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S46 Ep20

Birgit Nilsson: A League of Her Own

Premiere: 3/22/2019 | 00:00:30 | Closed Captioning Icon

Celebrate the life of Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, the face of opera in the late 1950s-70s. This new documentary showcases her greatest roles, including Elektra and The Ring Cycle, in rare footage, plus interviews with Plácido Domingo and more.



About the Episode

Premieres Friday, March 22 at 9:00 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)

Streams beginning March 23 and PBS apps

Joining a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month, Great Performances: Birgit Nilsson: A League of Her Own is a performance-documentary celebrating the life and career of the era-defining Swedish dramatic soprano.  With her unforgettable voice, Birgit Nilsson became the face of opera in the 1950s through the 1970s. She was best known for her groundbreaking turns in Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini operas such as Tristan und Isolde, Elektra, Turandot, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Tannhäuser, and Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle). Showcasing her powerful voice paired with her outsized personality and wit, this illuminating documentary about Nilsson’s life in the arts features rare television and archival footage highlighting her remarkable talents. Shot in the locations that were close to Nilsson’s heart, including the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, the Vienna State Opera in Austria, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the farm in Båstad, Sweden where she grew up, the film also includes interviews with friends and fellow opera luminaries, including Plácido Domingo, Marilyn Horne, Nina Stemme, Jonas Kaufmann and many others.

Notable Talent:

  • Victor Callegari, Metropolitan Opera head of make-up (1965-2010)
  • Plácido Domingo, Spanish tenor and conductor
  • Clemens Hellsberg, Austrian Violinist and former CEO of Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic)
  • Marilyn Horne, American mezzo-soprano
  • Jonas Kaufmann, Germen tenor
  • Brian Large, Emmy award-winning video director
  • Christa Ludwig, German dramatic soprano
  • Antonio Pappano, English-Italian conductor and pianist and music director of the Royal Opera House
  • Rutbert Reisch, president of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation
  • Otto Schenk, Austrian actor and director
  • Valerie Solti, former television presenter and widow of conductor Sir George Solti
  • Nina Stemme, Swedish dramatic soprano
  • Sir John Tooly, Royal Opera House general manager (1970-1988)
  • Barry Tucker, son of late American tenor Richard Tucker
  • Joseph Volpe, Metropolitan Opera general manager (1990-2006)
  • Eva Wagner-Pasquier, German opera manager and granddaughter of German composer Richard Wagner

Noteworthy Facts:

  • Nilsson was born in the South of Sweden on May 17, 1918. Her mother, Justina, loved singing and could easily hit a high C, while her father Nick noticed her singing talent early and bought her a small organ.
  • After leaving home in 1941, Nilsson began studying at the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm, Sweden where her teacher was Scottish lyric tenor Joseph Hislop.
  • In 1946 Nilsson made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in Der Freischütz with only three days’ notice. In rehearsals, conductor Leo Blech reduced Nilsson to tears with his harsh criticism.
  • In 1947, Nilsson gained national attention as Lady Macbeth, a role that is notoriously challenging for any soprano and extremely difficult for a relatively new performer. Nilsson did not perform the role again in Stockholm for 18 years.
  • Nilsson made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Tristan und Isolde on December 18, 1959. Her performance received rave reviews, and she was featured on the front pages of the New York Times and the Herald Tribune.
  • Nilsson always showed great appreciation to her fans. In 1968, Nilsson hosted a pre-Christmas party for fans in New York City, where they were treated to presents and her own cooking.
  • Nilsson suffered two injuries while performing at the Met. During a performance of Elektra in 1971, Nilsson sprained her ankle, which resulted in the cancellation of one performance, but she recovered in time to sing in the broadcast performance of the opera. In 1974, she dislocated her shoulder during a rehearsal of Götterdämmerung. Although she was able to sing with her arm in a sling for the first two performances, Nilsson missed subsequent performances of the opera.
  • After ending her stage career, Nilsson taught popular master classes in New York, Germany and Sweden, and served as a mentor to soprano Nina Stemme.
  • Nilsson established The Birgit Nilsson Foundation, awarding a prize in recognition of outstanding achievements of singers, musicians, conductors and orchestras that have sustained the highest performance standards and who have made a major contribution to music history.
  • After spending her later life in Stockholm as well as in the countryside where she grew up, Nilsson passed away on December 25, 2005 and was survived by her husband Bertil Niklasson, who later passed away in March 2007.

