Million Dollar Legacy

When superstar soprano Birgit Nilsson died, she left very specific instructions for the creation of a million-dollar prize bearing her name. BROOKS PETERS looks at the Nilsson legacy, as well as the implications of the soprano's personal choice for the first Nilsson Prize winner - tenor Plácido Domingo.

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Royal Swedish Opera artistic director Birgitta Svendén pays tribute to Domingo
© Alexander Kenney/Kungliga Operan 2009
Four years after her death, at eighty-seven, on Christmas Day 2005, Birgit Nilsson is still making a splash - with a prize she created, bearing her name, that is generating a great deal of buzz and publicity, as well as a certain degree of healthy curiosity.

The first Birgit Nilsson Prize, with a hefty $1-million purse, was awarded to Plácido Domingo on October 13, at a festive ceremony in Sweden, the country of Nilsson's birth. King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the award at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, site of Nilsson's debut in 1946. The crème de la crème of the music world was on hand. Exuberant speeches were given, a gala dinner served. The evening was a masterstroke of planning, carried out exactly as the great singer had orchestrated it, down to the smallest detail. With this immense, and ingenious, gesture, Nilsson had single-handedly created what Domingo himself has likened to "the Nobel Prize of music." In terms of prestige, visibility and largesse, the comparison is apt. There has never been an opera award to equal it.

How did she pull off this stunning coup of munificence? I asked that question of Professor Dr. Rutbert Reisch, president of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, in conversations by phone both before and after the ceremony. When we first spoke, he was in Vienna, where he lives, preparing for the event. "As with every great idea," he told me, "you can ask, 'Why has no one thought of it before?'" It turns out that Nilsson had been thinking of establishing this award since the 1980s. "There had been some music prizes around, given by organizations or corporations, but nothing by any one individual artist. And nothing remotely this large." Nilsson, who even after her retirement had always maintained a keen interest in what was going on in the world of singing, felt it was vitally important to nurture talent and to support performing artists. She felt that by establishing a very large prize she could use her good fortune to benefit leaders in the field, and to carry the message that opera, more than ever, needs its champions. "She wanted to establish something broader than just relating to her as a person," Reisch says, adding that she was determined to champion "the tradition of singing, and to bridge the gap between the audience and the composer." Perhaps most important, the award, as Nilsson envisioned it, was designed to promote excellence by bestowing its prize on either an active performer - a singer or conductor - or a specific production.

Reisch - who is also a former CFO of Volkswagen AG - has been an opera fan since childhood and recalls joining other young fans in the standing-room area at the Staatsoper in Vienna. In the mid-'60s, he heard Nilsson sing Isolde several times. In 1968, the group of awed fans honored Nilsson with a gift they had purchased by pooling their pocket change. "The little pieces added up to a sizable sum," Reisch laughs. They presented the singer with a gold ring. "It was our engagement ring to Birgit Nilsson."

From their first meeting, the two hit it off. In 1971, Reisch moved to the U.S., where he worked for sixteen years. But he kept in constant touch with Nilsson and her husband, Bertil Niklasson. The couple especially admired Reisch's financial acumen. Niklasson, a former veterinarian, was an entrepreneur who owned a string of restaurants. "He was a very strong personality," Reisch says. "He was never a singer's husband who hangs out in corridors when his wife is onstage. He had a good financial brain."

Throughout her hectic career, which spanned from 1946 to 1982, Nilsson had a knack for making money, and for saving it. "She had one simple rule," Reisch says. "She did not negotiate. She just wanted the highest fee the presenter offered, to be recognized for what she was." She also secured large contracts from record companies. Because of her career longevity, in time she managed to amass a hefty fortune. "If you don't go through crises, and she never had a vocal crisis, you begin to accumulate," Reisch explains. "And she never went into anything risky. She was generous with friends, but she never squandered it. She was frugal, but not in the sense that she was tight. She was careful." Reisch attributes this restraint to her farming background. "She learned to save rather than to spend. She never spent money on expensive clothes, sports cars. She might buy a nice piece of jewelry. But she never had a big staff, a full-time wardrobe person, masseur and hairdresser. And she did not need an administrative staff. She handled her contracts herself, although she did have an agent in America."

Before Nilsson died, she had repeatedly given the money she earned to her foundation. She had no children. The charitable foundation she set up in her name, Reisch informs me, does not include any money made by her husband. The exact figure of the fund's assets, Reisch adds, is not something he is comfortable with giving out publicly. But he assures me that it is a substantial sum, large enough that the prize, which is to be given out every two or three years, can be paid out entirely from its revenues.

Domingo with the Royal Family
Royal Swedish Opera artistic director Birgitta Svendén pays tribute to Domingo
© Alexander Kenney/Kungliga Operan 2009

Wise financial guidance is one thing, but what about the direction of the prize itself? When it was announced back in February that Domingo was to receive the first award, there were grumblings in some quarters that he was an odd choice simply because he didn't need it - that the money would be better spent in smaller sums, or given to young singers just making their way. Domingo answered these concerns in his acceptance speech, announcing that all the money would go to Operalia, the prize competition he founded in 1993, with a new category to be created for Wagnerian singers, exemplifying Nilsson's legacy.

Domingo, Reisch says, was Nilsson's personal choice. She had made up her mind long before she died and had discussed it with Reisch on several occasions. But she apparently never wrote it down. "She clearly told me," Reisch says, "'I want to make sure when you announce it that it is Domingo.' I was only executing her will."

Despite an intense admiration for each other, Nilsson's and Domingo's professional careers did not overlap as much as they might have. Domingo was a generation younger than Nilsson. Aside from a memorable Tosca in 1969 at the Met, their paths did not often cross on the stage, but they were good friends off it. "Birgit regretted that he did not sing Tristan with her," says Reisch. "But it came too late."

The choice of Domingo, who by any measure is a man of considerable means, underscores what some detractors feel is the arbitrary nature of the award. Its mandate can seem somewhat confusing and contradictory. If its charge is to celebrate the performing artist, why must it go to a singer who is still performing? But Reisch is adamant on this point. "It is not a lifetime achievement award," he argues. "It is something to strive for. It sets a standard carried forth by someone in the business. You don't achieve that with a retired person." That was apparently Nilsson's wish - to foster the arts, not necessarily reward them.

The prize has other limits. The honor can be awarded to a conductor or a production, so long as it is "staged in the spirit of the composer" and "outstandingly cast." But how can one accurately gauge what a composer intended? Or which production is well cast? Who will be making these choices? An awards jury, Reisch states, comprising a panel of international peers to be appointed by the board, will choose the next winner. Some might wonder if the enormous clout this prize wields is in the hands of too few.

What matters most right now, to Reisch and to the foundation, is that Birgit Nilsson's wishes be honored. "She was one of the most phenomenal singers in history, who with great endowment by nature, then training, became a great artist, a great interpreter, a great dramatist. Opera is a medium that has its own laws.… But it is the performance, not the opera, that determines the impact."

BROOKS PETERS has contributed often to OPERA NEWS.

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