Today Is Birgit Nilsson's 100th Birthday | WOSU Radio

Today Is Birgit Nilsson's 100th Birthday

May 17, 2018

Born May 17, 1918, Birgit Nilsson was an extraordinary Swedish soprano.

I vividly recall Nov. 4, 1979. I was on my way to a study group, preparing for a statistics final at New York University.

To this day, I can't do long division. I had no business studying statistics, but it was a grad school requirement. How I passed the course is a story for another time.

I was walking by Lincoln Center, at Broadway and 63rd Street. It was early on a Sunday morning. Our study group was meeting in a greasy spoon in the West 50s.

I saw a line coming out of the Metropolitan Opera House, snaking two times around that enormous building. What was the line for?

Birgit Nilsson.

The great Swedish soprano hadn't sung in America for several years. Now she was back, ready to give a concert at the Met that very afternoon. The line was for standing-room places at a performance long sold out at exorbitant prices.

I got in line. I couldn't see the front, and it felt like I was already two city blocks from the Met box office. Standing room was $2. The study group breakfast in the dive was promised to be $1.50 for bacon and eggs — remember, this was 1979.

Long story, short: I stayed in line, skipped breakfast, ditched the study group, made it to the front of the line and turned over my $2. I got my standing-room ticket, at which point the box office manager slammed down the ticket window.

Not only did I have a ticket, I had the very last ticket sold. And there were at least 50 people behind me.

That night, I heard Nilsson in the Metropolitan Opera House, from the very back of the orchestra standing room. (I never made the study group. But who cares?)

The place was packed to the walls. The cheers were massive. The ovation at her first appearance went on for minutes.

She was crying — this tough, stoical Swedish woman, without whom no Wagner opera had been thinkable for the past 25 years.

It took her a few minutes to warm up, but by 8:25 p.m. the Met knew, and the world soon knew, that Nilsson's huge, even and perfectly produced voice was intact.

There was a bit more effort needed to make the sound, but in 1979 the lady was 61 and had been singing professionally for 40 years. No one could touch her. They still can't.

Nilsson was a well-established artist when she came to the Metropolitan Opera. She sang Isolde for her Dec. 18, 1959 debut. The next day, she was on the front page of The New York Times, with the headline "Birgit Nilsson as Isolde Flashes Like New Star in 'Met' Heavens:"

Birgit Nilsson filled the Metropolitan Opera House last night with the glory of the finest Isolde since the unforgettable days of Kirsten Flagstad two decades ago.

In her New York debut the Swedish soprano assumed one of the most demanding roles in the repertory and charged it with power and exaltation. With a voice of extraordinary size, suppleness and brilliance, she dominated the stage and the performance. Isolde's fury and Isolde's passion were as consuming as cataclysms of nature.

Before the first act was over a knowing audience at the Met's new production of "Tristan und Isolde" was aware that a great star was flashing in the operatic heavens. At the end of the act the crowd remained in their seats, waiting for Miss Nilsson to take a solo bow. And when she came out alone, they roared like the Stadium fans when Conerly throws a winning touchdown pass.

I was born too late to hear Nilsson in her prime. But in 1979, and when hearing her later in Richard Strauss' Elektra, she produced a huge, well-focused sound that hit you right between the eyes. I never understood that cliche until I heard Nilsson.

Nilsson died on Christmas Day, 2005. I had collected her recordings for years before I ever heard her perform live.

I'll never forget that Sunday night in 1979 — all for two bucks!