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Subject: Re: Birgit Nilsson's passing
From: David Geary <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:David Geary <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 12 Jan 2006 08:47:15 +0100
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I am terribly sad, although not too surprised,
to hear of Birgit Nilsson's passing. I knew
she wasn't well and had bad heart problems.
Now that she and Moedl are both gone, that
only leaves Varnay of that triumferate. It is
probably worth noting that Varnay could have
very well resented Nilsson, when she came
along the critics, especially in North America,
  acted as if there hadn't been a major
Wagnerian singer since Flagstad. However, on
the contrary, Astrid and Nilsson were very
good friends and liked each other very much.
Probably the greatest performance I ever saw
was an Elektra in Munich with them both, the
meeting of those two titans on stage was
something one didn't see often. I still remember vividly the end of their
great confrontation scene: Varnay lying flat on her back, Nilsson standing
straddled over her with her arms up in the air as she hurled out the final
high notes, and then reaching down as if she were going to strangle
Klytemnestra on the spot, Varnay turning onto her side and literally
squealing like a pig being slaughtered. I get goose bumps just writing
about it!
I posted this anecdote shortly after it
happened. Varnay is only 23 days older than
Nilsson, and Nilsson said she used to get her
goat by calling her "Mutti" when she did
Elektra to Varnay's Klytemnestra. A couple of
years ago Varnay called her up on her birthday
and said "Birgit, this is your mother!"
I think all who heard her live will agree that
the recordings, as wonderful as most of them
are, give no idea of what it was like to be in
the auditorium when she sang. At the end of
Salome at the Met, I swear you couldn't hear
the orchestra. But the phenomenal thing was
that it never became harsh, you always felt
she could give twice as much if she felt like
it. As a matter of fact, I have often heard
that if you stood beside her all you heard was a sort of buzz.

I think the comment that best sums her up is the following:
when I was studying german at the Berlitz
school in Munich I hung around with a couple
of girls from New York who were in the same
class. They had never had any contact to speak
of with classical music, but started going to
opera with me. We went to a Turandot with
Nilsson, and one of them said to me after the
second act "I don't understand anything about
it, but even I know, I never heard anything
like that before!"

David

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