An unparalleled artist and a lovely, down-to-earth woman.
Birgit Nilsson, who died on Dec. 25, 2005, was considered by many to be the greatest Wagnerian soprano in history. Only Kirsten Flagstad, whom Nilsson herself revered, can be mentioned in the same sentence.
A Wagnerian singer needs a voice that will carry over a large orchestra, stamina to sing for four hours at a stretch, and an understanding of the complexities of Wagner's music. Nilsson had these and so much more. She was probably the greatest exponent of the title role in Puccini's Turandot and was also praised for her performances of Richard Strauss' work.
When I went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, to study singing, my background was as a pianist, so my knowledge of opera was limited. My teacher, Joseph Ward, told me he thought I would sing Wagner's Brunnhilde one day, which meant nothing to me, so he told me to go to the library and listen to "The Ring" conducted by Georg Solti and with Nilsson singing Brunnhilde. It would be safe to say that within five minutes I was hooked and my life changed forever. To think, as an 18-year-old, that one day I would sing this amazing music that the most incredible human voice I had ever heard was singing didn't seem possible. I will always remember hearing her sing Brunnhilde's famous "War Cry," my jaw dropping to the floor. I continued to listen to Birgit while I got to know Wagner's music for the first time—her Brunnhilde, Isolde, and the "Wesendonck Lieder." My admiration for her voice and interpretation was unbounded.
My teacher had worked with Nilsson at Covent Garden on several occasions, singing on the same stage with her in Turandot and when she played Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio. He spoke so highly of her as a singer and a person, which always made an impression on me. It was encouraging, as a student, to hear that one's idols were nice people, too! As I was first learning the role of Turandot, "In Questa Reggia," the big aria she starts with, was very daunting—a difficult aria as soon as you set foot on the stage. Joseph told me that he once asked her, in an elevator, how she went on and sang that aria cold, and she replied, "I just use it to warm up the voice." Having sung the aria myself many times, I can only marvel that anyone could say that about such a piece of music.
In 1996, I was taking part in James Levine's 25th anniversary gala and was thrilled to be asked to sing Brunnhilde's immolation scene from "The Ring." There were many legendary singers taking part, and I felt very honored to be there. I knew that Birgit Nilsson was also there to make a speech toward the end of the evening. There was a moment in the middle of my singing when I suddenly thought that she was backstage and probably listening, but I tried to push it from my mind as quickly as possible and concentrate on the singing. When I came offstage, a stage manager told me Birgit would like to meet me, and I should go to her dressing room. I was very nervous—much more so than I had been during the immolation scene—and I knocked on her door to hear a voice saying, "Just a moment" followed by a few "ho-jo-to-hos" (the Walkyries' battle cry) from her bathroom! She then poked her head out of the door, and an arm to shake my hand, and said some very nice things to me about my singing. I was thrilled, not just to meet her, but for her gracious manner and abundant humor. Everything Joseph had said was indeed true!
My second meeting with Ms. Nilsson was on the 40th anniversary of her Met debut as Isolde. I was singing Isolde that afternoon for the broadcast matinee, and she was to take part in a broadcast interview during the first intermission. I had heard she would be in the house that afternoon, and from the stage I could see her sitting in the general manager's box. It was a little intimidating to see the greatest Isolde hearing my performance of her role. I asked if it would be possible to have a photograph taken with her, so at the second interval I was taken to the reception room and met her for the second time. She kissed me on both cheeks and said how much she was enjoying the performance and how well the role suited me, which was lovely to hear from her. She then suggested I shouldn't chat anymore as I still had the third act to sing. I pointed out that my bit was well over an hour away, as is often the case with Wagner, and she laughed.
I am currently singing my first Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus with Seattle Opera, and when her death was announced last week, the general director, Speight Jenkins, said he would like to pay a tribute to her in some way. He asked if I would sing Isolde's "Liebestod" at the party scene in the second act. I was a little concerned that this wouldn't fit well into a comedy and would be difficult for the audience to accept, but he thought not, so on Saturday night, in the party scene, I did indeed sing Isolde, while dressed as a Hungarian countess. It struck me, while singing, how much Birgit would have loved the idea of the "Liebestod" being performed during an operetta and probably would have laughed. She herself, on a recording of Fledermaus, sang "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady, so she was certainly game for a joke. On repeated occasions, she remarked that the most important thing for singing Wagner was a pair of comfortable shoes, and in a performance of Siegfried, she wore a "Do Not Disturb" sign when Siegfried goes to wake her from her magic sleep. One of my favorite quotes of hers was when someone commented how down-to-earth she was, to which she replied it was so that "when you fall down, it won't hurt so much."
Jane Eaglen is an opera singer.
Photograph by Ira Nowinski/CORBIS. Audio excerpt from Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, Sir Georg Solti conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker © 1997 Decca Music Group Ltd. All rights reserved.