Buzzworthy Moments:

  • In a 1971 appearance on a Sveriges Television(SVT) program, Nilsson is reunited with the organ her father bought her 50 years prior and performs the Swedish folk song “Nicolina.”
  • In rare footage, Nilsson is seen preparing for a performance of Tosca in her dressing room at the Met in 1968. Midway through, she is visited by her co-star, Italian lyric tenor Gianni Raimondi, who jokingly pleads with Nilsson “Not to kill me with your voice!”
  • As her career went on, Nilsson became well known for standing up to directors as well as for her sense of humor. In 1967, Nilsson arrived at a rehearsal for Die Walküre with conductor Herbert von Karajan at the Met wearing a miner’s helmet decorated with Valkyrian wings in response to the production’s gloomy lighting.

Production Credits:

Great Performances: Birgit Nilsson: A League of Her Own is a production of Wunderlich Medien GbR & The Birgit Nilsson Foundation in collaboration with Unitel. Written and directed by Thomas Voigt. Wolfgang Wunderlich is editor and co-director. For Great Performances, Bill Kabel and John Walker are producers; Bill O’Donnell is series producer and David Horn is executive producer.


Major funding for Great Performances is provided by The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, the Irene Diamond Fund, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, Rosalind P. Walter, The Agnes Varis Trust, The Starr Foundation, the Kate W. Cassidy Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, the Lenore Hecht Foundation, The Phillip and Janice Levin Foundation and The Abra Prentice Foundation.

Series Overview:

Great Performances is produced by THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, one of America’s most prolific and respected public media providers. Throughout its more than 40-year history on PBS, Great Performances has provided viewers across the country with an unparalleled showcase of the best in all genres of the performing arts, serving as America’s most prestigious and enduring broadcaster of cultural programming.


-Next on 'Great Performances'... -[ Singing in foreign language ] -...a revelatory portrait of the legendary Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson.

♪♪ With a voice like fire and ice, she captured the hearts of opera fans worldwide.

Colleagues revel in her quick wit and extol the phenomenal technique she exhibited in her greatest roles.

'Birgit Nilsson: a League of Her Own' is next.

[ Orchestra playing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -[ Singing in foreign language ] [ Applause ] [ Indistinct talking ] -[ Laughs ] [ Speaking native language ] -There's nobody like Nilsson.

I mean, you cannot compare her with any other singer that I have heard in my life.

Nobody touch her. Nobody, Nobody.

-She was an act of God.

She was this extraordinary talent and ability that had just, as it were, fallen out the skies onto her.

-If one ever wanted a Wagnerian or a heavy roles singer, she was the one.

I mean, she was a class of her own.

♪♪ -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Music swells ] [ Song ends ] [ Cheers and applause ] -Birgit was like a beacon for all of us.

And the thing that -- Frankly, it sounds a little stupid, but I'm a singer.

Her technique was so incredible.

You could just sit and watch Birgit sing, and there was -- the technique was working so incredibly.

-It was like being hit by a laser beam.

But it was full.

It was the attack and then the resolution.

It was what I call focus -- wonderful focus and wonderful sharpness.

Sharpness, there was an edge to it, but it was a friendly edge.

It was nothing sour or aggressive.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ -The voice -- fire and ice, like a knife cutting through the texture of the orchestra.

-[ Singing continues ] ♪♪ -Listen to her approach to the high notes now.

-[ Singing continues ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -Absolutely direct and fearless.

