel canto technique, a wide-ranging voice and great dramatic gifts...

) ever granted the privilege of opening a season at La Scala. She performed at many major opera houses in the world including Vienna
Vienna is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Austria and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primary city, with a population of about 1.723 million , and is by far the largest city in Austria, as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre...

, Berlin, the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The...

 at Covent Garden
Covent Garden
Covent Garden is a district in London on the eastern fringes of the West End, between St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. It is associated with the former fruit and vegetable market in the central square, now a popular shopping and tourist site, and the Royal Opera House, which is also known as...

, Tokyo, Paris, Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is the capital and largest city of Argentina, and the second-largest metropolitan area in South America, after São Paulo. It is located on the western shore of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, on the southeastern coast of the South American continent...

, Chicago, and Hamburg
-History:The first historic name for the city was, according to Claudius Ptolemy's reports, Treva.But the city takes its modern name, Hamburg, from the first permanent building on the site, a castle whose construction was ordered by the Emperor Charlemagne in AD 808...


She sang under Charles Mackerras
Charles Mackerras
Sir Alan Charles Maclaurin Mackerras, AC, CH, CBE was an Australian conductor. He was an authority on the operas of Janáček and Mozart, and the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan...

 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra , commonly known as the Sydney Symphony, is an Australian symphony orchestra based in Sydney...

 in the all-Wagner concert that opened the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House is a multi-venue performing arts centre in the Australian city of Sydney. It was conceived and largely built by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, finally opening in 1973 after a long gestation starting with his competition-winning design in 1957...

, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. You can listen to the concert on australianscreen online. She also gave the first lieder recital at the Opera House, accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons
Geoffrey Parsons (pianist)
Geoffrey Penwill Parsons AO OBE was an Australian pianist, most particularly notable as an accompanist to singers and instrumentalists...


From the 1960s through to the 1980s

Nilsson was widely known as the leading Wagnerian soprano of her time, the successor to the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, particularly in the role of Brünnhilde. However, she also sang many of the other famous soprano roles, among them Leonore
Fidelio is a German opera in two acts by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is Beethoven's only opera. The German libretto is by Joseph Sonnleithner from the French of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly which had been used for the 1798 opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal by Pierre Gaveaux, and for the 1804 opera Leonora...

, Aida
Aida sometimes spelled Aïda, is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, based on a scenario written by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette...

, Turandot
Turandot is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, set to a libretto in Italian by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.Though Puccini's first interest in the subject was based on his reading of Friedrich Schiller's adaptation of the play, his work is most nearly based on the earlier text Turandot...

, Tosca
Tosca is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It premiered at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 14 January 1900...

, Elektra
Elektra (opera)
Elektra is a one-act opera by Richard Strauss, to a German-language libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which he adapted from his 1903 drama Elektra. The opera was the first of many collaborations between Strauss and Hofmannsthal...

, and Salome
Salome (opera)
Salome is an opera in one act by Richard Strauss to a German libretto by the composer, based on Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of the French play Salomé by Oscar Wilde. Strauss dedicated the opera to his friend Sir Edgar Speyer....

. She had, according to The New York Times
The New York Times
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...

, a "voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina". Her career was long and distinguished and continued into the 1980s, when she mostly sang Elektra and the Dyer's Wife.

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 40s and begin to deteriorate during the 50s. Yet at 61, when most singers hang onto whatever career remains through less taxing recitals with piano and discreet downward transpositions of key, 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
Will Crutchfield
Will Crutchfield is a noted American conductor, musicologist, and vocal coach. He is currently the Director of Opera at the Caramoor International Music Festival and a frequent guest conductor at the Polish National Opera...

 once wrote in The New York 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
Conducting is the art of directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures. The primary duties of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble...

