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Birgit Nilsson

Birgit Nilsson

Birgit Nilsson (May 17, 1918December 25, 2005) was a Swedish dramatic soprano 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 (pronounced [bɝˈgiːt]) 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 and made a specialty of Puccini's "Turandot," but it was the music of Wagner that made her career; her command of his music was comparable to that of Kirsten Flagstad, 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 high 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 in Skåne (100 km/60 miles north of Malmö). 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."

When she was three years old she began picking out melodies on a toy piano 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 choirmaster near her home heard her sing and advised her to take voice lessons.

She studied with Ragnar Blennow, in Båstad, and in 1941, with Joseph Hislop and Arne Sunnegard at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm.

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's Der Freischütz. Conductor Leo Blech 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's Lady Macbeth under Fritz Busch. A wealth of parts followed, from Strauss, and Verdi to Wagner, Puccini and Tchaikovsky. 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.

International engagements

Birgit Nilsson as Lady Macbeth in the opera by Verdi at the Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm, 1947.

Under Fritz Busch’s tutelage her career took wing. He was instrumental in securing her first important engagement outside Sweden, as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1951. Her debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1953 was a turning point — she would be a regular performer there for more than 25 years. It was followed by Elsa in Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival in 1954, then her first Brünnhilde in a complete Ring at the Bavarian State Opera, 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, which is brief but requires an unusually big sound, to La Scala in Milan in 1958, and then to the rest of Italy. Nilsson made her American debut as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in 1956 with the San Francisco Opera. She attained international stardom after a performance as Isolde in at the Metropolitan Opera 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 370th(?) season at La Scala as Turandot in 1958. She became the second non-Italian (after Maria Callas) ever granted the privilege of opening a season at La Scala. She performed at many major opera houses in the world including Vienna, Berlin, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Tokyo, Paris, Buenos Aires, Chicago, and Hamburg.

From the 1960s through to the 1980s

Birgit 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, Aida, Turandot, Tosca, Elektra, and Salome. She had, according to The New York Times, 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 66, 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 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 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." 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, Birgit 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 Nilsson in the same role at the Metropolitan Opera, the eminent soprano Leonie Rysanek refused.

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. "Electra" for an historic, substitute performance of Fidelio starring Christa Ludwig. Nilsson recovered to sing the broadcast performance of Elektra on February 27. More seriously, in March 1974 Nilsson fell and dislocated her shoulder during a rehearsal of Götterdämmerung. Although Nilsson was 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.

Nilsson's humour

Birgit Nilsson was known for her one-liners. The secret to singing Isolde, she said, was "comfortable shoes." After a disagreement with the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, Nilsson was asked if she thought Joan 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, Nilsson cancelled performances complaining that she had rabies.


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.

Birgit Nilsson behind the stage at Gröna Lund, Stockholm, 1960s.

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, Rudolph Bing."

Nilsson and conductors

Nilsson was known for standing up to conductors. In a 1967 rehearsal of Die Walküre with Herbert von Karajan conducting, Nilsson responded to the gloomy lighting of the production by wearing a miner's helmet (complete with Valkyrian wings). When on some occasion Herbert von Karajan urged a retake 'and this time with our hearts - that's where your wallet has its place', Birgit Nilsson replied 'I'm glad to know that we have at least one thing in common, maëstro von Karajan'! When Georg Solti, 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.

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.


All of her major roles were recorded. Partly because of Nilsson's availability to play Brünnhilde, Decca Records undertook the audacious and extremely 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.

Absence from New York and Salzburg

Though a frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Opera, Birgit Nilsson did not always see eye to eye with its redoubtable general manager, Rudolf Bing, 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. Nilsson's American career was derailed in the mid-1970s by US Internal Revenue Service 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 of a voice is still far from sounding like a cornet."

Birgit 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, Salome, Elektra, as Verdi's Lady Macbeth, Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, and both Venus and Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. She memorably appeared as replacement Sieglinde to Rita Hunter'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, 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 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. Nilsson personally chaired several of the competitions.

Birgit Nilsson died aged 87, on Christmas Day, 2005 in her home at Färlöv, a small village near Kristianstad in Skåne in the same county where she was born. She was survived by her husband Bertil Niklasson (who passed away in March 2007), a former veterinary student whom she had met on a train and married in 1948. They had no children.



As Oren Brown 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.


  • Nilsson, Birgit, My Memoirs in Pictures, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, Garden City: Doubleday, 1981. ISBN 0-385-14835-6.
  • Nilsson, Birgit, Mina minnesbilder, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1977. ISBN 91-0-042069-7
  • Nilsson, Birgit, La Nilsson, Stockholm: Fischer, 1995. ISBN 91-7054-756-4.
  • "Birgit Nilsson, Soprano Legend Who Tamed Wagner" by Bernard Holland, New York Times (January 12, 2006)
  • "Så höll han allt hemligt", (why Nilsson's death was kept a secret for 16 days) by Pelle Tagesson, Aftonbladet (January 13, 2006)
  • Blum, David, "The Farm Girl and the Stones", chapter 5 in David Blum, Quintet, Five Journeys toward Musical Fulfillment (Cornell University Press, 1999).
  • Brown, Oren L., Discover Your Voice: How to Develop Healthy Voice Habits, ISBN-10: 156593704X

External links


TV appearances

Interviews & articles


v • d • eLéonie Sonning Music Prize Laureates1959–1980

Igor Stravinsky (1959) · Leonard Bernstein (1965) · Birgit Nilsson (1966) · Witold Lutosławski (1967) · Benjamin Britten (1968) · Boris Christoff (1969) · Sergiu Celibidache (1970) · Arthur Rubinstein (1971) · Yehudi Menuhin (1972) · Dmitri Shostakovich (1973) · Andrés Segovia (1974) · Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1975) · Mogens Wöldike (1976) · Olivier Messiaen (1977) · Jean-Pierre Rampal (1978) · Janet Baker (1979) · Marie-Claire Alain (1980)


Mstislav Rostropovich (1981) · Isaac Stern (1982) · Rafael Kubelík (1983) · Miles Davis (1984) · Pierre Boulez (1985) · Sviatoslav Richter (1986) · Heinz Holliger (1987) · Peter Schreier (1988) · Gidon Kremer (1989) · György Ligeti (1990) · Eric Ericson (1991) · Georg Solti (1992) · Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1993) · Krystian Zimerman (1994) · Yuri Bashmet (1995) · Per Nørgård (1996) · András Schiff (1997) · Hildegard Behrens (1998) · Sofia Gubaidulina (1999) · Michala Petri (2000)


Anne-Sophie Mutter (2001) · Alfred Brendel (2002) · György Kurtág (2003) · Keith Jarrett (2004) · John Eliot Gardiner (2005) · Yo-Yo Ma (2006) · Lars Ulrik Mortensen (2007) · Arvo Pärt (2008)

Categories: 1918 births | 2005 deaths | People from Skåne | Operatic sopranos | Swedish sopranos | Swedish female singers | Swedish opera singers