You see how clean, and what a gleam on that sound!

Now, common wisdom would say that you should join the lower note to the higher note.

[ Notes play on piano ] But no, she stops in between.

[ Speaking foreign language ] And it really does pin you to the back of your seat.

♪♪ -This is where the story begins -- in the South of Sweden, a few miles from the seaside resort Bastad.

Here, Birgit Nilsson is born on May 17th in 1918.

Her parents are farmers.

The genes for voice and art come from her mother Stina.

She loves to sing and can easily hit a high 'C.'

For her father, Nick, there's nothing better than being a farmer.

But he recognizes Birgit's interest in music and her vocal talent.

He buys a small organ for her.

This becomes irresistible magic for Birgit.

Some 50 years later, she has an unexpected reunion with that instrument.

-[ Singing in native language ] [ Laughter ] -[ Speaking native language ] -[ Laughs ] Ooh!

-[ Chuckles ] [ Speaking native language ] [ Conversing in native language ] [ Laughter ] [ Applause ] [ Laughter ] -[ Speaking native language ] -[ Singing in native language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Laughter ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -Although her mother is not amused when Birgit sings a few racy songs she has heard from the farm workers, both she and Nils are proud of her vocal talent and allow her to sing for neighbors and guests.

Birgit enjoys those moments to the full.

For her, singing is the most beautiful thing on earth.

And whenever she sees a falling star, she prays, 'Please, Lord, let me become a singer.'

But Nils and Stina have different plans for her.

-But then my parents, they thought I should, you know, be a little bit practical girl, I should take over the farm, I should marry a farmer, and so forth and so forth.

So they sent me to a school where I had to cook -- learn to cook and to bake and wave and all those things.

And my father, he enjoyed it as long I was singing at home for him and his friends.

But when I started to want to become a singer, he said, 'No, no, no.'

-So, a young Birgit is prepared for the hard life of a farmer -- milking cows, feeding the animals, weeding, harvesting.

-Happily, it works out differently.

A choirmaster and vocal coach is very impressed by her singing in the church, And he becomes her first teacher -- Ragnar Blennow.

-In the late summer of 1941, Birgit leaves her parents' farm, takes the train, and rents a room in Stockholm.

Her teacher at the music academy is the Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop.

♪♪ -[ Singing indistinctly ] ♪♪ -At the beginning, Hislop is quite rude to her, a farmer's daughter who wants to be an opera singer.

And she hoots like a foghorn.

-'You know, you have a voice, but if you cannot use it, if you don't have the brain, forget it.

And believe me, Birgit, it is absolutely not for farmers to become a singer.'

[ Laughing ] I went home, and I thought, 'Oh, is this is the way my new life has to start?

That's terrible.'

And then we found each other, and he maybe thought that -- he said that, 'I have made a big mistake.

Birgit, you are not so stupid as I thought.'

And so we went along.

-One day, Birgit realized that the way to success was, in fact, to keep the voice slim and to make sure it was slim from the bottom to the very top.

And she developed a technique, which was absolutely brilliant.

-Yes, this technique she developed herself.

Once, she was completely hoarse and had to sing a concert.

It was then that she discovered how to support the voice, how to relieve the vocal cords.

During her student years, no teacher had taught her these essential basics.

-[ Vocalizing ] -Her time at the music academy is a permanent confusion of confidence and insecurity, but she keeps her head above water.

She inherits a little money, and she earns a little on the side singing at funerals as a so-called 'tomb lark' and in bistros.

♪♪ Stockholm -- October 9, 1946.

The Royal Opera gives a performance of Weber's 'Der Freischuetz.'

At the last minute, Birgit Nilsson has to take over the role of Agathe, and this is her stage debut.

She's nervous, and she is desperate.

Although she will save the evening, Leo Blech, the conductor, is so rude to her during rehearsals that she is reduced to tears.