 Erich Leinsdorf
Erich Leinsdorf
Erich Leinsdorf was a naturalized American Austrian conductor. He performed and recorded with leading orchestras and opera companies throughout the United States and Europe, earning a reputation for exacting standards as well as an acerbic personality...

 thought that her longevity, like Flagstad's, had something to do with her Scandinavia
Scandinavia is a cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and language. Modern Norway and Sweden proper are situated on the Scandinavian Peninsula,...

n heritage, remarking that Wagner required "thoughtful, patient and methodical people." 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, her high notes were sometimes compared to those of the Broadway
Broadway theatre
Broadway theatre, commonly called simply Broadway, refers to theatrical performances presented in one of the 40 professional theatres with 500 or more seats located in the Theatre District centered along Broadway, and in Lincoln Center, in Manhattan in New York City...

 belter Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman was an American actress and singer. Known primarily for her powerful voice and roles in musical theatre, she has been called "the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage." Among the many standards introduced by Merman in Broadway musicals are "I Got Rhythm", "Everything's...

. 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 Nilsson in the same role at the Metropolitan Opera, the eminent soprano Leonie Rysanek
Leonie Rysanek
Leopoldine "Leonie" Rysanek was an Austrian dramatic soprano.-Biography:Rysanek was born in Vienna and made her operatic debut in 1949 in Innsbruck. In 1951 the Bayreuth Festival reopened and the new leader Wieland Wagner asked her to sing Sieglinde...


Twice at the Met, Nilsson sustained injuries that kept her from performing. In February 1971, she sprained her ankle during a performance of "Elektra" that resulted in cancellation of one performance (that was substituted by a historical performance of Fidelio starring Christa Ludwig
Christa Ludwig
Christa Ludwig is a retired German mezzo-soprano, distinguished for her performances of opera, Lieder, oratorio and other major religious works like masses and passions, and solos contained in symphonic literature...

). Nilsson recovered to sing the broadcast performance of Elektra on 27 February. More seriously, in March 1974 she fell and dislocated her shoulder during a rehearsal of Götterdämmerung
is the last in Richard Wagner's cycle of four operas titled Der Ring des Nibelungen...

. Although able to sing Brünnhilde for the first two performances with her arm in a sling, her injury caused her to miss subsequent performances, including that season's Götterdämmerung broadcast. The New York Times review of the production's March 8 opening night is reprinted in the Metropolitan Opera Archives.

"Miss N."

Beginning at the summer of 1968 at the Bayreuth Festival, Nilsson was obsessively stalked by actress and model Nell Theobald
Nell Theobald
Nell Theobald was an American model and actress. She initially gained fame for being attacked by a lion during a BMW photo shoot at the International Automobile Show at the New York Coliseum in April 1966. The incident received international press coverage...

 until Theobald's tragic suicide nine years later in 1977. Nilsson recounted her experiences with Theobald at length in her memoir La Nilsson where she referred to Theobald solely as "Miss N.". The stalking incident was later featured in Opera News
Opera News
Opera News is an American classical music magazine. It has been published since 1936 by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, a non-profit organization located at Lincoln Center which was founded to support the Metropolitan Opera of New York City...

 magazine and The New York Times.

Nilsson's humour

Nilsson was known for her witty one-liners
One-liner joke
A one-liner is a joke that is delivered in a single line. A good one-liner is said to be pithy.Comedians and actors use this comedic method as part of their act, e.g...


When asked what was the most important requirement for a soprano to sing Isolde, she said, "a comfortable pair of shoes."

When asked if she thought Joan Sutherland's famous bouffant hairdo was real, she answered: "I don't know. I haven't pulled it yet."

Nilsson called Turandot, one of the most punishing roles in the soprano repertory, her "vacation role."

Rudolf Bing made a ritual joke of getting on his knees every time Nilsson returned to the Met. When he did this after having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth, she said, "You do that much better since you practiced for the queen."

Bing asked Nilsson to sing the final scene from Salome at his farewell gala in 1972. As an added inducement, he said that she could have his head on a platter. Nilsson replied, "Oh, that's not necessary, Mr. Bing. I will use my imagination."

Nilsson did not get along with famous conductor Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan was an Austrian orchestra and opera conductor. To the wider world he was perhaps most famously associated with the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he was principal conductor for 35 years...

