The Valkyrie Who Took Opera Fans on A Thrilling Ride

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Soprano Birgit Nilsson, whose death Dec. 25 at age 87 was reported yesterday, was the great Valkyrie of her time -- a warrior woman whose steely voice sliced thrillingly through the vast orchestral thickets of Wagnerian music drama, carrying to the last row of any opera house in which she sang.

She excelled at the larger-than-life heroines of Wagner and Richard Strauss -- the young goddess Brunnhilde in the "Ring" cycle, the princesses Isolde, Salome and Elektra in the operas that bear their names -- works that made full use of her extraordinary stamina, spot-on intonation and fearless, gleaming high notes. Yet she also distinguished herself in more intimate material, such as the role of Donna Anna in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," in Scandinavian folk music and in the songs of Grieg and Sibelius.

She conquered New York in the last days of 1959, singing a "Tristan und Isolde" at the Metropolitan Opera that was followed by a 15-minute shouting, stomping and standing ovation that became par for the course whenever Nilsson performed. The public demonstration after a 1980 Met performance of "Elektra," when Nilsson was in her sixties, went on for even longer. Almost a half-hour elapsed before the lights came up and we reluctantly agreed to go home. Never before or since have I seen an audience so hysterically excited -- and for all the right reasons.

As late as 1996, speaking at a gala tribute celebrating conductor James Levine's 25th year with the Met, Nilsson broke into a few bars of Brunnhilde's battle cry from "Die Walkure" and -- at 77 and officially retired for more than a decade -- she won the heartiest applause of a long and star-studded evening.

On the rare occasions that we met, Nilsson seemed a shy and rather simple person, who spoke softly and punctuated her speech with girlish giggles. Throughout her life, she was happiest in her native Sweden, where she had grown up in a rural community and where she had sung what she later recalled as "risque farm songs" -- the only music she knew -- during her first appearance on the radio. Her sense of humor was rich, deep and often self-deprecatory.

Yet she was no pushover: It used to be said of Nilsson that she had "dimples of iron." She insisted upon being paid the highest fee an opera house could offer. Rudolf Bing, who was general manager of the Met from 1950 through 1972, was asked if Nilsson was difficult. "Not at all," he replied. "You put enough money in, and a glorious voice comes out."

She enjoyed a long public feud with the autocratic conductor Herbert von Karajan (and by all accounts she did enjoy it, puncturing his stylized Teutonic pretensions by referring to him as "Herbie"). In the 1960s, he sent her a meticulously detailed, two-page cablegram about an upcoming production on which they were to collaborate. She dismissed it with two words: "Busy. Birgit."

Over the past 13 months, three of the brightest stars of the mid-20th-century opera world have died: Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de los Angeles and now Nilsson. Fortunately, all three sopranos left many recordings, so their artistry will continue to resonate -- a permanent gift.

On this front, Nilsson is likely to be best remembered for her participation in the first complete recording of Wagner's "Ring," under Sir Georg Solti. Recorded over the course of several years, it was completed in 1966 to world acclaim and has never been out of the catalogue. Her recording of "Elektra," also with Solti, has been much celebrated, but the production was loaded with eerie special effects for dramatic verisimilitude, which now make for heavy going. (Regina Resnik's performance of Klytemnestra, in particular, is amplified and distorted as though she were providing shrieks for a haunted-house ride.) Still, Nilsson is superb -- manic, wild-eyed and murderous, of course, yet capable of melting tenderness on those fleeting occasions when it was called for.

One other recording deserves mention. In 1961, Nilsson sang an aria from "Die Walkure" onto a wax cylinder -- the earliest and most primitive method of recording, dating from the late 19th century -- as part of an elaborate hoax for the Met's radio quiz, broadcast nationally during intermission. The idea was to stump the so-called experts, and Nilsson did. When her cylinder was played, not one of the guests was able to identify this legendary "soprano of the past" -- who was, in fact, singing at the Met that very season!

Nilsson believed that a singer needed "a natural voice, a good build and musicality."

"Good luck is also very important; good health and good physique," she continued. "And nerves, nerves, nerves -- good nerves. Good nerves is to be nervous to a certain point, but not too nervous -- that is bad for the performance. I feel like a racehorse before a performance. I cannot stand still!"

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