Birgit Nilsson was born on May 17, 1918. She left a mark as big as her voice on the “Hochdramatischer Sopran” repertory of the post war era. Her wonderful Tosca and Turandot, her sublime Elektra and her incomparable Isolde and Brünnhilde are among the finest interpretations of those roles in history.
In celebration of this famed diva, we take a look at a part of her that is not strictly inside the musical realm: her whip sharp wit and acid tongue humor. Nilsson was a queen of shade decades before shade was what it is today.
Birgit and Herbert von Karajan. They seemed to have had a love-hate relationship of epic proportions and I am here to tell you there needs to be a movie made about them. Apparently there was a time when the Austrian conductor had written Ms. Nilsson a long and detailed plan of projects and ways they could collaborate in future. Her reply: “Busy. Birgit.”
Turn on the Lights
One of Nilsson’s defining characteristics was how she addressed any kind of conflict. When she vehemently objected to a dark and gloomy lighting for a Karajan conducted “Ring Cycle” at the Met, she protested by attending dress rehearsal in full costume and a wonderfully Valkyrie wing adorned miner’s helmet.
Clutch Your Pearls
During another rehearsal with her arch-nemesis Herbert von Karajan (whom she sometimes referred to as Herbie) her string of pearls broke. Maestro von Karajan helped pick up the pearls but couldn’t help himself and asked if they wear real pearls bought with her fabulous “La Scala” fees. She responded in kind saying: “No, these are fake pearls bought with your Vienna Staatsoper fees.”
Calling in Sick
A frequent collaborator on stage was the famously big personality of Franco Corelli. Every “Turandot” performance featuring both singers, was said to have been a sing-off to the death. After a performance of the second act duet “In questa reggia” in which Corelli was out sung on that final note by La Nilsson, he complained to General Manager Rudolph Bing who suggested he retaliate and, instead of kissing Turandot in the finale, he should bite her. In classic Birgit fashion she phoned Bing the next morning and backed out of a performance by saying: “I cannot go to Cleveland I have rabies.”
Her quick wit gave us some of the funniest quotes and anecdotes about her and her colleagues. When asked what it was like to sing Isolde with a subpar looking Tristan, she replied: “I just close my eyes and think of Plácido Domingo.” When asked if her rival Joan Sutherland’s bouffant hair was real she gave the classic response: “I don’t know I haven’t pulled it yet.” She also famously joked about listing Rudolph Bing among her dependents in her taxes, however, my favorite off all her anecdotes is letting Wolfgang Windgassen, as Siegfried, remove sleeping Brünnhilde’s armor only to discover a “Please do not disturb!” sign she had placed on her chest.