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My debt to Birgit NilssonBY: Dan Coren 01.16.2006
The great Wagnerian soprano died in December at age 87, unaware of her pivotal role in the writer’s complicated relationship with Richard Wagner.
Birgit Nilsson, my neighbor Jack and me
As I was driving home from work over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on January 11th, I heard on “All Things Considered” that the great Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson had died. It brought me back to a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried that I attended at the Chicago Lyric Opera sometime in the early 1970s, the one and only time I ever heard saw Nilsson on the stage.
My relationship to Wagner’s music is, to say the least, complicated. In graduate school at Berkeley in the late ’60s, my fellow music students and I spent many hours listening to Georg Solti’s recording of the Ring, featuring Nilsson as Brünnhilde. On one notable occasion, we spread the whole cycle out over two days, with a 17-mile hike over the Point Reyes peninsula and a Wagnerian spaghetti dinner thrown in between Walküre and Siegfried. No passage drew me in more than the music leading up to and including Brünnhilde’s awakening in the third act of Siegfried. It was the music that led me to write my Ph.D. dissertation, a long, lovingly overwritten analytical study of that opera.
A few years later, around 1976, before the days of supertitles, I was at the Metropolitan Opera in New York attending a performance of Walküre. My girlfriend, who came from a small town in Georgia, was thrilled to attend the Met, but, I’m sure she’d much rather have heard Puccini or Verdi, or … well, anything but Wagner. And the poor soprano— who had a beehive hairdo, very little stage presence, and not much of a voice— just wasn’t up to the task of playing a Nordic heroine.
I suddenly had an “I’m not gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more” moment, a real epiphany: I was overwhelmed by the pomposity and sheer silliness of the music to which I’d devoted so much of my energy. By then, I was well on my way to washing out of academia, but if there was one moment when I ceased being a musicologist and a Wagner scholar, that was it.
But fate, or Wagner, had other plans for me. One night in late 1986, shortly after my wife (not to be confused with that girlfriend from Georgia) and I had moved into our home in Queen Village, I was lying awake with a fever. I heard, faintly, a trumpet arpeggio which, in my slightly delirious state, I thought at first was Miles Davis. Within a few minutes, though, I realized I was listening to the immolation scene from the end of Götterdämmerung. And it got louder and louder, until I’m sure it could have been heard at Independence Hall. It was coming from the house directly across the street.
Thus began my relationship with my neighbor Jack, an obnoxious, belligerent drinker who, I must admit, had sophisticated and eclectic musical tastes. By appalling coincidence, he also turned out to be one of my former students, one to whom I’d given one of my very rare D’s. We despised each other. Over the next several years, Jack treated my neighbors and me to a post-midnight diet of Mahler, Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf and Brahms, all at deafening volume. But Jack always saved Gotterdammerung for those special nights when nothing else would do.
Eventually, Jack’s energy petered out, the music became softer and more sporadic, and, after a 15-year run, he sold his house and moved—to France, he said—leaving me, at last, Wagnerrein. Or so I thought.
But back to that performance of Siegfried in Chicago, where I was attending a conference of the American Musicological Society. Somehow, I had procured a single seat in the center of the parquet – the best section in the house. I had just finished my dissertation, and here was an opportunity to hear the great Nilsson herself in the work that had obsessed me for over five years!
The catch is that Brünnhilde doesn’t appear until the third and final act, and even then she spends a good deal of time asleep on the stage while Siegfried moons about, working up the nerve to kiss her. (The moment when Siegfried realizes that, at the prospect of sex, he is actually experiencing fear— the emotion that he’s been inquisitively pestering everybody about for the first two acts— is one of the greatest in all of music.) The first two acts can pose quite a trial – Wagner himself gave up on Siegfried after writing them and took a little break (during which he wrote Tristan and Meistersinger) before composing the third – and in this particular case, they were a travesty. The tenor singing Siegfried was a young fellow making his debut who, ironically, seemed more than anything else to be consumed with fear.
But at long last he quavered his way to the top of the mountain where Brünnhilde had been put to sleep at the end of Walküre. Even lying prone, Nilsson, a large, strong woman with a massive chin, was an awesome figure. And when she finally rose to sing, she showed that, indeed, this poor tenor’s fear had been entirely appropriate. You could see the impatience in her eyes. She might as well have said: “You! Stop whining! Stand over there! There!! I’m gonna sing now.” And, man, did she sing! It was worth waiting three and a half miserable hours to hear the greatest Wagnerian soprano of my lifetime blow the roof off the Chicago Lyric Opera House.
As soon as I got home the night Nilsson’s death was announced, I went to iTunes, conducted a power search on Nilsson and “Heil Dir, Sonne” and, for 99 cents, purchased the six minutes of music surrounding Brünnhilde’s awakening. With tears in my eyes, I voluntarily listened to Wagner for the first time in many years.
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