♪♪ [ Laughter ] [ Laughter ] -But then she thinks of her parents, dries her eyes, goes to the opera house, puts on her costume and her blond wig, and goes onstage.

Trembling, she sings her first scene, but everything goes well.

The audience cheers, and the reviews are excellent.

♪♪ The next role is a big challenge for any soprano.

But for a young, inexperienced singer, it's almost suicide -- Verdi's Lady Macbeth.

-Vocally, I could sing that role very good.

But, you know, I didn't have any experience for that tremendous, difficult role.

Now I cannot understand how I really would dare to tackle that kind of role.

But at that time, I thought it was [Laughing] absolutely marvelous.

And I remember I got very hurt because an older colleague came to me and said, 'Birgit, you are absolutely marvelous.

I only wish you were 10 years older.'

-It is much too early, but this time, the atmosphere is different.

Conductor Fritz Busch is like a father to her.

His son Hans, who is the director, is also very supportive.

But it takes 18 years until Birgit sings the part in Stockholm again, this time for television.

♪♪ -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Orchestra stops ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Orchestra resumes ] ♪♪ -The season 1948-49 is marked by two important private events -- she marries veterinarian Bertil Niklasson and her mother dies in a car accident.

The Royal Opera releases Birgit for a couple of days to look after her father and to arrange the funeral.

But then she has to go back to Stockholm for 'Don Giovanni.'

The show must go on.

[ Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' plays ] ♪♪ -Having sung Elisabeth in 'Tannhaeuser' with great success, Birgit gets the chance to sing several parts in Wagner's 'Ring' in Stockholm.

The conductor is Hans Knappertsbusch, and he is so enthusiastic about her that he wants her to sing Sieglinde at the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951.

But she feels that she is not ready yet for this assignment.

In April 1954, she sings at the Staatsoper in Vienna for the first time, in the Theater an der Wien, since the Staatsoper is still under reconstruction.

Again, it's a stress test.

Within nine days, she sings Sieglinde, Elisabeth, Elsa, and Aida -- all roles in the original language -- for the first time and without any rehearsals.

[ Up-tempo orchestral music plays ] ♪♪ -In 1954, she also gives her stage debut at the Bayreuth Festival -- Elsa in 'Lohengrin' with Wolfgang Windgassen.

The director is Wolfgang Wagner.

Three years later, a third Wolfgang will join them.

Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts the new production of 'Tristan und Isolde.'

[ Man and woman singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Following 'Tristan', she finally sings her first Sieglinde in Bayreuth with Hans Knappertsbusch.

And that unpleasant incident a year before during a 'Salome' in Munich is forgiven, but perhaps not forgotten.

♪♪ -[ Chuckles ] -[ Laughs ] -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Music swells ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -Boehm is very successful not only in Vienna, but also at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

He and Rudolf Bing, Viennese and General Manager of the Met, have known each other since the late 1920s.

For Birgit, this Austrian team is a stroke of luck.

-Though Bing definitely prefers Italian Opera to Wagner, he knows that 'Walkuere' and 'Tristan' would be big box office draws as it had been during the war with the legendary couple Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior.

♪♪ So, with Birgit Nilsson, Ramón Vinay, and Karl Boehm, the stars are aligned for success for this new production of 'Tristan,' which has its premiere on December 18th in 1959.

It's Birgit's MET debut.

After Act I, the house goes wild, and her premiere makes front-page news of the [ ] -[ Chuckles ] -10 days later, she makes headlines again when she sings with three Tristans, one in each act.

Apparently, the three tenors are a bit groggy from Christmas parties, but each of them can sing at least one act.

♪♪ -[ Singing in foreign language ] -Talking about tenors, the new production of Puccini's 'Turandot' with conductor Leopold Stokowski is enthralling for Birgit since her tenor is Franco Corelli -- Bing's new favorite -- a tall man with movie star looks and high notes that drives the audiences crazy.

He is the only one who can compete with her vocally.

