a high C in Turandot too long. And she didn’t list the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager Rudolf Bing as a dependant on her US tax return; rather, upon being asked to fill out a form prior to a television appearance, she asked Vincent what was meant by ‘dependant’ and then filled in Bing’s name as a joke. (One writer, who should know better, suggests that naming Bing may have been the source of the tax dispute that kept her out of the US in the late 1970s, but to my knowledge no one has publicly explained exactly what that dispute was about.)
She did wear a miner’s helmet to protest at the darkness of Herbert von Karajan’s Ring production for Salzburg and the Met. ‘Making music with him was wonderful, but making theatre with him was not so wonderful.’ The former is exemplified on disc by a 1969 Met Die Walküre in which she is teamed with Régine Crespin, James King and Theo Adam, one of 12 complete opera recordings spanning the years from 1953 to 1977 included in Sony’s Birgit Nilsson: The Great Live Recordings (selected by Rutbert Reisch, once a Nilsson adviser and confidant, and currently president of the Foundation). In Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry she slides up to the high notes in traditional manner rather than attacking them cleanly as she did earlier (a distinctive touch that I liked); fortunately, the set includes many instances of clean attacks elsewhere.
The Met’s projected Nilsson-Karajan Ring fell victim to a labour dispute and Karajan’s reluctance to reschedule. Ironically, a complete Götterdämmerung is also absent from the Sony set due to contractual restrictions; but Der Ring is at least represented by two Immolation Scenes, including an especially fine one led by Charles Mackerras to open the Sydney Opera House; a sluggish Knappertsbusch-led Walküre Act 1, Scene 3, from Bayreuth (1957), from which one can sample her Sieglinde; and a stunning Siegfried duet with Wolfgang Windgassen, also from Bayreuth (1967).
A recurring motif of the book is that one had to be in the opera house to appreciate her artistry fully, and that the next best thing is a live recording. Nilsson liked and
■ Nilsson sings into a vintage phonograph admired Solti, but she made no secret of her dislike of the technical aspects of her Decca studio recordings engineered by John Culshaw. ‘The whole Ring with Solti was all manipulation’, she said. ‘All they thought about at Decca was the orchestra. “You can hear the triangle” [wrote Culshaw]. So what?’
Götterdämmerung may be absent, but the new set includes no fewer than three Tristans: one from 1957, the year of her Bayreuth role debut, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch; a 1967 Vienna performance, led by Karl Böhm; and
Opera, December 2018