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February 20, 2009

Placido Domingo receives $1 million Nilsson Prize

The world learned some months ago that the late, sensational Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson had left a tidy sum of money to award a prize for exceptional musical talent -- $1 million, making it the richest classical music honor, to be bestowed every few years to a singer, conductor or opera production.

Speculation started at once about who would be the first recipient, chosen by Nilsson herself before her death in 2005 and named in an envelope that was to remain sealed until now. Odds favored eminent tenor Placido Domingo, and that's who just received it. (An international jury will decide future winners.)

Here's Domingo's reaction, provided by his publicist:

New York, N.Y., February 20, 2009, - I was just informed by Dr. Rutbert Reisch, President of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, that Birgit Nilsson has chosen me to be the first winner of her prize for musical excellence.

How do I express how deeply honored I am, how personally touched I feel, and how very much this prize means to me? Over the years I have been privileged to receive some wonderful tributes from world leaders and respected professional organizations for which I am most grateful, and I can say without hesitation, that this commendation from Birgit is one of my highest achievements.

To be honored by such an esteemed colleague means everything to me - because Birgit was, in addition to being a musical legend with a God- given singing voice, she was a total professional – Birgit Nilsson had complete discipline and stamina, as well as a razor sharp wit. Birgit personified musical excellence and that’s why she was a role model for me even before we sang together.

I remember singing at one of my most important and challenging engagements, my Italian debut at the Arena di Verona (my first Calaf in “Turandot” ) The vibrancy and magnitude of Birgit’s voice in those performances made her seem a sort of thunderbolt—the further I was positioned from her, the more monumental her voice sounded to me. And again, when Birgit and I sang 3 performances of “Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera - there were moments when I was so overwhelmed with admiration for her vocal abilities and power that I almost forgot to continue singing.

The unique power of her voice was made even more extraordinary when contrasted with her piano singing – the most pure and beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. One of my all-time cherished arias is ‘In questa reggia’ sung by Birgit - but the recording cannot compare to the sound I heard when singing with her. I very much regret that our repertoires did not coincide more often. The three works we have performed together are “Turandot” and “Tosca” and a recording of Weber’s “Oberon.”

My greatest regret was that Birgit and I never performed together in “Die Walküre” or “Tristan und Isolde.” I remember telling her this many years ago, to which she replied “Well then, you better hurry up.”

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:58 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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