New Video Recaps Birgit Nilsson’s Career

Nilsson DVD

BIRGIT NILSSON: A LEAGUE OF HER OWN / A film by Thomas Voigt and Wolfgang Wunderlich / Unitel/C Major DVD 800008

Normally, I stay away from singer retrospective albums and DVDs. Having seen so many singers in my lifetime – some extremely good but completely or partially neglected by the record companies – I’ve taken a jaundiced view towards such things.

Having grown up in the “Birgit Nilsson era,” so to speak, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size and “cut” of her voice. I heard her mostly on Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, and my uncle John owned a copy of her RCA Turandot with Björling, Tebaldi and Leinsdorf, a fine recording if not quite capturing the frisson of her voice. Fortunately, I heard once in person, when she was still in her prime, a 1975 Newark Opera performance of Turandot with Placido Domingo and, believe it or not, Licia Albanese. In case you’re wondering, Albanese actually sang extremely well but her acting was appalling. But of course, I was there to hear Nilsson, and review the performance for a local New Jersey arts magazine.

Whoever provided me with the comp tickets must not have liked me. They gave me front row right, where I sat opposite the timpanist. All night long, the timpani was whacking right in my ear. And then there was Birgit. Everything you’ve heard about her voice was true. She had the power, and timbral sound, of an air raid siren going off at full blast…and I was seated at Ground Zero. Between Nilsson’s singing and the timpani, I had one hell of a headache by the time the performance was over, but I did hear Nilsson.

It was the biggest soprano voice of its time, possibly of all time. Some old-timers argue that Kirsten Flagstad’s voice was just as big but more lyrical, but I knew Dr. Louis Leslie, co-founder of the Gregg Shorthand System, who had been going to the Met since 1918 (yes, he actually heard Caruso sing!), and his comment was, “We thought Frida Leider had a big voice until we heard Flagstad, and then we heard Nilsson, and her voice was as big as both of them put together!”

But Nilsson was scarcely a subtle interpreter, and only a so-so actress—especially before 1966. Big emotions were her stock-in-trade, not nuance. Thus, over the years, though at one time I owned both of her “Ring” cycles (Decca-London and Philips), I eventually gravitated towards sopranos like Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay and Berit Lindholm, who had warmer voices and subtler interpretations. The problem is, however, that Nilsson was the last truly stupendous Wagnerian soprano. Most of what we have nowadays are bad jokes: wobbly, strained voices that can barely negotiate the music.

And after working with Wieland Wagner at Bayreuth in 1966, she admitted that she finally learned how to express emotions with the voice. Wieland himself said that “Nilsson became famous before she became great,” and she was shocked and saddened by his early death. Her late recordings of Elektra, Tristan und Isolde (both the 1968 studio recording with Wolfgang Windgassen and her 1974 live performance with Jon Vickers) and Macbeth are a great improvement on all of her earlier discs. As for the complaint that few if any recordings captured her voice well, I’d have to say that the EMI Turandot, which I cannot stomach because of Franco Corelli’s pig-and-a-half singing style, the live Tristan and the Böhm “Ring” cycle on Philips show it pretty well.

Yet no one would deny that Nilsson was a professional and conscientious artist and, better yet, a down-to-earth woman in a world full of phony “divas.” A real farm girl from Sweden, she pursued a singing career against her father’s wishes and so got a late start in both studying and performing. This wonderful video is as honest a chronicle of her ups and downs, her pranks and her rustic sense of humor, as it is of her career. I hadn’t known that one of her voice teachers was tenor Joseph Hislop, an immensely talented but churlish fellow who felt that insults and put-downs were part of vocal coaching. Yet he did help Nilsson to secure her high range just as he did nearly two decades earlier for her countryman, tenor Jussi Björling. Not a single detail or anecdote is left out of his documentary. We hear about Hans Knappertsbusch swearing at her like a sailor in rehearsals for Salome, of her irritation at Herbert von Karajan’s arrogance (“He was a great artist but a small human being”), and of the time Corelli refused to go on stage with her in the last act of Turandot until Met manager Rudolf Bing suggested that instead of kissing her in the last act, he bite her on the ear. Birgit later confirmed that Corelli never bit her but Bing never knew it because he had fled the Met before the third act, fearing a confrontation. Nilsson decided to get back at him by sending him a telegram that she couldn’t sing with the company in Cincinnati “because of severe bite wounds”!

Birgit miners helmet

Birgit in her customized miner’s helmet, 1968

Indeed, her less-than-diva personality and country-girl sense of humor are what kept her sane through her very intense 36-year career. She was as well known for her sharp witticisms as for her piercing high notes. At the Metropolitan in 1968, she was so upset with Karajan’s numerous lighting rehearsals (“82 for the lighting and only one for the orchestra!” she later complained), which mostly resulted in a stage set so dark that she almost tripped over herself, that she had a special miner’s helmet made for her and wore it to rehearsal. Needless to say, Karajan was not amused, and it was the last time she ever sang with him.

Backstage, too, Birgit was one of the warmest and most down-to-earth professional singers in the world. Once, when rehearsing Tristan with Vickers and noting his tension, she took him fishing to loosen him up (this story, unfortunately, is not in the video). She gave little parties in her dressing room for her fans, one time even cooking up Swedish meatballs on a hotplate for them (that is in the video), and once, in Vienna, the standees—meaning those who had the least money but who loved her the most—pooled their meager resources and had a special ring made for her with her face on it as Isolde. She was so delighted that she wore it in the next performance, and during curtain calls held her hand up and flashed the ring to the audience. Later, backstage, she told these fans, “Now we are officially engaged!”

The only story they don’t tell is of Nilsson’s own personal stalker, a young New York “model-actress” named Nell Theobald. Theobald, who according to Nilsson “looked like Marilyn Monroe only with dark hair,” followed her around from performance to performance, begged the soprano to let her be her friend (“I choose my own friends,” Nilsson replied), and then started sneaking into the soprano’s dressing room, stealing personal items like jewelry and underwear. She even dressed up like a geisha to serve Nilsson food in a Japanese-style restaurant. The nightmare finally ended in 1977 when Theobald committed suicide.

By the time this video ends, you will have fallen in love with this warm, witty yet hard-working woman who took her art very seriously and stopped singing at age 64 because she knew it was time. Her final performance wasn’t even announced as a farewell; she just sang it and then told the press she was retiring. No-fanfare Birgit. She had an operation for cancer in 1968 but told everyone it was gallstones. “I couldn’t stand the idea of people pitying me,” she said in 1995 when revealing the truth.

This, then, is a wonderful portrait of a major singer who was also a quality human being. Well worth the investment, though at this point you may have a hard time watching James Levine onscreen (I know I did). Well worth checking out!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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