And in Turandot, they deliver the clash of the titans.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Nilsson, man sing together ] ♪♪ -[ Laughs ] -[ Singing in native language ] -[ Chuckles ] -[ Speaking native language ] -Franco!

-Franco Corelli!

[ Applause ] -[ Laughs ] ♪♪ -[ Singing continues ] ♪♪ -[ Laughs ] -Don't bite her, please.

-Don't bite me! [ Laughs ] -Have a seat.

[ Speaking indistinctly ] -That was a fantastic tension in the performance.

The public, they didn't even sit.

They were standing like this.

[ Man and woman singing in foreign language ] -Much more relaxed is singing with Richard Tucker, her partner in 'Un Ballo in Maschera,' even though one night, he ignores a deal they had made.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Song ends ] [ Cheers and applause ] -Birgit sees my father in the wing before they come out for the curtain call, and she says, 'Tucker, what happened?

I gave you the click on the hands, and you didn't respond!

You kept on going!'

And he, with his eyes droopy a little bit, says to her, 'Birgit, please, please, I beg of you, I, as a tenor, do not get a high 'C' the way I hit tonight with you.

I had to hold on.'

And she looked at him and said, 'Because of your honesty and because I love you, forget about it.'

-[ Singing in foreign language ] [ Knock on door ] Yes! Come in.

[ Knock on door ] Come in!

[ Conversation in Italian ] -Not -- Not kill me. Not kill me with your voice.

[ Laughs ] [ Conversation in Italian continues ] Ah. Wagner! Wagner!

-No. [ Speaking in Italian ] -♪ Da, da-da-da [ Conversation in Italian continues ] -You are Nilsson. You are Nilsson.

-No, no, no. You are Raimondi. [ Laughs ] -The first time when we really met, she was going to sing the matinee of 'Tosca' at the Metropolitan Opera, and it was supposed to sing Franco Corelli.

And Mr. Bing called me urgently, and he asked me if I could sing the matinee of 'Tosca.'

And so he gave me the news that it was with Birgit.

So you can imagine [Laughs] that great, emotional day for me.

How can I describe, you know, to be near such a monumental artist with a big, big voice?

And I immediately find out her sense of humor that she had and how much she was treating me -- she was mothering me, like saying, 'Don't worry,' you know, 'I'm there to help you.

I'm with you.'

And so everything went beautiful.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ [ Nilsson and Domingo singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -Oh.

[ Laughter ] -It was a wonderful kiss.


-[ Speaks in foreign language ] -Fantastic.

♪♪ [ Laughter ] ♪♪ -'Vienna, City of My Dreams' is a song which Birgit sings very often as an encore in her recitals.

With the new production of the 'Ring' conducted by Herbert von Karajan, Vienna becomes one of her favorite cities, and she becomes a favorite there not only among opera fans and the press, but also among singers and musicians.

-[ Sings high-pitched note in foreign language ] [ Cheers and applause ] -Her relationship to Herbert von Karajan, artistic director of the Staatsoper at that time, is ambivalent.

She admires him greatly as conductor, but she wouldn't dream of groveling to the director.

[ Indistinct talking ] -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -What makes things even more complicated is the competition of two 'Ring' projects -- the Georg Solti version for Decca and the Karajan version for Deutsche Grammophon.

Birgit is Solti's Bruennhilde, and due to contractual exclusivity, she can't sing the part for Karajan, as well.

There are rumors saying that Karajan wants a different sound for his Bruennhilde -- less heroic than Nilsson's.

But those rumors are contradicted by cables, letters, and statements from witnesses.

♪♪ ♪♪ -[ Chuckles ] ♪♪ -The Bruennhilde in Karajan's recording and at the Salzburg Easter Festival production is Régine Crespin.

But when Karajan takes his 'Ring' to the Met, Birgit Nilsson takes over, not least because Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of the Met, insists on her.

'No Nilsson, no Ring.'

