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Soprano's Enduring Gift: A $1 Million Opera Prize

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

Think Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish soprano, and you think of a voice of tremendous, chair-rattling, paint-peeling power. The singer died in 2005, but beforehand she arranged to create an award that would have some of the clout that her voice had in life. Yesterday, the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which the soprano founded in the 1980s, announced at a news conference in Stockholm the establishment of a prize, to be awarded every two to three years to an opera singer, conductor or significant opera production, in the amount of $1 million -- the largest classical music prize ever.

Future winners will be selected by a jury appointed by the foundation's five members. The first recipient, who will be announced early next year, was chosen by Nilsson herself.

The grant is entirely funded by Nilsson's professional earnings, carefully invested by her and her husband (who died in 2007) and well tended by the foundation since. According to Rutbert Reisch, the foundation's president and former chief financial officer of Volkswagen AG, 80 percent of the portfolio was pulled out of the stock market safely before the recent crash. "It is enough to sustain the prize as it is envisioned indefinitely," he said, speaking by phone last night from Europe.

"She had no children; she had no close relatives," he continued. "She wanted to do something meaningful with that money -- meaning, what supports the arts."

The jury has yet to be appointed; because the first winner is decided, the foundation has time to determine who will be involved in anointing the second one. Reisch indicated that the panel, appointed to a three-year term, might include critics, managers or musicologists: "high-powered people with names in the field."

Nilsson stipulated that three years should pass between her death and the first award so that it would not fall entirely under the shadow of her personality. Nonetheless, the prize is conceived to focus primarily on furthering singing, preferably large voices. The provisions for awards in other areas, such as an outstanding opera production, are an acknowledgment that not enough great singers may come along (though the terms of the award stipulate that it may be split between two recipients in a given year).

"If we lived in an ideal world," Reisch said, "we would focus on Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Strauss" singers. "But quality is the prime objective. There are just not enough great dramatic voices around to always have great dramatic voices awarded. Especially when you measure by her standards."

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