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Subject: "The Valkyrie Who Took Opera Fans on A Thrilling Ride" - Washington Post
From: Janice Rosen <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:[log in to unmask]
Date:Thu, 12 Jan 2006 12:39:50 +0000

text/plain (112 lines)

>From the Washington Post .... Sorry I could not get the link to work. So am coping verbatim from the article.  The Metro section of today's Washington Post also has an excellent obituary.  The following is from the "Style" Section.     -  Janice Rosen, Washington, DC


The Valkyrie Who Took Opera Fans on A Thrilling Ride
By Tim Page, Washington Post, January 12, 2006

Soprano Birgit Nilsson, whose death Dec. 25 at age 87 was
reported yesterday, was the great Valkyrie of her time -- a
warrior woman whose steely voice sliced thrillingly through
the vast orchestral thickets of Wagnerian music drama,
carrying to the last row of any opera house in which she

She excelled at the larger-than-life heroines of Wagner and
Richard Strauss -- the young goddess Brunnhilde in the
"Ring" cycle, the princesses Isolde, Salome and Elektra in
the operas that bear their names -- works that made full use
of her extraordinary stamina, spot-on intonation and
fearless, gleaming high notes. Yet she also distinguished
herself in more intimate material, such as the role of Donna
Anna in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," in Scandinavian folk music
and in the songs of Grieg and Sibelius.

She conquered New York in the last days of 1959, singing a
"Tristan und Isolde" at the Metropolitan Opera that was
followed by a 15-minute shouting, stomping and standing
ovation that became par for the course whenever Nilsson
performed. The public demonstration after a 1980 Met
performance of "Elektra," when Nilsson was in her sixties,
went on for even longer. Almost a half-hour elapsed before
the lights came up and we reluctantly agreed to go home.
Never before or since have I seen an audience so
hysterically excited -- and for all the right reasons.

As late as 1996, speaking at a gala tribute celebrating
conductor James Levine's 25th year with the Met, Nilsson
broke into a few bars of Brunnhilde's battle cry from "Die
Walkure" and -- at 77 and officially retired for more than a
decade -- she won the heartiest applause of a long and
star-studded evening.

On the rare occasions that we met, Nilsson seemed a shy and
rather simple person, who spoke softly and punctuated her
speech with girlish giggles. Throughout her life, she was
happiest in her native Sweden, where she had grown up in a
rural community and where she had sung what she later
recalled as "risque farm songs" -- the only music she
knew -- during her first appearance on the radio. Her sense
of humor was rich, deep and often self-deprecatory.

Yet she was no pushover: It used to be said of Nilsson that
she had "dimples of iron." She insisted upon being paid the
highest fee an opera house could offer. Rudolf Bing, who was
general manager of the Met from 1950 through 1972, was asked
if Nilsson was difficult. "Not at all," he replied. "You put
enough money in, and a glorious voice comes out."

She enjoyed a long public feud with the autocratic conductor
Herbert von Karajan (and by all accounts she did enjoy it,
puncturing his stylized Teutonic pretensions by referring to
him as "Herbie"). In the 1960s, he sent her a meticulously
detailed, two-page cablegram about an upcoming production on
which they were to collaborate. She dismissed it with two
words: "Busy. Birgit."

Over the past 13 months, three of the brightest stars of the
mid-20th-century opera world have died: Renata Tebaldi,
Victoria de los Angeles and now Nilsson. Fortunately, all
three sopranos left many recordings, so their artistry will
continue to resonate -- a permanent gift.

On this front, Nilsson is likely to be best remembered for
her participation in the first complete recording of
Wagner's "Ring," under Sir Georg Solti. Recorded over the
course of several years, it was completed in 1966 to world
acclaim and has never been out of the catalogue. Her
recording of "Elektra," also with Solti, has been much
celebrated, but the production was loaded with eerie special
effects for dramatic verisimilitude, which now make for
heavy going. (Regina Resnik's performance of Klytemnestra,
in particular, is amplified and distorted as though she were
providing shrieks for a haunted-house ride.) Still, Nilsson
is superb -- manic, wild-eyed and murderous, of course, yet
capable of melting tenderness on those fleeting occasions
when it was called for.

One other recording deserves mention. In 1961, Nilsson sang
an aria from "Die Walkure" onto a wax cylinder -- the
earliest and most primitive method of recording, dating from
the late 19th century -- as part of an elaborate hoax for
the Met's radio quiz, broadcast nationally during
intermission. The idea was to stump the so-called experts,
and Nilsson did. When her cylinder was played, not one of
the guests was able to identify this legendary "soprano of
the past" -- who was, in fact, singing at the Met that very

Nilsson believed that a singer needed "a natural voice, a
good build and musicality."

"Good luck is also very important; good health and good
physique," she continued. "And nerves, nerves, nerves --
good nerves. Good nerves is to be nervous to a certain
point, but not too nervous -- that is bad for the
performance. I feel like a racehorse before a performance. I
cannot stand still!"

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