. Once when rehearsing on stage at the Vienna Staatsoper, her string of pearls broke. While helping her retrieve them, Karajan asked, "Are these real pearls bought with your fabulous Metropolitan Opera fees?" Nilsson replied, "No, these are very ordinary fake pearls bought with your lousy Vienna Staatsoper fees." When Nilsson first arrived at the Met to rehearse the production of Die Walkure conducted by Karajan, she said, "Nu, where's Herbie?" And Karajan once sent Nilsson a cable several pages long, proposing in great detail a variety of projects, different dates and operas. Nilsson cabled back: "Busy. Birgit."

There was a healthy competition between Nilsson and tenor Franco Corelli
Franco Corelli
Franco Corelli was a famous Italian tenor who had a major international opera career between 1951 and 1976. Associated in particular with the spinto and dramatic tenor roles of the Italian repertory, he was celebrated universally for his powerhouse voice, electrifying top notes, clear timbre, a...

 as to who could hold the high C the longest in Act II of Turandot. In one tour performance, after she outlasted him on the high C, he stormed off to Bing during the next intermission, saying that he was not going to continue the performance. Bing, who knew how to handle Corelli's tantrums, suggested that he retaliate by biting Nilsson on the neck when Calaf kisses Turandot in Act III. Corelli didn't bite her but he was so delighted with the idea that he told her about Bing's suggestion. She then cabled Bing, informing him that she had to cancel the next two tour Turandot performances because she had contracted rabies.

Once, when Nilsson was unhappy with something at the Met, she told Bing, "You know, when the birds are not happy, they do not sing."

Others got in their own quips about Nilsson. Bing was once asked if Nilsson was difficult to work with. "On the contrary," said Bing, "she's very easy to work with. You put money in, and beautiful sounds come out."

When Nilsson started singing Aida at the Met, soprano Zinka Milanov was miffed; Aida had been her role. After one performance in which Nilsson was singing, Milanov commandeered and drove off in the Rolls Royce Nilsson had hired for after the performance. When asked about this afterwards, Milanov said, "If Madame Nilsson takes my roles, I must take her Rolls."


Nilsson was also famous for her ability to make money. She became one of the highest-paid singers in the field, in part because of the rarity of her skills. Being a shrewd businesswoman, she 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. This tack would continue until the impresario offered something she wanted. Nilsson's reply would be "maybe." Now in control, she would be begged to accept what she desired in the first place.

Once, asked what was her favourite role, she answered: "Isolde made me famous. Turandot made me rich". When long-time Metropolitan Opera director Sir Rudolf Bing was asked if she was difficult, he reportedly said, "Not at all. You put enough money in, and a glorious voice comes out." When Nilsson was preparing her taxes and was asked if she had any dependents, she replied, "Yes, just one, Rudolf Bing."

Interactions with conductors

Nilsson was known for standing up to conductors. In a 1967 rehearsal of Die Walküre with Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan was an Austrian orchestra and opera conductor. To the wider world he was perhaps most famously associated with the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he was principal conductor for 35 years...

 conducting, Nilsson responded to the gloomy lighting of the production by wearing a miner's helmet (complete with Valkyrian wings). When on some occasion von Karajan urged a retake "and this time with our hearts - that's where your wallet has its place", Nilsson replied, "I'm glad to know that we have at least one thing in common, Maëstro von Karajan!" When Georg Solti
Georg Solti
Sir Georg Solti, KBE, was a Hungarian-British orchestral and operatic conductor. He was a major classical recording artist, holding the record for having received the most Grammy Awards, having personally won 31 as a conductor, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to his...

, in Tristan und Isolde, insisted on tempos too slow for Nilsson's taste, she made the first performance even slower, inducing a conductorial change of heart. After a tiff with Hans Knappertsbusch
Hans Knappertsbusch
Hans Knappertsbusch was a German conductor, best known for his performances of the music of Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss....

, Nilsson reported: "He called me by a name that begins with "A" and ends with 'hole'".


Despite her worldwide recognition, Nilsson said she was nervous before every major performance. "Before a premiere, on the way to the opera, I'd hope for just a small, small accident, it didn't need to be much, but just so I would not have to sing", she said in a 1977 interview on Swedish TV.

