Bulls usually stand firmly on their legs
Birgit Nilsson in conversation with Opernwelt
In your book "La Nilsson. Mein Leben für die Oper" you write that Wieland Wagner said, "La Nilsson was famous even before she became great." Was he right saying this?
I became greater through working with him. I am very grateful to have been able to work with him. But indeed I had to wait more than nine years after our first acquaintance before he invited me to Bayreuth. This is still a mystery to me, but Wieland was very fickle. What he said today was no longer true the day after. About my audition he was so enthusiastic that he knelt down in front of me and assured me that I would be able to sing in Bayreuth, whatever I wanted. Then he made me wait nine years.
Did you have a similar experience with Wolfgang Wagner ?
No, not with Wolfgang. Wolfgang is a totally different type. Much more reliable. I also believe that Wolfgang is much more interested in voices than his brother. Wieland was more interested in actors in the first place. Once he found a convincing actor, he sent many singers packing. I worked a lot with Wolfgang and learned a lot from him. Wolfgang was also a very practical man, which is probably why he was such a capable artistic director.
What is the difference between the Bayreuth of today, where Wolfgang has to endure more and more criticism, and the Bayreuth of when you sang there? Is there an urgent need for renewal?
Bayreuth is totally different today. The Festspielhaus has now become a real workshop in the true sense of the word. Any beginner can now sing in Bayreuth. Any director can come and try out Wagner there. When I sang in Bayreuth, the very best was barely good enough. After all, we all have only a certain period of our lives in which we are extremely productive and creative. And that period does not last. Perhaps the same is true of Wolfgang Wagner.
Is - compared to your time - the shockingly low level of singing at Bayreuth the result of the fact that there are few great Wagner singers today ?
Of course. There are very few really good Wagner singers. And yet everywhere today they play much more Wagner, and not infrequently, by the way, with mediocre singers. It is true that there is beautiful material available and there are also some good new voices. But every soprano who thinks she has dramatic capacities immediately begins as a Turandot, a Brünnhilde or an Isolde. But after two or three years, her voice is broken. Directors and managers, and even conductors, want mainly young, preferably TV-ready faces. Voices have become almost unimportant. I must admit that I myself did some stupid things when I was young, by singing roles that were too big too soon. But in fact, in Stockholm I never sang those too-large roles more than twenty nights a year. On the other hand, I came into the world with strong vocal chords and didn't start too early. And that saved me.
How is it, in your opinion, that so many singers today sing so remarkably inaccurately?
In my opinion today's singers study too imprecisely and too quickly. They listen too much to recordings. They no longer have their own conception. It is very difficult to distinguish between seven singers nowadays. Actually they all sing alike. Therefore, their voices lack any kind of personality, because they only imitate. They copy the interpretations of the CDs. Moreover, and this is very important, there are very few good coaches anymore. Nobody wants to rehearse anymore. All of them want to conduct right away. And the conductors don't have time to rehearse at all anymore. They usually come and see or hear the singers for the first time at the rehearsals with orchestra. This was not the case in the past. In Bayreuth in my time there were a number of excellent repetitors, headed by Astrid Varnay's husband Hermann Weigert ! Every note was rehearsed very carefully, while they also took enough time for interpretative questions. I don't know a repetitor today who reaches Weigert up to the shoulders.
You elaborate quite extensively on Herbert von Karajan, who often conducted without a score, which you did not like.
A conductor who leads an entire opera without a score is suspicious to a singer ! Mitropoulos was perhaps the proverbial exception. But then he had a phenomenal memory! He knew every figure, every measure of the score by heart. But in fact conducting without a score only makes every singer nervous. After all, every singer needs a correct cue from time to time. My worst experience in this regard was with Lorin Maazel in Berlin during a performance of "Fidelio." He conducted without a score, although it was his first "Fidelio" in Berlin. Perhaps he was a bit nervous. In any case, he skipped the entire dialogue section just when I had to disappear into the wings to get my revolver. I then just called out from the wings "Töte erst sein Weib!". We were all wrong. Hans Beirer was singing Florestan. And all the world knows that Beirer depends on the conductor for a proper cue. For his cue "Wer ein solches Weib errungen", Beirer stood wide-eyed in front of the footlights, anxiously seeking Maazel's gaze. But he looked the other way and Beirer got it totally wrong, whereupon I too missed my cue, notwithstanding I looked at Maazel as demanding as I could, hoping that he would help me, but Maazel stoically averted his gaze. He had probably lost track himself. Then, the chorus too missed its cue. Erika Köth, who sang the role of Marzelline, wept uninterruptedly until after the performance. The prompter, who had to stand in the wings so as not to block the view of the stage, could not help either. The entire finale was one big fiasco. The whole house was roaring with boos. It was terrible.
A conductor of a different kind was Hans Knappertsbusch.
I always appreciated him as a giant conductor. But also with him I once experienced something terrible, which gave me a downright shock ! I did Salome with him - that must have been in 1956 - and as always without any rehearsal. Knappertsbusch, by the way, never rehearsed. He never really liked the opera Salome either, although he conducted it again and again, perhaps because it's very short and was always well paid. Anyway, during the second evening of this Salome series, a Jochanaan sang who was rather insecure. Knappertsbusch, moreover, was in a bad mood. Shortly before Jochanaan descended into the pit, he made his umpteenth mistake that evening, whereupon Knappertsbusch sprang up and simply scolded him in the middle of the performance. Suppose, I was thinking, that something like that would happen to me, and became very nervous myself, just at that thought. Then, when the tablet with Jochanaan's head was in front of me and I had to sing "Ah, Du wolltest mich deinen Mund nicht küssen lassen!" I missed my cue from sheer nervousness. Then Knappertsbusch indeed sprang up again and shouted at me a loud "Asshole!" I could no longer hold back my tears. Knappertsbusch didn't give me a look! I sang out the entire final scene while weeping.
