Birgit Nilsson at the May Festival


Birgit Nilsson at the May Festival

The Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) undoubtedly ranks among the most highly-regarded singers of the twentieth century. She was particularly renowned for her performances of Wagner and Strauss, and audiences at the 1967 May Festival had the good fortune of hearing her in precisely that repertoire.

Birgit Nilsson first appeared in Cincinnati in 1963 under the auspices of the College-Conservatory of Music Artist Series. Ms. Nilsson performed a solo recital at Music Hall on Friday, April 19, 1963 alongside pianist Leo Taubman. Her program was a mixture of art song and operatic arias, including works of Strauss, Sibelius, Greig, and Wolf. In a review for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Henry S. Humphreys wrote,

Birgit Nilsson in Music Hall! The glorious result was something I’m sure none of those present will ever forget. A voice like the rising sun bursting over a Northern Mountain range; a voice that filled every nook and cranny of historic Music Hall. [emphasis original]

In advance of her 1967 appearance at the May Festival, newspapers emphasized the rarity of the opportunity. Ms. Nilsson was to appear on Saturday night – the festival finale – in a program of Wagner and Strauss, led by Max Rudolf, music director of the May Festival and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. (The previous evening was an equally rare opportunity: Georg Szell, the legendary music director of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946-1970, led the CSO in a program of Mozart and Brahms, and a young Peter Serkin was the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14.)   

By repertoire alone, the program for Ms. Nilsson’s appearance ranks among the most demanding in the Festival’s history:

WAGNER: Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

WAGNER: "Wacht auf, es nahet gen den Tag" from Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

WAGNER: Finale from Act III of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

WAGNER: "Entrance of the Guests into the Wartburg" from Tännhauser

WAGNER: "Dich, teure Halle," from Tannhäuser

WAGNER: "Einsam in trüben Tagen," Elsa's Dream from Lohengrin

WAGNER: Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin

WAGNER: Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin

WAGNER: Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20

STRAUSS: Final Scene from Salome, Op. 54

The program, and the Festival, concluded with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.

In a review for the Cincinnati Post, Eleanor Bell wrote that the evening yielded “…results that can only be described as sensational. Miss Nilsson has a voice of extraordinary power and richness of quality, and these two commodities apparently never desert her, no matter what demands or obstacles the composer has laid along the music’s course.” Bell also memorably noted that Nilsson possessed the “stamina of a horse” after enlivening three Wagner heroines, and Salome besides.

In a singing career that spanned nearly forty years, Ms. Nilsson performed and recorded extensively with the world’s leading opera companies and, in doing so, produced definitive interpretations of her signature roles. At the Metropolitan Opera’s unbelievably star-studded 100th Anniversary Gala concert, Nilsson was the final soloist to perform and received the only standing ovation of the entire affair after an affecting performance – at age 65, no less – of an excerpt from Tristan und Isolde. Read the New York Times review here, and see her performance, as well as her encore, here