Karajan and Nilsson do their best to get along with each other, though she can't resist some remarks about the typical darkness in Karajan's lighting concept.

During a rehearsal, she shows up with a miner's helmet.

♪♪ -When she came out with the Karajan 'Ring' with the miner's cap, you know, with the light... everybody backstage was hysterical, laughing, you know.

Karajan was not laughing, of course.

But that, to me, that said it all.

That said it all.

-Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah.

But that's very much her -- her sense of humor, which I adore.

[ Laughs ] I had little problems with Karajan myself, so, you know, I sympathize with her -- empathize.

-That 'Walkuere' is the last collaboration of Nilsson and Karajan.

Meanwhile, Karl Boehm is the most important conductor in her professional life in Vienna, as well as in New York and in Bayreuth.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -Having been a Wolfgang singer at the Bayreuth Festival for eight years, she finally joins the Wieland Wagner team.

'Tristan' is her first production with Wieland Wagner.

At first, he is a bit skeptical -- would she be flexible enough as an actress?

Would her Isolde be as distinctive as those of her predecessors Martha Moedl and Astrid Varnay?

[ Laughter ] [ Nilsson, man singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -But what did Wieland Wagner mean when he said Nilsson was famous before she became great?

[ Singing continues ] [ Indistinct talking ] -Ohh.

[ Camera shutter clicks ] [ Conversation in German ] Wunderbar!

[ Conversation continues ] [ Instrumental music playing in distance ] [ Vocalizing ] [ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Laughter ] [ Cheers and applause ] [ Indistinct talking ] -She always takes time for her fans.

In New York, she even arranges a little pre-Christmas party for them with presents and her own cooking.

-What? What's going on?

[ Sniffing ] [ Laughter ] Excuse me. No.

[ Indistinct talking ] -What is it?

[ Gasps ] Ah! -Is this from Vienna?

-♪ I could have danced all night ♪ ♪ I could have danced all night ♪ ♪ And still had begged for more... ♪ -The Big Apple may be very exciting, but her daily life in New York is far from glamorous.

It's the life of a hardworking woman who is very conscientious and professional in every sense and who expects the same from those who organize her concerts and recitals.

-[ Speaks indistinctly ] -No ma'am. It's not adjustable.

Honest to God, I can't hear a thing.

-I don't know if I can sing.

I'm used to having some -- [ Speaks indistinctly ] I have to have some help, you know.

I cannot do everything, either.

I mean, if I don't have a light, and if I don't have... [ Scoffs lightly ] It makes no sense.

-Did you ask for a spotlight before you came in?

-I did.

He was very rude, Mr. Selzer, by the way.

He said I could have a shower if I wanted.

-He did say that, huh?


[ Laughter and applause ] [ Laughter ] [ Laughter ] -She was just a very natural person.

And I think one has to think of her as this great, great artist with this fantastic instrument.

But basically, she was a country girl from Sweden who became a world-famous diva.

-She never acted like she was a supreme singer.

She never acted like she was the superstar.

She talked to everybody, which is unique.

I mean, I met conductors that would come backstage, conduct for years, never say hello to anybody.

[ Laughter ] [ Applause ] [ Laughter ] -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -If you think of Nilsson mostly trumpeting those high notes in 'Turandot,' listen carefully to that crucial phrase at the end of Aida's Nile aria.

♪♪ -♪ Oh, patria mia ♪ Mai piu ♪ Ti rivedroooooooooooooo ♪ Ti rivedroooooooooooooo [ Applause ] -What a wonderful pianissimo. What a vocal culture.

To master those delicate passages with a huge voice shows her technique and musicality.

[ Orchestra tuning ] [ Laughs ] [ Laughs ] -The Royal Opera in Stockholm remains her artistic home during the entire career.

Whenever she sings a new role for the first time, it's here.

