The Last Valkyrie

Music in review

Dewey Faulkner
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

The world of opera, both in its plots and in its singers’ personal histories, is filled with tales of women oppressed and exploited by men. “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (Thus to art, thus to love), as Tosca despairingly sings in Puccini’s great aria. Nor does this suffering end with narratives, as many operatic divas have lived similar lives: Francesca Cuzzoni in Handel’s day, California super-soprano Sibyl Sanderson, the glorious Claudia Muzio, and, above all in our time, the legendary Maria Callas. Most lived out sad tales of attempting to return too late to their profession after disastrous encounters with exploitative men, when their improperly trained or long disused voices could no longer support their reputations.

Fortunately, there are female singers who are exactly the opposite, although many have had to overcome inept training and overbearing management (and conductors) in order to succeed. At the top of this list must go the legendary heroic soprano Birgit Nilsson, who was born in 1918, died in 2005, and managed to sing for adoring audiences until 1984–at age sixty-six. The usual age for operatic retirement, if the singer is lucky, is sixty; most never get there, especially in Nilsson’s repertoire.

Nilsson said of her voice, “I had good material.” It was evenly produced from bottom to top, well supported (you can hear her breathe only on bad days), and enormous, especially in its upper register, where it opened out in house-filling volumes, either loud or soft. If she aimed for a note, any note, she hit it, dead on, invariably on pitch. Then too she had dramatic intelligence and was able, especially with usable input from a few stage directors, to improve and refine her insights into the women she portrayed, especially those in works by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. She also had intelligence about her career, undertaking roles only after she had first tried them out in the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm and felt comfortable with them. Some she dropped after a time, but she learned others, often rapidly. With a photographic memory and perfect pitch this was possible. “Good material” indeed.

She did have drawbacks. Her voice could be impersonal and lack warmth at times. She was not conventionally beautiful, a characteristic she overcame (with coaching) by thinking herself beautiful. When she felt unappreciated she had diva tantrums, although her husband, who remained in the background, talked her out of many–and a fee increase would usually take care of the rest. (Rudolf Bing, the manager of the Metropolitan Opera, infamously remarked that Nilsson was easy to deal with: one simply put money in and beautiful music came out.) The sizes of her fees, which increased over the years, were Nilsson’s measure of how well she was respected, although audience adoration also counted for a lot, which explains the mutual love she and her New York audience shared for many seasons. (She begins her memoir, La Nilsson: My Life in Opera, with an account of her rapturous Met debut in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 1959.) Her main acknowledged weakness was for auctions, at which she obtained the fine rugs and dazzling jewelry that she prized. Yet at heart she was basically a frugal Swedish woman raised on a farm, and she left enough money to create a museum on her family farm at Båstad and endow both scholarships for young singers and a million-dollar prize in her name, awarded every few years. She was doubtless proud that it is the largest prize in the history of classical music. (She is also depicted on Sweden’s 500 kronor bill, which would have amused her.)

Like all performers, Nilsson had numerous obstacles to overcome, usually male. Her main vocal teacher in Stockholm, the tenor Joseph Hislop, did not understand her voice or how to get her to support it. After a few years she dropped him and taught herself, apparently working from what she learned from her fellow students and other sources. Obviously, it worked. Then there were the usual run of manipulative managers, impresarios, and the occasional tenor, most notoriously Franco Corelli, with whom she contested the duration of high Cs in Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. (Both singers have said that this rivalry was more for the press than actual animosity.)

With her female colleagues she appears to have had few difficulties, even those whom managers and conductors attempted to cast in “her” roles. Many younger women she encouraged; the others she simply outlasted or watched self-destruct. In other words, Nilsson was sensible, practical, and disciplined. And she was strong, overcoming tuberculosis, cancer (reported as pleurisy to avoid sympathy), and a dislocated shoulder during Met rehearsals for Götterdämmerung. (She received shots before every performance.) Nilsson was a true stage creature: the show must and did go on. The only people who did stop her were her accountant, who absconded with her American tax payments, and a few conductors, most notably Herbert von Karajan, with his minimally lit production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Even Bing was appalled at these ultra-dark stagings, and his secretary anonymously left in Nilsson’s dressing room a winged miner’s helmet with a headlight in front. When the witty Nilsson wore it at a rehearsal Karajan was not amused.

