With enough voice, enough talent and pure physical power to sing five major Wagnerian roles and almost as many more by Strauss, Beethoven and Puccini, and to sing them all equally well, is a distinction which belongs to Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish soprano with nearly superhuman abilities.
Critic Allen Hughes, writing in the New York Times, has said, "Miss Nilsson's voice is about as glorious an instrument as one could wish to hear, and her vocalism seems utterly effortless.
It is also about as nearly flawless as any human being could make it. She can achieve resounding, full throated climaxes without strain and move with instant and equal ease into pianissimo singing that caresses the ear"
From the time of her Metropolitan debut in 1959 as Isolde, where she displayed a big, flashing, vibrant voice with a ringing power that cut without difficulty through the opulent textures of the Wagnerian orchestra, Miss Nilsson has cultivated her fine talent so that her musicianship is exemplary and her sense of style and taste is beyond reproach.
Birgit Nilsson was born in southern Sweden of a farming family that has owned its property for seven generations.
Her talent was recognized at an early age and as she herself has humorously added, her voice was always "loud".
A career in music was not encouraged and it was against her parents' wishes that she went to audition for the Royal Academy of Music.
After a most successful course of study, principally with Joseph Hislop, she was engaged by the Royal Opera in Stockholm, and made her debut in 1947 as Lady Macbeth, under the direction of Fritz Busch, a musician to whom she pays warm tribute.
Other roles she sang in the Swedish capital include Turandot, Tosca, Aida, Leonore, Brunnhilde, Sieglinde, Elsa, Ortrud, Elisabeth, Venus and Senta and her favorite roles in all of opera - Salome and Isolde.
When once asked how she interpreted the role of Isolde, she replied, "LOVE!" "Yes, that is it," she went on, "All, all is love. Isolde is so frantic, so obsessed with love that she disguises it to herself as hate and bitterness in order to bear it!'
Whatever her formula is, Birgit Nilsson's Isolde stands alone today in splendid perfection as did Kirsten Flagstad's, a quarter of a century ago.
Although famed for her Wagnerian performances, Miss Nilsson is by no means a one-composer artist; her portrayal of Aida, for instance, is marked by the same artistic confidence that she displays in all her roles. Of her Turandot at the Lyric Opera, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported, "Nilsson has a silver trumpet in her throat!”
And on it goes, as critics and music lovers attempt to find more superlatives to apply to the vocal artistry which already has established Birgit Nilsson as a legendary soprano. More recently, she has brought her magnificent voice to the recital hall in songs by Schubert and Strauss; Nielsen and other Scandinavian composers. On such an occasion at Philharmonic Hall, Donal Henahan of the New York Times noted, "Miss Nilsson capped her encores with I Could Have Danced All Night, and even danced one chorus of it. No doubt she could have sung all night too, but audiences are only human and tire of cheering!” As her recordings will attest, there is much to cheer about.
[Excerpts from liner notes to an album of Nilsson’s recordings]
[Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish soprano and renowned Wagnerian, died at the age of 87 in 2005.]