[ Dramatic music plays ] ♪♪ -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -I think roles like Elektra particularly suited her because she had this ability to bring out the character and to play the character, as well as sing.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] [ Dramatic music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Singing stops, dramatic music continues ] ♪♪ [ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -One of the magic moments in Nilsson's recordings.

Here, we are touching a sensitive nerve.

Nilsson was seldom happy with her studio recordings.

Her voice was often scaled down, especially in the Decca recordings.

The producer, John Culshaw, and his team, did everything to capture all the orchestral details of a Wagner or Strauss score.

But very often, the voices got lost in the splendid sound of the Vienna Philharmonic.

[ Indistinct talking ] [ Laughter ] [ Indistinct conversation ] -There are many Nilsson recordings one wouldn't want to miss.

On the other hand, one has to think of the music journalist Juergen Kesting's comment -- 'Listening to Nilsson in your living room is like driving a Porsche in your backyard.'

-[ Laughs ] -You know, the smaller voices record better than the bigger voices.

That's a fact.

And so I would say no, much more thrilling in the hall.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -Next to Isolde and Elektra... [ Applause ] ...Tosca is a role where one could experience both sides of Nilsson -- strength and vulnerability.

-We were doing a rehearsal of Goetterdaemmerung.

And she went up a step and fell, the step broke, and she injured her shoulder.

They went to Roosevelt Hospital right here.

And she sang the next two performances.

And I think she sang those performances probably with more -- more of a desire to show that she could even do it with her arm in a sling, and it was incredible.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -Offstage, she always protects her sensitive side.

That's the reason why she doesn't say why she canceled the 'Salome' in Munich in 1968.

[ Singing continues ] -'I couldn't stand the idea of being pitied.'

-She shows her feelings when singing, but very seldom privately.

That's why some people called her 'the cool woman from the North.'

[ Orchestra tuning ] -The Royal Opera House in London.

Here, Birgit Nilsson almost missed working with one of the greatest conductors of her time.

-She was very careful with whom she worked.

I think she was always pretty clear where it was going to be good and successful for her and where not.

If you rang her up and said to her, 'Birgit, would you think about doing Elektra with so and so?'

She would usually say no.

I had that, actually, with Carlos Kleiber.

Carlos wanted to conduct Elektra, and he wanted Birgit.

And so I rang Birgit and asked her if she would sing Elektra with Carlos.

And her initial response was no.

She went into rather feeble reasons, in fact.

'You know, he's rather inexperienced.'

And I said, 'Well, Birgit, oh, come on.

He's extremely experienced and for many of us, the greatest conductor alive.'

And in the end, she did agree.

The first rehearsal came.

Who should be in my room but Kleiber -- 'Why have I got this person as Elektra?'

'Because,' I said, 'you asked for her particularly, and she is accepted as the world's greatest Elektra.

I can't imagine why you're objecting.'

'Well, I don't agree with all of that,' he said.

And then after quite a lot of discussion, I said, 'Look, you are here, Birgit is here, and for God's sake, just get together and make it work.'

And so they went off together, and it was a huge success.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] -It's a pity that she never sang 'Rosenkavalier' with Kleiber.

When she portrayed the Marschallin, it was mostly in Swedish or far away from Vienna.

She shied away from being compared with Viennese singers.

[ Singing continues ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -The last opera part that Birgit studies is the dyer's wife in 'Die Frau ohne Schatten.'

As always, she sings this role first in Stockholm.

Then she joins the legendary team of Karl Boehm and Leonie Rysanek in Vienna.

♪♪ -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -Owing to a tax issue, she can't return to the United States for almost four years.

In November 1979, she's finally back at the Met for concerts with James Levine.

After this comeback, Levine offers her a special revival of the 'Elektra' production.

It's her first telecast from the Met, and being very critical of herself, she's afraid it may be a bit too late.

[ Indistinct talking ] -The character of the voice was still there.

There's no question.

It had the focus. It had the sharpness.

It was like a trumpet in 'C' -- it was still possible to blaze over an orchestra.

