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December 8, 2008

Birgit Nilsson's amazing swan song

Birgit NilssonBirgit Nilsson, the stunningly powerful Swedish soprano who died two years ago at 87, has belted one more brilliant note from beyond the grave -- to the tune of $1 million. That sum will be awarded every two or three years for outstanding achievement by a singer, conductor or opera production.

The board of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which the singer established a few years before her death, will appoint a jury to choose the Nilsson Prize recipients, except in the case of the first one. Nilsson herself chose the inaugural honoree, whose name is said to be contained in a sealed envelope that will be opened early in 2009.

The classical music business has a few big awards, but theBirgit Nilsson Nilsson Prize outdoes them all, just like the artist herself. Nilsson possessed one of the most compelling voices of the 20th century, capable of sailing effortlessly over the largest Wagner and Strauss orchestrations. Once you heard it live, it was seared into your memory forever. The soprano was a penetrating interpreter not only of the big German repertoire, but Verdi and Puccini as well. And she could have as much fun with "I Could Have Danced All Night" as anyone. Her great sense of humor and  infectirous laugh were as treasured as her musical intensity. Extraordinary generosity obviously was one of her traits as well.   

The Nilsson Prize will quickly become one of the most coveted distinctions in the field. The jury will consider singers of opera, oratorio or art song; conductors of opera or concert music; and "a specific production by an opera company, as long as this production is outstandingly cast and conducted and, most importantly, staged in the spirit of the composer." (I love that last qualification, which will probably eliminate from contention about 90 percent of operas staged in Europe and a quite a few on these shores. Apparently Nilsson took a very dim view of what passes now for directorial "concepts.")

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (Nilsson in 2000; and at La Scala in a Verdi's 'Macbeth' in 1964)

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:59 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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