Perhaps her greatest irritation was at recording producers, in particular Decca’s John Culshaw, who wanted to bury her in the orchestra, forced her back from the microphone as high notes approached, and “pinched” her voice on recordings. Nor was she happy with Deutsche Grammophon’s microphone placement at Bayreuth for her live 1966 Tristan recording there. In other singers this would have resulted in pointless diva fits; with Nilsson it produced only informed negative observations whose results are borne out by the finished recordings.

So, unlike the women undone by opera in real life, Nilsson simply got on with making her life in it, successfully. She was not at all flamboyant–indeed, she was demure in person–but she wielded a sharp tongue, which annoyed some (especially men). And she was always forthright, expressive, and occasionally brutally honest, though she usually preferred amused implication to direct statement.

In honor of the centenary of her birth, the Birgit Nilsson Foundation and the Nilsson museum have issued several commemorative items. Most formidable is Birgit Nilsson 100: An Homage, a huge, weighty book that contains reminiscences (several covering extensively Nilsson’s career at important houses: Stockholm, Vienna, Bayreuth, Buenos Aires, Covent Garden, La Scala), newspaper reviews, and other clippings, including obituaries. Its primary content is photographs of Nilsson in most of her roles and their significant productions, all printed on heavy stock; the whole is splendidly bound and boxed. And it is expensive: one hundred dollars list price.

Also available is a ninety-minute DVD that covers Nilsson’s career, Birgit Nilsson–A League of Her Own. More important is La Nilsson, a seventy-nine CD/two DVD set of most of Nilsson’s commercial or studio recordings, provided by Decca, Deutsche Grammophon (DG), Philips, EMI, and RCA (Decca B079PT2YQP). This is how most of us first heard her: its contents are well known, and it will be referenced here occasionally.

Most significant is Birgit Nilsson: The Great Live Recordings: thirty-one CDs of live performances previously available (if at all) only on pirate recordings, usually taped off radio broadcasts (Sony B0787DSWWZ). This box’s contents are mostly taken from the original broadcast tapes held by their originators: the Metropolitan Opera, the Bayreuth Festival, Bavarian Radio, Austrian Radio, and so forth. These attempt to present Nilsson live onstage, which was the only way to hear her true voice.

Her recordings, studio and live, are a fairly reliable index of Nilsson’s career. She had few binding exclusive contracts with any one record label, so her studio recordings appear on most of the major labels of her time. All are in stereo, though most of her live recordings are monaural, including almost all of the Nilsson live set. In 1958 her first commercial recording was of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West for EMI, in which she replaced the scheduled Maria Callas, a role she never sang onstage. But it was in Wagner’s music dramas that she was literally peerless, especially as Isolde and Brünnhilde, and Decca (London in America) was eager to record her in them, in the then new stereophonic format. Unfortunately there were almost no heroic tenors who could stand up to Nilsson. The 1960 Decca Tristan und Isolde conducted by George Solti was intended for Jon Vickers, who had not yet mastered his part and was replaced by the young, inexperienced, and woefully underpowered Fritz Uhl. Two years later her Siegfried (in Decca’s Solti Siegfried) was to have been Ernst Kozub, the stunning Melot in her 1960 Tristan. But he too had not learned his part, so he was replaced by the durable Wolfgang Windgassen, who also sang Siegfried in Nilsson and Solti’s 1964 Götterdämmerung. As a true professional, Nilsson made the best of these situations, although casting her Tristans or Siegfrieds would remain a major obstacle throughout her career.

Nilsson was not pleased by her recorded voice on these sets. First, the engineers were unable to capture the true sound of her upper register. As she noted, “If the voice is warm, not very large, even in register, and not too expansive in the top, it is made for the microphone, If this is not so–as in my case–the voice can present a problem for the sound engineer.” The solution? “Please move back three steps!” before hitting high notes. This leads to “a lack of overtones in the high voice because of the lowered volume.” Consequently, “It is a bit disappointing to hear that the sound is better live than on the recording. Or worse, that the voice sounds better on some pirated recordings than on takes from the studio.” (Most quotations here are from her memoir La Nilsson.) Equally bad in her view was Decca recording producer John Culshaw’s desire to drown her voice by placing it within the Vienna Philharmonic, an effect Decca called “SoundStage.” This especially afflicted Nilsson’s recordings of Salome and Tristan. (These effects have been corrected in the latest CD remasterings of these sets, included in the commercial recordings box and available separately.)