But she had some reservations, she had some concerns, she had some issues, which we needed to talk about.

And she needed to be reassured that she was not too old to commit 'Elektra' to tape.

And therefore, it was a question of trying to put her mind at ease, to reassure her that we were not there to expose her, but to benefit from her great experience and document it for posterity.

-[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Singing stops ] [ Dramatic orchestral music plays ] ♪♪ [ Music stops ] -[ Singing in foreign language ] [ Music resumes ] [ Cheers and applause ] -Her last performance is an 'Elektra' in Frankfurt on June 16th in 1982.

No announcement, no farewell, but she continues singing concerts, and she is also on stage at the Centenary Gala of the Met.

[ Cheers and applause ] -We did sing near each other when we had the great 100th celebration of the Met.

The last three people to sing were myself, Joan Sutherland, my great, dear, dear friend, and Birgit was last.

And the three of us, you know, were standing in the wings, waiting to go on.

And that was -- that was an incredible feeling to have, to stand next to two of my great idols.

♪♪ -After the end of her stage career, Birgit Nilsson is very much in demand as juror and teacher.

Her master classes in New York are very popular.

In Germany and Sweden, as well, she's always committed to young, gifted singers.

One of them is soprano Nina Stemme.

♪♪ -That was wonderful because she was so warm and so encouraging.

It was like a meeting between two professionals.

And of course, for me, she was divine, but at the same time, so human and so humble and so funny and intelligent.

And later that year, after I had had my second child, I was awarded the Birgit Nilsson scholarship.

So I got to meet her down in her native church.

And there, I heard her sing live for the first time.

It was just a tune that we all sang from the stage.

They had built up a little stage in this Vastra Karup church, and I stood next to her.

And we sang, and I could barely hear her.

But out in the audience was my husband, and he could only hear Birgit.

Still, her voice -- This was 1996.

Her voice was so projected and so focused, so it was like a beam just going right out.

That was amazing.

-During the last years of her life, she and her husband spend some of their time in the countryside where she grew up.

And she initiates her last big project -- The Birgit Nilsson Foundation, awarding a prize in recognition of outstanding achievements of singers, musicians, conductors, and orchestras who have sustained the highest performance standards and who have made a major contribution to music history.

Celebrating the Nilsson centenary in 2018, the prize will be awarded for the fourth time.

The previous prize recipients have been the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 2014 and Riccardo Muti in 2011.

The very first to receive the Nilsson Prize was Plácido Domingo in 2009.

-[ Chuckles ] [ Applause ] -With $1 million, the Birgit Nilsson Prize, which is presented in Stockholm by the king of Sweden, is the highest-endowed award in the world of music.

[ Cheers and applause ] -I couldn't believe. I couldn't believe.

I said 'Why me?'

And I realize always because of the way she talked to me and the way that she talks me, that, you know... And I was -- Being the first one, I think that she -- that she really loves me, you know, as the -- as the young boy that she meet and the artist growing, you know?

And so when I received the announcement, I say that I know then Birgit will be very happy knowing that that prize, which it was $1 million, is that prize was going to go to the winners of Operalia, which is my competition that is now in the 25th anniversary.

So I add to the prizes.

I add two prizes for Wagnerian singers with the name of Birgit.

And she would be very proud to see that it's giving the fruits already.

♪♪ [ Singing in foreign language ] [ Orchestral music plays ] -The farm where Birgit grew up is now a museum, and it is much more than just a collection of photos and memorabilia.

It's a creative, real labor of love.

It is also a hub of creativity for master classes, concerts, and special exhibits.

[ Singing continues ] ♪♪ [ Singing, orchestral music intensify ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Not far away is the church where Birgit sang for some 70 years.

And here, not in Bayreuth, she was buried next to her parents.

Her husband, Bertil, followed her 18 months later.

[ Somber orchestral music plays ] -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Music swells ] ♪♪ -To find out more about this and other 'Great Performances' programs, visit

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