The debut

Birgit Nilsson made her debut as an opera singer in 1946. On short notice, she was offered a role at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. Despite little time for preparation, she received brilliant reviews in the press. But it was first in 1947 that she made her definitive breakthrough.

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Birgit as Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz. The Royal Swedish Opera, 1946. Photo Enar Merkel Rydberg

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Birgit as Lady Macbeth Verdi’s opera Macbeth. The Royal Swedish Opera, 1947. Photo Sven Järlås

On the 9th of October 1946, Birgit made her debut on the opera stage. It was at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in the role of Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. It was a sudden replacement with only three days notice. To learn an entire part in three days was not easy. But Birgit had a talent for learning, absolute pitch and a good visual memory. Despite her nervousness, little time for preparation and lack of encouragement from the director, she received good reviews. "It was well advised to allow the young singer Birgit Nilsson from Scania to make her debut as Agathe in Der Freischütz on Wednesday ... Birgit Nilsson performed with an assurance and artistic balance one does not expect of a debutante. She has a fresh Nordic resonance, a clear top and a fine mezzo timbre in the low voice indicating a dramatic soprano. It is not often that a beautiful voice is accompanied by intelligence but such depth of expression and musical phrasing such as Birgit Nilsson’s must come from within; it cannot be learned." – Ingmar Bengtsson, Svenska Dagbladet, October 10, 1946. Despite the critics acclaim, the head of the Opera was still not convinced of Birgit’s talent. She performed Agathe only twice more before the initial singer returned. It took another year before Birgit was given a new chance on stage in Stockholm.

Breakthrough

In October 1947, Birgit was once again asked to jump in on short notice at the Royal Opera. They had received a cancellation for the role of Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Inga Sundström had first been contracted for the part, but when she took ill five weeks before the opening, they were without a soloist. Director Hans Busch invited Birgit to audition, and became enthusiastic. The performance was a success and was followed by brilliant reviews in the press. ”It was a fine role, this Lady, and I longed for every performance like a child does for Christmas”, said Birgit. Lady Macbeth became Birgit Nilsson’s breakthrough in the world of opera.

The Royal Swedish Opera

February 26, 1948 was the premiere for Birgit’s first Strauss role at the Opera, Fieldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. After this role, she was offered a permanent engagement at the Opera. At last Birgit understood that she had succeeded. More offers and successes were quick to follow. In the coming years, Birgit made her debut in more roles at the Royal Swedish Opera, from Strauss, Mozart, and Wagner to Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky. The Royal Swedish Opera also performed in many different places around the world, among these Edinburgh, Wiesbaden, Montreal and Copenhagen.