Live or radio broadcast recordings present different problems. Results vary with the placement of microphones (usually above the stage) and the sophistication of the sound equipment–and the engineers. From the 1930s on, recording technicians had dealt with large voices, such as Kirsten Flagstad’s, Marjorie Lawrence’s, and Helen Traubel’s, by turning down the controls whenever a high passage at full volume approached, falsifying these voices as they would Nilsson’s. The most realistic reproduction of such voices was heard when microphones were placed toward the back of a favorably resonant acoustic and the (preferably stereo) sound was not engineered down, but this was rarely done. In the live set the standouts are the 1967 Elektra recorded in Montreal and the July 1973 Tristan und Isolde from the Roman arena at Orange in Provence, which deliver Nilsson’s voice almost as it was.

As a result of such sonic tinkering, Nilsson’s famed broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera are all suspect. When I heard her in Salome at the Met, conductor Karl Böhm held the orchestra down until the final scene, at which point Nilsson, lying on the raked (sloping) stage with her feet above her head and the head of John the Baptist on her stomach, suddenly confronted Strauss’s full orchestral fury–and soared through and above it with ease. But in the 1965 Met broadcast included in the live set, as on the radio transmission that is its original, the engineer lowered the collective volume in this climactic passage so that it matched the sound levels that preceded it, falsely taming what we heard in the house. Typical.

The live repertory represented in the box set includes most of the operas for which Nilsson was famous and in which she was unique, as well as a few that she abandoned after her earliest years. It includes three Tristan und Isoldes, two Elektras, a Turandot, a Walküre, a final duet from Siegfried, and a Fidelio, in all of which she was incomparable in her time. There are also a Bluebeard’s Castle (in Swedish) and a Lohengrin, neither of which she performed after the 1950s. And there are a Salome and a Frau ohne Schatten, the first abandoned in mid-career and the second only assumed toward the end of her stage appearances. Much of the rest of her repertoire can be heard on her commercial recordings, parts that she sang as lighter roles to keep the voice flexible: Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, Lady Macbeth, Aida, Tosca, and so on. The live set’s only significant omission is Götterdämmerung, represented only by two versions of its concluding Immolation Scene. (There are at least five other complete performances that might have been selected; of these the 1962 Met broadcast under Erich Leinsdorf is scheduled for release on Pristine Classics.)

If we consider the live set’s performances chronologically, from Stockholm in early 1953 we have her Judith in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, sung in German. The Hungarian Ferenc Fricsay led it with striking precision and drive, while Judith’s many exclaimed high notes held no terrors for Nilsson.

In 1954 she was invited to the Bayreuth Festival by Wolfgang Wagner, primarily to sing Elsa in Lohengrin under Eugen Jochum. This is a famous performance, with Wolfgang Windgassen, Astrid Varnay, Hermann Uhde, a young Theo Adam, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Everyone is in good voice and acts convincingly, while Jochum skillfully shapes and controls the whole. Nilsson lightens her tone in Acts 1 and 2, reserving her dramatic impulses for Elsa’s increasingly hysterical confrontation with Lohengrin in Act 3, where she gets a bit carried away and overpowers Windgassen vocally. A dreaming princess from Brabant she isn’t.

This well-balanced recording, very well reproduced here, is drawn from the original Bavarian Radio tapes held by the Bayreuth Festival, has no electronic meddling, and is as good a representation of the performance as one is likely to hear. Nilsson’s voice has a youthful glow throughout.