Nilsson often spoke of her limits. She said her voice was not a good fit with what she described as the softer textures and refined tones of Italian operas. Nonetheless, she sang roles in Italian operas such as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni is an opera in two acts with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and with an Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. It was premiered by the Prague Italian opera at the Teatro di Praga on October 29, 1787...



Nilsson recorded all of her major roles. Partly because of her availability to play Brünnhilde, Decca Records
Decca Records
Decca Records began as a British record label established in 1929 by Edward Lewis. Its U.S. label was established in late 1934; however, owing to World War II, the link with the British company was broken for several decades....

 undertook the audacious and extremely expensive project of making the first studio recording of Wagner's four-opera Ring cycle
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Der Ring des Nibelungen is a cycle of four epic operas by the German composer Richard Wagner . The works are based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied...

, conducted by Solti and produced by John Culshaw
John Culshaw
John Royds Culshaw OBE was a pioneering English classical record producer for Decca Records. He recorded a wide range of music, but is best known for masterminding the first studio recording of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, begun in 1958.Largely self-educated musically, Culshaw worked for...

. The effort took seven years, from 1958 to 1965. A film of the proceedings made her a familiar image for arts-conscious television viewers.

Absence from New York and Salzburg

Though a frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Opera, Nilsson did not always see eye to eye with its redoubtable general manager, Rudolf Bing (who was often said to dislike Wagner), nor with conductor Herbert von Karajan. Subsequently, she made fewer New York appearances than hoped in the early 1970s and was virtually excluded from the Salzburg Festival
Salzburg Festival
The Salzburg Festival is a prominent festival of music and drama established in 1920. It is held each summer within the Austrian town of Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart...

. Her American career was derailed in the mid-1970s by US Internal Revenue Service
Internal Revenue Service
The Internal Revenue Service is the revenue service of the United States federal government. The agency is a bureau of the Department of the Treasury, and is under the immediate direction of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue...

 claims filed for back taxes. Several years later a schedule of payments was worked out, and Nilsson's hiatus from the United States ended. When she returned, Donal Henahan wrote in the New York Times, "The famous shining trumpet
The trumpet is the musical instrument with the highest register in the brass family. Trumpets are among the oldest musical instruments, dating back to at least 1500 BCE. They are played by blowing air through closed lips, producing a "buzzing" sound which starts a standing wave vibration in the air...

 of a voice is still far from sounding like a cornet
The cornet is a brass instrument very similar to the trumpet, distinguished by its conical bore, compact shape, and mellower tone quality. The most common cornet is a transposing instrument in B. It is not related to the renaissance and early baroque cornett or cornetto.-History:The cornet was...


Nilsson appeared at the Metropolitan Opera 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. She played most of the other major soprano parts: Aida, Tosca, the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten
Die Frau ohne Schatten
Die Frau ohne Schatten is an opera in three acts by Richard Strauss with a libretto by his long-time collaborator, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was written between 1911 and either 1915 or 1917...

, Salome, Elektra, as Verdi's Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth may refer to:*Lady Macbeth, from William Shakespeare's play Macbeth**Queen Gruoch of Scotland, the real-life Queen on whom Shakespeare based the character...

, Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, and both Venus and Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser
Tannhäuser (opera)
Tannhäuser is an opera in three acts, music and text by Richard Wagner, based on the two German legends of Tannhäuser and the song contest at Wartburg...

. She memorably appeared as replacement Sieglinde to Rita Hunter
Rita Hunter
Rita Hunter CBE was a British operatic dramatic soprano.Rita Hunter was born in Wallasey, Merseyside. She studied singing in Liverpool with Edwin Francis and later in London with Redvers Llewellyn and Clive Carey...

's Brünnhilde in the 1970s. She appeared 232 times at the Vienna State Opera from 1954–82, and the Vienna Philharmonic, the company's orchestra, made her an honorary member in 1999. "If there ever was someone that one can call a real star today and a world-famous opera singer during her time then that was Frau Nilsson", said Ioan Holender
Ioan Holender
Ioan Holender is a Romanian born Austrian opera administrator.Holender was born in Timişoara, Romania. His family is of Jewish ancestry, and growing up, he spoke 3 languages. His father owned a factory in Timişoara, which was expropriated in 1948. Holender studied mechanical engineering at the...

