Birgit Nilsson was a prominent 20th century Swedish dramatic soprano, best known for performing the works of the 19th century German composer Richard Wagner. She also sang the operas of many other composers, including Verdi, Strauss, and Puccini but it was her renditions of Wagner’s compositions that earned her a legendary status in operatic history. She possessed a steady and powerful soprano voice, and tremendous clarity in the upper register, holding high notes seemingly forever. She inherited her musical talents from her mother, an amateur singer. She began singing when she was a toddler, even before she learned to walk. She sang in the church choir as a young girl, and her choirmaster recognized her potential and advised her to take voice lessons. She went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm on a prestigious scholarship and made her debut in the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1946. She soon found a mentor in the acclaimed German conductor, Fritz Busch, under whose tutelage she emerged as a successful soprano. An astute businesswoman, she managed her own career and became one of the highest-paid singers in the field. After a long and glorious career, she retired from singing and returned to her childhood home.
Childhood & Early Life
Birgit Nilsson was born Märta Birgit Svensson on17 May 1918, in Västra Karup in Skåne, to Nils Svensson and Justina Svensson. Her father was a farmer and her mother was an amateur singer.
She began singing when she was quite young. Her mother gave her a toy piano and she started picking out melodies on it when she was just three. She used to sing in the church choir and a choirmaster recognized her potential and advised her to take voice lessons.
Initially she planned to become a concert singer and wished to study music professionally. She took classes from Ragnar Blennow for six months to prepare for an audition at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1941. She easily cleared the audition and also won the Christina Nilsson scholarship.
Märta Birgit Svensson combined her middle name with Nilsson to form her new stage name. She did not, however, enjoy her education at the academy.
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Even though her original plan was to become a concert singer, she was chosen as a last minute replacement for Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber's opera ‘Der Freischütz’ in 1946 as Agathe was too ill to perform. She had only three days to prepare for the role.
She made her formal debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in the Verdi opera ‘Lady Macbeth’ under Fritz Busch in 1947. Her performance was much appreciated and she received national acclaim. Busch became her mentor and helped her in establishing her early career.
Before long she became very popular in Stockholm and performed in a series of roles in the lyric-dramatic field, including Donna Anna, Aida, Lisa, Tosca, Venus, Sieglinde, Senta and the Marschallin. She also sang Ariadne auf Naxos with Hjördis Schymberg and Elisabeth Söderström.
Busch helped her in securing her first important engagement outside Sweden. She made her international debut performing in Mozart's ‘Idomeneo’ as Elettra at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1951 in Britain.
A couple of years later, she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1953. This marked a major turning point in her career and she would perform at the opera for more than 25 years. Her other significant roles in the 1950s include Elsa in Wagner's ‘Lohengrin’ (1954) and Brünnhilde at the Bavarian State Opera (1954).
In 1956, she made her American debut as Brünnhilde in Wagner's ‘Die Walküre’ at the San Francisco Opera. Other performances followed and she was catapulted to international stardom after a performance as Isolde in ‘Tristan und Isolde’ at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1959.
By the 1960s she had earned the reputation of being the leading Wagnerian soprano of her time, particularly as Brünnhilde. She was also popular for singing other famous soprano roles, among them Leonore, Aida, Turandot, Tosca, Elektra, and Salome.
Her successful career continued throughout the 1970s. She remained a major performer in Europe though a tax battle with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service kept her from performing in the United States for several years. Her autobiography, ‘Mina Minnesbilder’ ("My Memoirs in Pictures") was published in 1977.
After a long and glorious career, she retired in 1984. As a performer she had appeared at the Metropolitan Opera 223 times in 16 roles, portraying Isolde 33 times and Turandot 52. She had appeared 232 times at the Vienna State Opera.
Birgit Nilsson was best known for playing the role of Brünnhilde, a main character in Richard Wagner's opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’. As the leading Wagnerian soprano of her time, she was acclaimed for singing the role which required the soprano to possess high stamina and breath control.
Another one of her prominent roles was that of Isolde in Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’. Based largely on the romance by Gottfried von Strassburg, the music drama in three acts was enormously influential among Western classical composers. Playing the role of Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City led to Nilsson’s international stardom.
Awards & Achievements
In 1981, she received the Illis Quorum gold medal, which is today the highest award that can be conferred upon a Swedish citizen by the Government of Sweden. The same year, she also received the Gold medal of the Royal Opera Stockholm.
She was made Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, France, in 1991.
The Award of the Sweden-America Foundation was bestowed upon her in 1994 in New York City.
Personal Life & Legacy
Birgit Nilsson married veterinary surgeon Bertil Niklasson in 1948. They had no children.
Following her retirement, Birgit Nilsson returned to her childhood home in Sweden where she died on 25 December 2005, at the age of 87.