The next two performances are also from Bayreuth, both from the 1957 festival: the Sieglinde-Siegmund duet at the end of Act 1 of Die Walküre, and Nilsson’s first Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde. The former is under the veteran Hans Knappertsbusch, the latter under the young Wolfgang Sawallisch. By 1957 Nilsson was singing Brünnhildes under Herbert von Karajan in Vienna and under Rudolf Kempe in London, but in Bayreuth she was restricted to Sieglinde. Still, she liked singing the role, especially because it required few high notes and gave her little to do in Act 2 and less in Act 3. And it was primarily lyrical in its big moments, such as the Act 1 duet with Siegmund, here Ramon Vinay, included in the live set. She soon dropped this smaller part, but in early 1975 she was able to rework her Met schedule (she dropped some Toscas) so she could sing Sieglinde again to Jon Vickers’s Siegmund. She enjoyed the part and especially liked singing it (and anything else) with Vickers.

Her grandest role in the Bayreuth summer of 1957 was Isolde, to Wolfgang Windgassen’s Tristan. She had first sung the role in Stockholm in 1953, had sung it again in Buenos Aires in 1955, and had repeated it in the newly restored Vienna State Opera in 1956. The live set’s Bayreuth performance from the following year was produced by Wolfgang Wagner rather than his more inspired brother Wieland, and Wolfgang was more interested in the physical production than in working closely with his singers. Nilsson consequently built on her previous work rather than rethinking the role fully, performing it much as she would through 1962. This is essentially the Isolde that the Met audience heard in December 1959 at Nilsson’s house debut and the country heard in her broadcasts of January 1960 and March 1961 and in the 1960 Solti recording. (Sawallisch’s 1958 Bayreuth reading with much the same cast as 1957 has also been released on Orfeo for the Nilsson centenary.)

Nilsson’s conception of Isolde changed in 1962 after she interacted with Wieland, who had refused to work with her after an initial enthusiasm for her voice. She had become famous as Isolde, and he thought her beyond instruction: “Nilsson was famous before she was great.” But she persuaded him that she wanted to learn and he relented, reshaping her interpretation for his new 1962 staging, conducted by Karl Böhm. We can hear her new sensitivity to Wagner’s text in the 1966 Deutsche Grammophon recording of this Bayreuth rework, again with Windgassen. Nilsson now is the character; neither Wagner’s text nor his vocal writing pose any problems for her as she probes ever more deeply into her part. (A remastering of this is included in the box of Nilsson’s commercial recordings and is also available separately.)

In the live set Nilsson’s rethought Isolde appears first in a December 1967 Vienna Staatsoper broadcast under Böhm, with Jess Thomas as her new Tristan, the opening performance of Vienna’s then new production of the opera. Thomas had a suitably large voice, although, as Paul Jackson observes of his 1971 Met broadcast, “His bald timbre is not inherently attractive.” At least he matches Nilsson better than most of his predecessors.

This kind of imperfect match was Nilsson’s great tenor problem: on the whole there were almost no tenors who could go up against her vocally or intellectually. Whereas sopranos from Leider through Traubel could partner with Lauritz Melchior, who was retired by Rudolf Bing in 1950, Nilsson had only the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. The pair seemed to inflame each other onstage, especially in Tristan, Die Walküre, Fidelio, and Aida. But Vickers was exceptionally cautious about adding to his German roles. Nilsson wrote that she waited fourteen years for him to sing Tristan to her Isolde, which first occurred in Buenos Aires in September 1971. The pair’s only performance of it together at the Met, on 30 January 1974, is still legendary. Of “her” Tristan Nilsson wrote: “Vickers was a flawless, intensive Tristan with a very personal characterization.”

He was Nilsson’s match, both vocally and histrionically, and the live set’s July 1973 performance (in stereo) from the summer Chorégies d’Orange is one of its highlights, as it is of Tristan recordings in general. Böhm’s conducting is relatively relaxed, the couple have extraordinary insight into Wagner’s text, and the arena’s Roman acoustics, distantly recorded, allow both their voices to expand and resonate. If only it were not so heavily cut (as is the set’s 1967 evening from Vienna).

