Birgit Nilsson graduated from public school with top grades in every subject, not least in singing. She showed an interest in music from an early age, joined theater societies and sang in church choirs. In 1941-1946 she studied at the The Royal College of Music in Stockholm.
Birgit in her first performance gown, 1942. Private photo.
It took hard work, discipline and fixity of purpose before Birgit’s career took off and she became ”La Nilsson” with the entire world.
During her youth, Birgit Nilsson took singing lessons for several years from music director Ragnar Blennow. Blennow recognized that Birgit’s vocal qualities were unusual. ”Her pitch, which from the beginning had a deep timbre, soon also reached a light, amenable top.” They practiced romances and arias, and Blennow encouraged her to apply to the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. There are many people who, throughout the years, have claimed to have discovered La Nilsson, but Birgit herself used to say ”If anyone should be given that title, it would be Ragnar Blennow and no other!”
The Royal College of Music 1941-1946
In 1944, Birgit was accepted to the 2-year Opera school without even having to audition. The program was mainly composed of musical and theatrical studies, but even language, expression and oration were included in her schooling. After the Opera school, Birgit was automatically engaged at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, even this time without auditioning. It was soon time for her debut.
The Opera School
In 1941, Birgit Nilsson sang her audition for the vocal performance class at the Royal College of Music. She was 23 years old. At first she doubted her own talent. At the audition, everyone else seemed so urbane and experienced. Birgit first sang Elisabeth’s Prayer from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, and followed with Black roses by Jean Sibelius. Despite her doubts, Birgit was accepted. Among 47 applicants, only two came in, and of those Birgit was number one! Now a new life began. The vocalist class was a three-year long program, with 12-14 students. Besides song and choir studies, Birgit also took classes in other subjects, such as music- and harmony studies, articulation, fencing and piano. She also studied Italian, German and French. The first year was not easy. The program in Stockholm was difficult, and Birgit struggled with both her personal economy and with the vocal coaches at the school. Her first teacher was Joseph Hislop, and she later studied with, among others, Arne Sunnegårdh.