La Nilsson: My Life in Opera

Her whole life was glowing testimony to its validity. A
farm girl born in southern Sweden in 1918, she grew up pulling weeds and milking cows
— things that she continued to do on visits home even after moving to Stockholm to
study at the Royal Academy of Music and Opera School. As she tells it in “La
Nilsson,” her autobiography that has just appeared in English, hers was a
straightforward life marked by diligence and hard work, no matter what the task at hand. She
describes a professional journey made with feet firmly on the ground.

It was a no-nonsense career that paid off handsomely with a stellar position in the opera
world for four decades. Nilsson organizes the immense detail of her long career in chapters
focused on the cities enriched by her talent: Stockholm, Vienna, Bayreuth, New York and Buenos
Aires; a further chapter deals with Italy’s often disorganized opera houses and
others with recordings and experiences with fans. An appreciation of her husband concludes the

She begins with her first “Tristan” at New York’s old Met in
1959 — long after her debut with America’s major companies. This series of
Isoldes became legendary, when she sang opposite three indisposed tenors in a single
performance: Karl Liebl, Ramon Vinay and Albert da Costa. (Each sang one act.) Nilsson has
more to say about rehearsals than performances, and this gives the book an intimate feeling of
opera from the inside.

Although a number of dressing-room events provide color, she eschews gossip; she even leaves
the soprano for whom Wieland Wagner left wife and family unnamed. (It was Anna Silja.) She
writes generously of colleagues, and among the conductors with whom she worked she speaks only
of Herbert von Karajan with reserve. She calls her relationship with him
“clouded.” She was irked not only by his vanity, but by the countless
hours that he — doubling as director — spent on lighting rehearsals. She
was unimpressed by Karajan’s conducting without score, for this left him unable to
help singers who lost their place. (Prompters, she notes, were usually half asleep.) Relying
upon a bit of farm metaphor, Nilsson portrays Karajan at a Vienna rehearsal
“strutting about like a cock in a henhouse, his rear end stuck out and his head in
the air…. It was exactly so.”

Although her career stands as a major chapter in the history of opera, Nilsson nonetheless
lived between major musical epochs. In her early years she worked with such conductors as
Erich Kleiber, Fritz Busch, Issai Dobrowen and Leo Blech, men firmly rooted in traditions that
prevailed before the Second World War.

Both LP’s and CD’s were introduced after her debut, and she made the
first complete recording of Wagner’s “Ring.” She retired
— happily — just as Regieoper was about to crown the stage
director king of opera. (It was the “Ring” project that allowed Nilsson
— so to speak — to raise her voice together with her Scandinavian
countrywoman and great predecessor in the Wagnerian Fach Kirsten Flagstad. Flagstad
sang Fricka in “Das Rheingold”; Nilsson, Bru”nnhilde in the
remaining three operas of the cycle. Although the two women never met, Flagstad sent Nilsson a
“fan letter” after hearing her on a broadcast
“Tristan” in 1959.)

Nilsson’s account of instruction at the Stockholm conservatory recalls Anna
Russell’s statement that at one time or another her voice was “ruined by
all the great teachers of the day.” For two years Nilsson worked with a man who
insisted that she focus the full force of the voice on the vocal chords, which produced an
intense tone — but without overtones and with tension that turned to pain. After
another gripped her larynx and pressed it down — again causing pain — she
fled to noted Wagnerian Nanny Larsen-Todsen, who spent lesson time telling of her own earlier
life as “Queen of Bayreuth.” Happily, Nilsson had the intelligence and
insight to work out problems of technique on her own.

Although she was noted for her sense of humor, few of the stories that circulated following
Nilsson’s death on Christmas day 2006 have found their way into this book. (Two
favorites: in her first Bayreuth “Siegfried” Wolfgang Windgassen, the
eponymous hero, removed the sleeping Bru”nnhilde’s armor to find the tag
from her hotel door on her bosom: “Please do not disturb! And when asked whether
Joan Sutherland’s bouffant hair was real, Nilsson replied: “I
don’t know; I haven’t pulled it. )

Her autobiography is thus without great excitement; careful consideration of assignments and
thorough preparation kept disaster at bay. She married her first love, Bertil Niklasson, a
veterinarian who later went into business on his own and frequently accompanied the soprano on
her many trips abroad. And although she last sang in public in 1984 on a tour of West Germany
with orchestra, she never spoke of retirement and loathed the term “farewell
performance.” From 1983 to 1993 Nilsson — to great acclaim —
taught master classes at New York’s Manhattan School of Music.

The mechanics of “La Nilsson” furrow the critical brow. This – strangely
— is a translation from the German — not from the original Swedish. And
although — says the translator in a brief preface — Nilsson saw the
English text and liked it — or found it better at least than two others that she
saw, one wonders why the English version is not based on the Swedish original.

The English version suggests — although this is no where said — that
Nilsson wrote the text. Indeed, she concludes her introduction by speaking of “the
blank sheet of paper to which I shall shortly entrust some of my memories.” But
that’s probably a figure of speech, possibly from the “pen” of
the translator. The Swedish original, on the other hand, says that Nilsson
“narrated” the text to an unnamed scribe. In an earlier day the title page
of such “autobiographes” commonly stated “as told
to….” If the Nilsson opus is the product of this practice, the dictatee should
somewhere be named.

The book contains two sections of photos and a detailed discography.

A personal recollection: I discovered Nilsson — as it were — on my own.
In Vienna early in 1954 I heard her as Elsa in “Lohengrin” and the next
evening as Elisabeth [correct] in “Tannhäuser.” Although I had
not heard the name before — this was her first season singing outside Sweden
— I knew immediately that this was the successor to Flagstad. I saw her
“live” only once again and that was as the Dyer’s Wife in
Strauss’ “Frau ohne Schatten” at the San Francisco Opera in
1981. (Also in that cast were Leonie Rysanek and James King — which caused wags to
call it “an original-cast performance.”)

Trivia: Nilsson reports that the Vienna Philharmonic, pit orchestra in the State Opera, tunes
almost half a step higher than A-440 Hertz to achieve a brighter sound. This — as
Nilsson tells in her chapter “The Battle of the High Cs” — makes
life even more difficult for singers.

Wes Blomster

image_description=Birgit Nilsson. La Nilsson: My Life in Opera
product_title=Birgit Nilsson. La Nilsson: My Life in Opera, trans. from the German by Doris Jung Popper with a foreword by Sir Georg Solti and an afterword by Peggy Tueller.
product_by=Northeastern University Press, 2007. Pp. 356.
product_id=ISBN: 1-55553-670-0