Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Birgit Nilsson, a life in performance

An obituary of Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson by Bernard Holland appears today in the New York Times. Nilsson was 87, and her performances of the Wagnerian roles are legendary, preserved on many recordings still in wide circulation. Here is a little excerpt from a profile on Nilsson by Winthrop Sargeant which appeared in The New Yorker magazine, Oct. 29, 1966:
Miss Nilsson, being a great self-improver, can be counted on to sing each role better every season. She restudies constantly, and people who have worked with her say that, given a couple of months between performances of a particular role, she will always return to it with improvements, both vocal and dramatic. Her voice has grown in warmth over the past five years or so, and she explains this phenomenon by noting that when she was younger she had to push her voice in order to make it adequate to the big Wagnerian roles. "When you push," she says, "the voice becomes white." But Miss Nilsson, for all her experience and fame, is still not without her attacks of nerves. Before her first double appearance as Elisabeth and Venus in "Tannhäuser," she spent a completely sleepless night, and her description of it will be familiar to many insomniacs: "First I couldn't sleep. Then I got worried that I wouldn't get any sleep. Then I got mad at myself for not sleeping. So I didn't get any sleep. Sometimes I am so stupid I hate myself." She has also had some experiences on stage that would unhinge the average actor. She described one of these in a letter to her New York friend. Dated London, April 14, 1962, it began, "Friday 13th, yesterday, was the premiere of "Tristan & Isolde," and it was really the 13th. Between the general rehearsal and the premiere, they spreaded my costume in a green color. It was a nice color indeed. I jumped in my costume in the last minute and found that the nice new color made me green all over. The overture began and I went on the stage in tears! My hands were after 5 minutes so dark green that I could not see the difference between them and my clothes. Brangäne became green, Tristan almost all-over green, and I was at the end of the act green as a tree from tip to bottom. Ah boy! I have still no idea what I did on the stage.... The second act was better, because I changed dress, but then I got the green color back from Tristan during the long love duet, because there had been no costume change for him. That was Friday 13th! P.S. The man who spreaded my costume cried also. He had used water color instead of - I do not know what. But it was quite a mistake."
That profile contains several more funny stories from Nilsson's life on stage, and is available on The Complete New Yorker set of DVDs. There is also an excellent profile of Nilsson published in David Blum's book Quintet: five journeys toward musical fulfillment.

Here's the paragraph which closes that Winthrop Sargeant article:
Recently, an interviewer asked Miss Nilsson, "If you had six months of complete freedom, with no singing schedule whatever, what would you do?" Miss Nilsson seemed taken aback for a moment. Obviously, the idea had never occurred to her before. She thought over the question earnestly and then replied, "I would like to travel. There are so many things to see." In response to a look of incredulity, she quickly added, "You do not understand. There are many cities in the world where I have seen only the airport, the inside of my hotel room, the inside of a taxi, and the inside of the opera house. Sometime I am going to go sightseeing, like other people."
This past weekend I visited Minneapolis for an orchestra audition, and I may have seen a few things besides those Ms. Nilsson listed, but not many - I didn't even turn on my camera. It seemed like a nice city, though, and I have only good things to say about the orchestra and its audition process. Maybe one day they will have auditions again, and I'll have a more fortunate result, or at least leave myself an extra day for sightseeing.

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