09 March 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Birgit Nilsson – the “great shining Wagner voice”

Karajan and Birgit Nilsson were a difficult combination. The resolute Swedish diva never hesitated to give Karajan a piece of her mind. But when they cooperated the opera audience was enthusiastic.

“Here was the great shining Wagner voice of the age.”

Christa Ludwig about Birgit Nilsson

Birgit Nilsson was definitely one of the great Wagner and Strauss heroines in the years between 1950 and 1980. Despite their fights and quarrels off stage – Nilsson for example was enervated by Karajan’s stage lightning – they created legendary interpretations, though unfortunately not in the studio.

In December 1957, Karajan was rehearsing “Siegfried” with Nilsson as Brünnhilde and Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried. Karajan told Nilsson that Brünnhilde had slept for many years before being woken by Siegfried and suggested that she should stand up slowly and still half asleep. Nilsson liked the idea and did so when they rehearsed on stage. Afterwards Karajan came to her dressing room and said enthusiastically: “How did you do that?” She didn’t understand. “You can stand up without using your hands and leaving your feet on the ground!” Karajan lay on the floor and tried to do it himself but he found it impossible and was rather crestfallen. Nilsson was amused because she had “neglected” to tell him that it was much easier on stage because of the sloping floor …


In his time as head of the Vienna State Opera, Karajan produced “Tristan und Isolde” with Birgit Nilsson. During one of the piano rehearsals her necklace snapped and her pearls were all over the rehearsal room floor. “Tell me,” asked Karajan on his hands and knees, trying to collect the pearls “is this stage jewellery or are they real pearls, bought with the phenomenal fees La Scala Milan pays you?” “No, they are very cheap and ordinary,” replied Nilsson. “I bought them with your Vienna fees.”


There are three operas that Karajan and Nilsson recorded live: “Fidelio”, “Tristan and Isolde” and the “Valkyrie”. Our playlists on spotify and youtube contain best-of moments from performances between 1958 and 1960 recorded at La Scala. Listen to them here.

Richard Osborne “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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