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Birgit Nilsson, 87; Wagnerian Soprano Known for the Power of Her Voice and Personality

January 12, 2006|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Although the notices were positive, Nilsson was miffed. Most reviewers made it sound as if she were a new name in opera, although European audiences had revered her for a decade. In Italy, she had been invited to open the 1958 season at Milan's La Scala, an honor usually reserved for Italian singers.

"I guess I felt I had been neglected a little too long," Nilsson wrote in her memoir about her New York debut. "After all, I was 41 years old and had already made my mark at most of the leading opera houses in the world."

Her relationship with the Met's managers was not always smooth. She complained when front row tickets for her performances were set at $200. Her most loyal fans couldn't afford it, she said.

"I know the Met needed the money, but I don't think they should have made it all out of me," Nilsson told the Manchester Guardian in a 1981 interview.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 13, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Nilsson obituary -- The obituary of Birgit Nilsson in Thursday's California section identified Ian D. Campbell as general director of Opera San Jose. The general director is Irene Dalis.

Part of the reason for the high price was her salary, Nilsson's critics said. Once, during a rehearsal of "Gotterdammerung" with conductor Herbert von Karajan, he teased her, saying she should sing from the heart, "where you have your cashbox."

"Why, then," she replied, "we have something in common, Mr. Von Karajan."

Nilsson's finances made international news in the mid-1970s when the Internal Revenue Service said she owed $500,000 in unpaid taxes. She stopped singing in the U.S. because of it and did not perform here from 1975 until 1979, when her lawyer was able to arrange for her to clear her debt in installments.

Her next U.S. opera role was in "Elektra," which she sang at the Met in 1980. Nilsson was 62 that year, but "the shining trumpet of a voice is still far from sounding like a coronet," the New York Times said.

She taught voice more often as she cut back her singing commitments starting in the early 1980s. Her longest teaching stint in the United States was at the Manhattan School of Music from 1983 to 1991.

She retired from professional engagements in 1984.

For all her vocal strength, Nilsson was accident prone and faced health crises throughout her career. She had tuberculosis in 1952, followed by cancer a few years later. In 1971, she fell on stage and dislocated her shoulder during a dress rehearsal for "Gotterdammerung" at the Met.

"My friends said it was a tragicomic sight to see me being rolled into the emergency room in long, false eyelashes, Brunnhilde's flowing red wig still on my head," Nilsson wrote in her memoir. On opening night she sang with her arm in a sling.

"I ask a great deal of myself," Nilsson told author David Blum in his 1999 book, "Quintet: Five Journeys Toward Musical Fulfillment." "But I also ask very much of others."

Born Marta Birgit Svennsson, Nilsson was the only child of Nils and Justina Svennsson, sixth-generation farmers. She grew up picking potatoes and milking cows.

Her parents named her Nilsson because of a Swedish tradition in which a child can be given her father's first name, with the suffix "son," as her last name.

Nils Svennsson encouraged his daughter's musical talents, to a point. He bought her a harmonium when she was in grade school and a piano when she was 15.

At 17 she auditioned for the best church choir in her area. The choir director, Ragnar Blenow, stunned her when he predicted that she would be a great soprano. She had dreamed of it but never dared to do more.

Blenow helped arrange an audition for her at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. She was accepted to the school and began classes at 23.

For the next five years -- three at the Royal College followed by two at the Royal Opera School nearby -- she suffered voice teachers who mocked her farm background.

After graduating from school in 1946, she was her own teacher for some years.

"I've always said the best voice teacher is the stage," she told the Independent of London in 1993. "I learned the hard way from every performance and grew with every role."

She made her opera debut in 1946 in a Swedish Royal Opera production of "Der Freischutz" by Carl Maria von Weber.

After the original soprano had dropped out, Nilsson was given the lead role of Agathe with three days to rehearse. Opera house administrators were not impressed, however, and labeled her "unmusical and untalented," she later recalled.

The next year she was given another role, again as a substitute, singing Lady Macbeth in Verdi's "Macbeth." This time, reviews convinced her that she would have a career in opera.

Nilsson married Bertil Niklasson in 1948, three years after they met on a train from Skane, her native region in Sweden's far south, to Stockholm. They were both students at the time, and he went on to become a prosperous businessman.

The couple had no children.

Through most of her career, Nilsson and her husband made a second home of the farm where she was raised. She once said she became ill if she wasn't able to return to Skane during Scandinavia's long summer hours of daylight.

She arranged local concerts and donated the money to the Heritage Society Museum in her town.

"I never thought I'd go as far as I did," Nilsson told Blum, looking back over her career at 75. "But if one has determination, one can move rocks."


Times staff writer Chris Pasles contributed to this report.

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