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BIRGIT NILSSON: 1918 - 2006



By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 14 JANUARY 2006 —The lady with the voice that knocked you over is no more. Birgit Nilsson died at the age of 87 at her home in rural Sweden and was privately buried. She had evidently been in poor health for some time, but those of us fortunate to have heard her live will never forget the impact as she rode over the waves of sound produced by orchestra and chorus.

A friend of mine remarked last month that he has memories of her at the end of Gotterdämmerung at the old Met, with no recollection of any other sound. I remember her first Walküre Brünnhilde at the old Met, where even up in the Family Circle you felt the sound rolling around inside your head as she appeared singing her battle cry.

I remember Elektra during the first season at the new house in Lincoln Center. Not only was there the powerhouse cast of Nilsson, Rysanek and Resnik, but Nilsson literally became the demented heroine at the end, her body disintegrating during her frenzied dance. Her presence and conviction meant that she gave us a total performance, particularly in the operas of Wagner and Strauss which she also recorded to great acclaim.

Nilsson also tackled the Italian repertoire leaving indelible souvenirs as Tosca, Aida, Amelia (Ballo in Maschera ), Lady Macbeth and - above all - her vacation role, Turandot. Her longevity was miraculous, but the fact that her career began fairly late and she didn't start tackling the heavy Wagner until she was nearly 40 may have contributed to her maintaining a freshness at 60 that was the envy of many colleagues.

Her caustic wit manifested itself on many occasions: she was said to have listed Rudolf Bing as a dependent on her U.S. income tax returns, she appeared onstage (at rehearsal) in Herbert von Karajan's production of Walküre wearing a miner's helmet to protest the darkness.

The last two years have been filled with successive disappearances of several operatic icons: Victoria de los Angeles, Renata Tebaldi , Robert Merrill, Piero Cappuccilli, Pavel Lisitsian, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Franco Corelli. It is the passing of an era. Can those who heard Corelli and Nilsson in Turandot ever forget that exhilarating combination?


Wagner: Tristan und Isolde , with Wolfgang Windgassen, Christa Ludwig and Martti Talvela, Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Karl Böhm

Wagner: Ring des Nibelungen , with Wolfgang Windgassen, Leonie Rysanek, James King, Theo Adam, Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Karl Böhm
with Wolfgang Windgassen, George London, Hans Hotter, Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, Régine Crespin, James King, Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by George Solti

Strauss: Elektra , with Marie Collier, Regina Resnik, Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by George Solti

Verdi: Ballo in Maschera , with Carlo Bergonzi, Giulietta Simionato Cornell MacNeil, conducted by George Solti

Puccini: Turandot , with Franco Corelli - several live performances give a much better idea of the electricity generated by these two dynamos than the official version on EMI.


Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com .

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