Nilsson’s other great Wagnerian role was the Valkyrie Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Here we have much the same developmental situation as with her Isolde: Nilsson had sung the role often and had appeared in Die Walküre in both San Francisco and Chicago in 1956 and at the Met in 1960. In 1961 she had recorded it under Erich Leinsdorf in London. Despite such exposure in the roles, before 1965 she had never been cast as any of the three Brünnhildes at Bayreuth, probably in part because of her familiarity with the parts. But after the 1962 Tristan, Wieland Wagner brought Nilsson into his new 1965 Bayreuth Ring, having worked with her as she re-created her parts. Wieland died in 1966, but his new cycle was recorded live in 1966 and 1967, conducted by Böhm. (Remastered versions of these are in the commercial recordings set.) Of all this the live set has only the 1967 final duet from Siegfried with Windgassen, conducted by Otmar Suitner, not Böhm. (This is also in stereo.) This duet is, of course, all Nilsson sings in Siegfried, which justifies the limited selection. But there is no Bayreuth Walküre included.

However, the live performances box does have the notorious Walküre conducted at the Met in March 1969 by Karajan, his final appearance ever in that house. Nilsson had sung often under Karajan at La Scala and in Vienna, but he had not included her in his 1967 Salzburg Ring cycle for various reasons. This production was brought to the Met by Rudolf Bing in 1968–at least Walküre was, with that and Rheingold produced there the following season, both conducted by Karajan. Bing insisted on Nilsson as Brünnhilde, and Karajan (reluctantly) acquiesced. The 1968 broadcast has already been released by the Met on Sony, conducted by Berislav Klobucar (whom Nilsson liked) since Karajan abandoned New York early that first year. The live set contains the 1969 performance, which Karajan did not weasel out of. Except for Vickers’s Siegmund the casts are different in the two transmissions, with the unexciting Theo Adam replacing Thomas Stewart in 1969 in the central role of Wotan. Nilsson is in excellent voice in both recordings, her opening “Hojotoho!” in both Acts 2 equally impressive, her Act 2 “Todesverkündigung” with Vickers showing equal ease with the low tessitura, and her Act 3 pleading with Wotan displaying similar insights into the quasi-legal arguments the Valkyrie lays out, though she makes them more thoughtfully under Karajan. The choice comes down to the overall casting, which is more stellar in the 1968 performance. Orchestral polish and discipline are much the same in both, though Klobucar takes slightly faster speeds. Recorded sound in both performances is much the same, as the same engineers did both. But neither the 1968 nor the 1969 recording does full justice to the astonishing, incandescent sonic glow that Karajan drew from the normally stodgy Met orchestra. In the house, at last, the fire was truly magic; over the air it was (and remains in the boxed set) merely great music expertly played.

Besides these big Wagnerian roles, Nilsson was likewise peerless as Puccini’s Princess Turandot, written for Maria Jeritza, whose voice had an ease similar to Nilsson’s in producing its huge upper register. (Nilsson had a far more solid lower voice.) Nilsson had first sung the Chinese ice princess in 1957 in Stockholm, then created a sensation with it at La Scala in 1958 (with Giuseppe di Stefano as Calaf), and made an equal sensation with it at the Met in 1960 with Franco Corelli and conductor Leopold Stokowski, who makes even the Ping-Pang-Pong scenes interesting. By then she had recorded it commercially with Jussi Bjoerling under Leinsdorf (1959) and would do so again in 1965 with Corelli under the dull Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. A December 1966 Met broadcast with Corelli under Zubin Mehta is in the box set commemorating the Met’s first season in its new house.

The first season’s March 1961 broadcast is adequately reproduced in the live performances set, but it sounds still better in a Pristine Audio restoration by Andrew Rose, who gives it greater space and depth. Both Nilsson and Corelli (and everyone else) are gloriously borne on Stokowski’s sweeping yet detailed orchestral sound. As noted, Nilsson had a publicized rivalry with Corelli over who could hold Puccini’s high Cs longer–she calls it their “Battle of the High Cs.” But her part’s primary challenge was in the final scene’s duet with Calaf, where she had to warm her tone and transform herself from a goddess into a human. How well she succeeded remains a matter for dispute. Nilsson’s own main interest in the role was that it was short: she doesn’t even sing until Act 2.

