I have recently started to listen to the late, great Birgit Nilsson, världens bästa Nilsson. She was a most interesting woman. She did not have her debut until she was 28 and like Pavarotti hers was an entirely natural talent, a brilliant voice that needed little guidance or re-shaping. Unusually for a prima donna of global renown she was not a diva. Rather, she possessed a sort of peasant cunning derived from growing up a farmer’s daughter in Skåne. She was not prone to fits of passion or crass behaviour. She simply knew what she was worth. When negotiating her fees, for example, she never made a spectacle of herself. She stated the fee she required and waited for venues to agree to them. She did not negotiate and she did not put herself into a position requiring her to accept a lower offer. By letting them wait, Nilsson made them panic and plead to accept her original offer.
I’ve also recently read through a biography of Maria Callas, another grand dame of the opera and a woman possessing no shortage of talent. She was, however, arguably more famous for her temper and flair for the dramatic than her vocal abilities. Some have even argued that Callas’ vocal abilities started to decline at an earlier age than Nilsson even made her debut, probably due to her weight loss. I’ve listened to several songs sung by both, including “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, “Vissi d’Arte” from Tosca and “In Questa Reggia” from Turandot, both by Puccini. Perhaps it is my simple-minded misunderstanding of great works of culture, but I found Nilsson’s versions to be the better. Callas could certainly sing, but I am growing increasingly inclined to suspect that her career and legend was built more on her persona than her vocal abilities alone.