The greatest Wagnerian soprano of the past 50 years, Birgit Nilsson, has died at 87 in her native Sweden. She died on Christmas, and her funeral was held today in Vastra Karup, the town of her birth.
I’m always inspired by people who have developed a human skill to the highest level, beyond the limits of what most of us think is possible. Musicians, athletes, mathematicians…even if we don’t share their particular passion, we can marvel at what they show us about our own capabilities, the gifts we have been given uniquely as human beings. Birgit Nilsson was just such an exemplar. To be a Wagnerian opera singer requires an almost superhuman endurance, the ability to maintain the highest levels of artistic focus for performances that could last five or six hours. She had that endurance, and she was a superlative vocal artist.
I’m sure not too many readers of this blog are fans of Richard Wagner‘s operas — and I hardly qualify as one, although I did take advantage of student rush to see the San Francisco Opera perform “Tristan und Isolde” three times in 1976. But Wagner’s operatic characters are cultural touchstones of enduring power, particularly the iconic Bruennhilde, the helmeted Valkyrie warrior maiden from the Ring of the Nibelung, a cycle of four operas that tell the story of a mythic struggle for possession of a magic ring that grants its owner the power to rule the world. Nilsson was the Bruennhilde of her era — from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s.
Even if you don’t follow opera, somehow, someway, you probably heard Nilsson sing — “the unforced power of her voice, which easily cut through the thickest orchestrations, and… her remarkable breath control, which allowed her to hold onto the highest note for seemingly endless amounts of time,” in the words of the AP’s Karl Ritter. His obituary relates a couple of anedotes:
Johanna Fiedler, in her book about the Met, “Molto Agitato,” tells the story of Nilsson’s unhappiness with the gloomy lighting on which Herbert von Karajan insisted for his production of the “Ring.” To register her objections, she appeared on stage during one rehearsal wearing a coal miner’s helmet with searchlight.
“Karajan just looked at her, put his head down and conducted,” Vickers said. “He wouldn’t look at her.”
Another legendary Nilsson moment came after one of her frequent battle-of-the-high-note contests with tenor Franco Corelli during the second act duet from “Turandot.” Enraged that no matter how he tried she could hold onto the climactic high C longer than he could, Corelli apparently got his revenge during their third-act love scene by biting her on the neck instead of kissing her. Nilsson is said to have telephoned (Metropolitan Opera Director Rudolf) Bing to cancel her next performance with the explanation, “I have rabies.”