Birgit Nilsson's amazing swan song

Birgit Nilsson, the stunningly powerful Swedish soprano who died two years ago at 87, has belted one more brilliant note from beyond the grave -- to the tune of $1 million. That sum will be awarded every two or three years for outstanding achievement by a singer, conductor or opera production.

The board of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which the singer established a few years before her death, will appoint a jury to choose the Nilsson Prize recipients, except in the case of the first one. Nilsson herself chose the inaugural honoree, whose name is said to be contained in a sealed envelope that will be opened early in 2009.

The classical music business has a few big awards, but the

Nilsson Prize outdoes them all, just like the artist herself. Nilsson possessed one of the most compelling voices of the 20th century, capable of sailing effortlessly over the largest Wagner and Strauss orchestrations. Once you heard it live, it was seared into your memory forever. The soprano was a penetrating interpreter not only of the big German repertoire, but Verdi and Puccini as well. And she could have as much fun with "I Could Have Danced All Night" as anyone. Her great sense of humor and  infectirous laugh were as treasured as her musical intensity. Extraordinary generosity obviously was one of her traits as well.   

The Nilsson Prize will quickly become one of the most coveted distinctions in the field. The jury will consider singers of opera, oratorio or art song; conductors of opera or concert music; and "a specific production by an opera company, as long as this production is outstandingly cast and conducted and, most importantly, staged in the spirit of the composer." (I love that last qualification, which will probably eliminate from contention about 90 percent of operas staged in Europe and a quite a few on these shores. Apparently Nilsson took a very dim view of what passes now for directorial "concepts.")

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (Nilsson in 2000; and at La Scala in a Verdi's 'Macbeth' in 1964)

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