You have devoted an entire chapter to Rudolf Bing, in which you show your appreciation for him. However, many colleagues had a different experience with him.
He liked me. Not right away. As a matter of fact, it also took a long time before he gave me a first engagement. I had a great admiration for him, because under his leadership everything was so well prepared. He and Kurt Adler in San Francisco were the best opera directors I have known.
So how did the jump from Stockholm to Western Europe and across the ocean come about ?
In fact, I was only moderately interested. I wanted to be a good singer in Sweden rather than a second-rate one abroad. In Sweden I also felt secure. I didn't speak any foreign languages either. But many famous foreign conductors came to Stockholm. Knappertsbusch absolutely wanted me at Bayreuth. Fritz Busch engaged me for Glyndebourne. At first I didn't want to, but after all it was so tempting and I quickly realized that I could prove myself on the international scene.
How did you prepare for your performances?
Through rest and seclusion. Thank God I can be alone very well. Even when traveling. My husband had his own activity as a veterinarian. He wasn't the type to fool around with a singer without having something to do himself. He was never Mr Nilsson. I didn't want him to change his life for my sake either. Everyone has the right to their own life. That's why I always had to rely on myself. That's what made me strong. Without self-confidence it is not possible. And for that, rest and concentration are indispensable. I never liked big parties either. But neither did I, like some of my colleagues, stay silent for two full days before and after a performance. I lived a very normal life, without excesses.
Didn't your many travels affect your married life ?
Yes, but you can't bake and eat a cake at the same time. You have to make a choice. I have a husband who has always been very understanding of me and who understood that I could build a career abroad. He never stopped me from doing that.
You have mainly sung Wagner abroad. Was that planned from the beginning ?
No. I did start singing Wagner relatively quickly. In Stockholm I had to sing everything, and moreover, I often had to fill in - not infrequently, even in a very short space of time. I had barely two weeks to learn the roles of Sieglinde and the Walküre-Brünnhilde. Of course, I was also very interested in the Italian repertoire. But at the Stockholm Opera there was no conductor, who mastered this genre. Because after the war many German conductors came to Stockholm, we also did a lot of Wagner and I often had to sing Wagner, more than Italian roles. Thus I grew up with Wagner, so to speak, in a natural way.
What is the most important thing about singing Wagner?
That one needs a solid technique and the right voice. And also to have the necessary physical strength to perform these long roles without getting tired. I have always gone flat out. Appropriate footwear is also important since you have to stand on your feet for a long time.
What advice would you give a young Wagner singer?
First of all, he should try to find out if he has the right voice and the stamina to sing Wagner. Many only last one act. Wagner tenors in particular are very rare.
With which tenors have you most enjoyed singing ?
I sang a lot and very much enjoyed singing with Wolfgang Windgassen. He was not really someone who would tear off his clothes or do crazy things. He wasn't a great actor either, but he had taste and style. Moreover, he was reliable and, above all, had an exceptionally beautiful voice. People have often criticized him as having a voice that was too small. But surely it doesn't come down to the size of the voice! His voice carried. His voice was concentrated, it sat properly! I'd rather hear a not too loud, but right voice, than a trembling big voice. I must admit that I was surprised myself when I first heard him. When I sang the soprano part in Beethoven's Ninth in Bayreuth in 1953, I first heard his Lohengrin. Good heavens, I thought then, that's more like a Mozart tenor. Curiously, his voice carried very nicely. But it was hard for me to imagine him as Siegfried. And yet he sang this role over and over again. He possessed unusually strong vocal chords. He sang over and over again every performance, whether he had a cold or not. And often even several evenings in a row. But he never forced himself!
You were more likely to have a big voice by nature.
That's true, but I have focused my voice. A big voice can also just be a lot of air. A voice is like a cherry. There must be a pit in it! If you don't have a core in your voice, even shouting won't help. It doesn't resonate nor carry. Every note must have its own intensity and must not go up the chimney in smoke.
You have not officially said goodbye. In Bayreuth you already quit in 1970, in Vienna in 1982. Why is it so difficult to say goodbye as a singer?
Saying goodbye is always a bit like dying. At least I think so. As a young singer I was in Stockholm at the farewell performance of an older colleague, who had sung Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. I wept all that evening. I found it so terrible to realize that one would no longer be on stage after such an evening. How can you process something like that? Even then I vowed never to give a farewell performance.
After you stopped singing, did you ever regret not being able to stand in front of the footlights?
No, I did not. I know that everything takes its time, as the Marschallin sings. Everything has an end. If you can't accept that, you become unhappy. My husband often asked me, when I was over fifty, what I would do if it turned out that one day I would no longer be able to sing. He may have feared that I would become an impossible person. I always answered him that I did not know what it would be like. I had to wait and see how long my voice would hold out. But I was not unhappy after I left the theater.
Did you have no fear of ever having to say goodbye to the stage?
I didn't really have that fear, because I have never really denied my origins. There are artists who forget their former life during their career and live only and exclusively for the theater. I never made this mistake. I have never floated in higher spheres. I was born a bull and have always stood on my two feet. And bulls usually stand firmly on their legs.