Her other principal role in the live set that was neither Wagnerian nor Straussian is Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Made in Rome in 1970 with the RAI orchestra, it was conducted by Leonard Bernstein, his first Fidelio. He is clearly experimenting with the work at times, but he had a natural instinct for Beethoven and delivers an idiomatic reading. Nilsson, in her only operatic appearance with him, got on well with Lenny. She is equally successful with the score, reducing her voice to match her excellent German colleagues, at least until her big Act 1 aria, “Abscheulicher!,” in which she finally unleashes it. There is no German dialogue included, apart from the Act 2 melodrama, only the music, which makes Nilsson’s other live recording of Fidelio, from the Met in 1960, preferable as a drama. (It is available on Sony in the Met’s series of historic performance reissues.) Böhm is her conductor there, and her Florestan is Vickers; the pair predictably ignite each other in Act 2.

Apart from Wagner, Nilsson was preeminent in several operas by Richard Strauss, three of which are in the live set. The earliest is the Metropolitan’s Salome from 1965 under Böhm, one of Nilsson’s last performances of the work, which she had recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic under Solti in 1961. Nilsson did not undertake the role often, having sung it only four times in Vienna, in 1956 and 1957, and never with Böhm, as at the Met. She had one of those “big voices” that Strauss came to dislike in the piece, much preferring the more “youthful” sounds of Maria Cebotari and Ljuba Welitsch, both of whom could open out stunningly when required. In line with Strauss’s wishes, Böhm here kept everything restrained for his singers, and Nilsson followed him in holding back–at least until the final scene. She insisted on performing the dance herself, fluttering a few scarves in a black body stocking, which was not particularly seductive. But vocally she was, and is here, overwhelming.

Nilsson’s last Strauss role, also included in the set, was the Dyer’s Wife (or Färberin) in Die Frau ohne Schatten. For years she had teased with the notion that she might sing the Empress in Frau on a Vienna recording with Solti, but she eventually decided that the Dyer’s Wife was her part (“a wonderful role”), being of her operatic characters “one of the few women of flesh and blood.” It is a difficult role to bring off as it requires the singer to project a cold personality but with great underlying warmth that emerges fully only in Act 3. One may question whether the recorded results support Nilsson’s choice.

She sang it (as ever) first in 1975 in Stockholm, then in 1976 under Sawallisch in Munich, the performance in the set, with Fischer-Dieskau as Barak the Dyer. In 1977 DG would record it live under Böhm in Vienna, with Walter Berry as Barak; this is included in the commercial recordings set. Nilsson sang the role in Vienna eighteen times between 1977 and 1982. In 1981 the Met heard her a mere four times in it, her final staged performances in the house.

The live set’s 1976 Bavarian Radio broadcast of Frau is in distantly recorded stereo and is horrendously cut. Despite the excisions, Nilsson insisted on singing all of the Wife’s final scene in Act 2, contributing significantly to her portrayal, though she did not perform all of the Wife’s glowing duet with Barak in Act 3. The 1977 Vienna recording is more accomplished than the set’s Munich one, as is Nilsson’s depiction of her complex character. It too has many cuts, although Böhm smooths them over more convincingly than Sawallisch.

The one Strauss character for which Nilsson was and is still unreplaceable is Elektra. She had undertaken it late, in 1965, but her impersonation was from the first shaped by Wieland Wagner, who in December directed her, Leonie Rysanek, and Regina Resnik in his new Vienna production conducted by Böhm. The 16 December opening-night broadcast is available on Orfeo; in it Nilsson is already formidable. She would grow even more so in the Met’s new production in the new house the following October, also under Böhm. It would be her return role at the Met in 1980, her first to be conducted (on that occasion) by the sympathetic James Levine, and her first to be telecast. (This is available on a DG DVD and is included in the commercial recordings set.) And it would be the role of her final stage appearance, in Frankfurt in 1982.

The live performances set includes Nilsson’s second Met Elektra broadcast, from February 1971, with Rysanek and Jean Madeira (excellent despite suffering from the cancer that would soon kill her), again under Böhm. Nilsson is less vocally rock-solid on this afternoon but is still the Elektra of one’s dreams, worthy to be compared to Astrid Varnay, Inge Borkh, and the legendary Rose Pauly, all of whom excelled in the role in the Met’s old house.

