Dear Ms. Nilsson: On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of your birth, I am perplexed as to what to write about you that isn’t of the highest, most ecstatic praise and of deliriously effusive encomiums. Speaking as a notoriously adjective-laden writer, I am afraid I’m going to run out of them before this piece is done with.
I suppose I will have to go ahead and state the obvious: you were a once in a hundred-year vocal miracle phenomenon. As you know, it wasn’t a loud sound; it was huge. Resonant, focused, pinpoint, breath perfectly aligned with the tone just pouring out with reams of the most highly polished, gleaming, silvery sound.
Now, I have to confess… I never, to my profound regret and lasting chagrin, heard you where you were meant to be heard, in the biggest opera houses and arenas created by man. Created for goddesses like you. I think it was you, when you sang Turandot at the Verona Arena, they say, when you sang your two high Cs over the ensemble, they could be heard a mile away, and many thought it was a fire alarm siren.
Luckily, though, I have plenty of friends who did see you in person, and they all swear they are still reeling from their experiences. Let’s see… what did they say… ”She pushed the opera house walls back three feet!” “My ears were pinned back!” “Her sound enveloped my entire being!” and, rubbing it in, “You can’t possibly know what you missed by not hearing her!”
So, I’m saddled with your recordings. I know you never cared for how your voice sounded on a recorded format, as it couldn’t possibly do justice to the feeling of the power and overtones you imparted in the live experience.
Still, the recordings I have, and oh, how I cherish them. All your greatest roles, captured for all-time, that seal your legendary status.
There’s just one problem: lady, you have spoiled me rotten.
The bigger problem, though: in a great deal of the roles you essayed, you’ve spoiled me so rotten, few other sopranos hardly stand a ghost of a chance equaling you.
For instance, Elektra. Just how in hell were you able to make undertaking this, the most heinously difficult and monstrously brutal of all roles, sound so fucking easy? You virtually fail practically every other soprano before and after you in this role!
To put a point on it, where most sopranos sound as if they are at their absolute limit and beyond what they don’t have, how was it that you appeared to still have plenty of reserves left??? I mean, let me refresh your memory: no one has ever been able to approach your “Was bluten Muß.” No strain whatsoever, the tone free of bleating, yelling, or flatness:
Let’s talk now about your Salome. Sure, sure, sure I love your complete recording. But the most awe-inducing documentation is from the Metropolitan Opera Bing Gala in 1972, where you sang Salome’s final scene.
It’s not just that you sent the audience (typically, I might add) into the wildest of frenzies with the gale-force power of your voice, but the camera reveals how superbly concentrated you were, physically, facially, and vocally, in the interpretation of the sweet girl. Incidentally, you were in your mid-fifties!
Let’s talk about your sublime Brünnhildes. I’m truly irked that none of them got captured on video. I suppose we’ll have to settle for this little snippet of you doing the last part of the Immolation Scene for the complete recording.
I note the size of the orchestra, which you effortlessly ride over; how you have to pull back from the microphone for your highest notes to avoid shattering it; and how calmly you stand there, yet so involved and magisterially focused:
Despite everything, I hold the highest affection for your Siegfried Brünnhilde. You wrote of the prevailing, universal view that it is the most difficult of the three in The Ring, but…y ou not only made it sound blissfully easy, you convinced us that you were, indeed, the ecstatic, awakened goddess, most especially at “Ewig war ich.” What soaring, gleaming tone!
Isolde. Do I really need to state the obvious again? You remain peerless as the Irish princess; you had everything the role required. Fortunately, your assumption was captured twice on the film and video formats.
Here is your Narrative and Curse from Osaka, 1967:
Your Liebestod from Orange, 1973. Though it is acknowledged that the picture and sound quality are less than it could be, the reason I like this one is because, caught in the spaces of the amphitheater, your voice has room to expand, and we hear, as a result, how sweet, lush, and blooming it is here:
Let’s talk for a bit about Italian opera. Some people hold that your voice was “too Scandinavian” outside of the German sector, but what rubbish!
Take for example, this sensitively sung rendition of “Vissi d’arte.” This is peerlessly beautiful singing, expressive, poised, and musical. All the bullshit written that your voice wasn’t right for the role can be contemptuously, handily dismissed. No less than the great Conrad Osborne, writing in The Metropolitan Guide to Recorded Opera, had this to say, about the 1966 Decca recording of Tosca:
Nilsson is, from the vocal point of view, incomparable. It is true, of course, that the color of her soprano is cooler that that of the best Latin voices. But no other singer approaches her smooth, easy power, her balance and completeness of tone throughout the range, her floating delicacy and precision in the lighter phrases, her on-the-button intonation, her free brilliance at the top. Further, she phrases with taste and sensitivity, and presents the character with a grounded simplicity that, while it never blinds with flashes of insight, has a cumulative honesty that is quite moving. Callas has a complexity that is more fascinating from moment to moment, and Tebaldi a more loveable vocal warmth and temperamental gutsiness. But this is the best-sung Floria in recorded history.
I defy anyone to remain unmoved by this, and fail to note at 3:04, the most beautiful pianissimo one could hear:
I hold the same high opinion about your Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, from your complete recording with Carlo Bergonzi (by the way, how’s he doing up there?), where your “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa” is done with such feeling, and the supremely tough closing section sung with such incomparable ease:
Turandot. Yes, we all know. It was your “party” role. The one where a lot of sopranos should have been crossed off the guest list. We all know your account of “In questa reggia,” but I’d like to feature instead in this YouTube clip of “Incredible acuti,” the two moments where you own a patent on them; it says there’s a tenor with you on the high (absolutely fabulous) C, but he’s nowhere to be heard:
OK, ok, I’m done making a happy fool out of myself. I could put a hundred more clips here, but I think I better give the Parterre readers to have their say, as well.
I have to tell you, though, it is not just the voice and the artist I cherish so much, it’s you, Ms. Nilsson, the woman.
I think I have read everything there is published on you, with especial fondness for your memoirs, La Nilsson.
What I savor so much about you is your smarts, your organized, committed spirit, your aim for excellence, your pragmatism, your sagacity as an artist, your toughness in the cutthroat world of opera, and most of all, for your wonderful sense of humor. You’ve induced in me a deeply admiring affection for you.
What pleases me on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of your birth is that you have been properly memorialized by a new book celebrating you and your accomplishments, and an 81 disc set of recordings of what amounts to the bulk of your legacy. It is only fitting that you be hailed with the highest of honors, and the most wild of applause.
Finally, I think one of my very favorite moments is of you at the MET in 1996, where, for just a few, brief shining moments, you took us back to those days when you ruled:
You won the loudest, most ecstatic applause that night.
With the sincerest warmth and affection, your (and everyone else’s) forever devoted admirer – make that “raging fanatic” –