, director of the Vienna State Opera.

Later life

Nilsson's autobiography, Mina minnesbilder (My memoirs in pictures) was published in Stockholm in 1977. She retired in 1984 to her childhood home in the Skåne province of southern Sweden, where her father had been a sixth-generation farmer and she had worked to grow beets and potatoes until she was 23. In an interview in the mid-1990s, she appeared 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."

In 1981, Sweden issued a postage stamp showing Nilsson as Turandot. She has received the Illis Quorum
Illis Quorum
Illis Quorum ["For Those Whose Labors Have Deserved It"], today the highest award that can be conferred upon an individual Swedish citizen by the Government of Sweden....

 gold medal, today the highest award that can be conferred upon a Swedish citizen by the Government of Sweden. In 1988, the American Scandinavian Foundation named their prize for promising young American opera singers the Birgit Nilsson Prize
Birgit Nilsson Prize
The Birgit Nilsson Prize is an international music prize founded by the famous opera singer herself. It awards a single performing artist, a conductor or a production in the field of opera or classical music with one million dollars....

. Nilsson personally chaired several of the competitions.

Nilsson died aged 87, on Christmas Day
Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual holiday generally celebrated on December 25 by billions of people around the world. It is a Christian feast that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, liturgically closing the Advent season and initiating the season of Christmastide, which lasts twelve days...

, 2005 in her home at Bjärlöv, a small village near Kristianstad
Kristianstad is a city and the seat of Kristianstad Municipality, Skåne County, Sweden with 35,711 inhabitants in 2010.-History:The city was founded in 1614 by King Christian IV of Denmark, the city's name literally means 'Town of Christian', as a planned city after the burning of the town of Vä...

 in Skåne in the same county where she was born. She was survived by her husband Bertil Niklasson (who died in March 2007), a veterinarian whom she had met on a train and married in 1948. They had no children.

Her legacy

Three years after Nilsson's death, in December 2008, the Birgit Nilsson Foundation announced that it would award a prize every two to three years to a concert or opera singer, a classical or opera conductor, or a specific production by an opera company. The Birgit Nilsson Prize was founded by Birgit Nilsson herself. The foundation said that Nilsson had chosen the first winner, to be announced in early 2009. On 20 February 2009, Spanish-Mexican tenor Plácido Domingo
Plácido Domingo
Plácido Domingo KBE , born José Plácido Domingo Embil, is a Spanish tenor and conductor known for his versatile and strong voice, possessing a ringing and dramatic tone throughout its range...

 was announced as the inaugural recipient of the prize, which carried with it a cash award of $1,000,000. The first award ceremony took place in the Royal Swedish Opera on 13 October 2009. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden personally presented the prize to the designated winner. A jury has been set up by the foundation to make recommendations for future prizes. The second winner of the Birgit Nilsson prize was Riccardo Muti
Riccardo Muti
Riccardo Muti, Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI is an Italian conductor and music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.-Childhood and education:...

, who will receive the award in Stockholm on 13 October 2011.

On 6 April 2011, the Bank of Sweden announced that Nilsson's portrait will feature on the 500 kronor
Swedish krona
The krona has been the currency of Sweden since 1873. Both the ISO code "SEK" and currency sign "kr" are in common use; the former precedes or follows the value, the latter usually follows it, but especially in the past, it sometimes preceded the value...

 banknote, beginning in 2014-15.


As Oren Brown
Oren Brown
Oren Brown was a famous American vocal pedagogist and voice teacher.Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, Brown attended Boston University where he earned a bachelors of music with an emphasis in vocal performance and a masters degree in music composition. In 1932 he began his long career as a...

 says in his vocal technique book, although not expected from a Wagnerian singer, Birgit Nilsson would warm up her voice by singing the Queen of the Night's arias from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.

Further reading

  • La Nilsson: My Life in Opera by Birgit Nilsson, foreword by Georg Solti, afterword by Peggy Tueller. Translated by Doris Jung Popper UPNE, 2007 ISBN 1555536700, 9781555536701


TV appearances

Interviews & articles


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