Among the most important items in the live box, because it accurately renders Nilsson’s astounding voice, is an Elektra that has hitherto been unpublished. In September 1967 the Vienna Staatsoper took its Wieland Wagner production to the Montreal Expo, where it was privately recorded, clearly from back in the resonant Montreal Opera House. The three women are the same as in 1965, as is Böhm, yet all the singers are more familiar with their characters, and their entire performance is a marked improvement over its predecessor. The hall flatters all their voices, especially Nilsson’s, and in this stunning transcription you can hear the full size and power of her vocalism, especially the way the higher she sings, the more her voice expands and fills the hall. Then too, you can hear how her character interacts more dramatically and vocally with those of her sister (Rysanek in splendid voice, especially in alt) and her mother (Resnik oozing venom in every line) than when the production was new. This is the Nilsson that we heard in the house–at last.

Nilsson was in the line of great dramatic sopranos, which included in the 1920s and 1930s Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad, and Marjorie Lawrence and in the 1940s Helen Traubel and Astrid Varnay, singers almost entirely known today through restorations of their live broadcast performances, especially at the Met and Covent Garden. But in a way Nilsson chronologically belongs among them: her closest contemporary was Varnay, in this set her Ortrud in Lohengrin and her Nurse (Amme) in Frau. The two singers were born a mere two weeks apart, both in Sweden. Varnay had been thrust into the spotlight the day before Pearl Harbor when she broadcast (unscheduled) Sieglinde from the Met. From here on she sang too much, too soon in New York and was first properly appreciated only in Europe after the Wagner brothers reopened Bayreuth in 1951, where she starred. By that year, Nilsson was making only her first appearances outside Scandinavia, singing Elettra in Idomeneo under Fritz Busch at Glyndebourne, where she was not appreciated, though on the broadcast recording she makes splendid sounds in this taxing part.

The chief difference between the development of the two sopranos was that Nilsson, like Flagstad, took years to discover and strengthen her voice, mostly in Sweden, while Varnay’s voice was largely squandered by the Met from 1941 on, a victim of exploitative (male) management. Nilsson was more fortunate and soon learned who was actually attempting to help her mature (primarily Wieland Wagner) and who was simply eager to exploit her. She observed, she learned, she changed, and she remained in the profession–at its top–for years past her anticipated retirement date. And she has had no true successors.

I asked her in 1983 why there were no longer great Scandinavian sopranos, as none had come along and endured after her, and she replied, “Jet plane travel.” The temptation to move immediately from one locale, one climate, one time zone to another is now just too great, especially when a singer is fearful of losing her voice or her fees or both. Add to this the undertaking of roles inappropriate for one’s voice, and careers are terminated early, frequently before they have time to develop properly. Then too some careers destined for greatness have been halted–Nilsson cited the case of Eileen Farrell, whose Wagner evenings with Bernstein bear her out. Partly this resulted from Rudolf Bing’s indifference to Wagner and partly from Farrell’s own reluctance and preferences. Not only men are at fault in these cases.

All of which should make us appreciate Birgit Nilsson even more. She was a woman in a profession run by men who mostly did not care what their female employees thought or wished. She had a vocal gift that was unique, a Golden Age voice in a very un-golden era that she developed, largely in spite of her male trainers. From early days she chose her own roles, selecting those in which she could excel and dominate. She learned from everyone, and she made no lasting enemies, especially among other sopranos. She was unstoppable and unstopped: only age defeated her, as it does us all. She never accepted less in remuneration than she determined she was worth. She was always professional and seldom temperamental. And she was loved by her public, especially in America, where her name could guarantee a sold-out house, much as Flagstad’s could.

Consequently the issuance of the many celebratory materials for Nilsson’s centenary is not at all the indulgence it might at first seem to be. And among these artifacts the box of Nilsson’s live recordings is perhaps the most precious, as it enables us at times to hear her much as she actually sounded on all those glorious days that are forever lost to us in time.

Dewey Faulkner has taught at Yale and at the University of San Antonio. He has also worked for many years in newspaper, television, and radio as a music critic.
Originally published:
January 1, 2019


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