The following account of a recital by Birgit Nilsson appears in my novel Doing Nothing. Though I heard La Nilsson many times this report is entirely fictional. NK
…he (Richard Grollman the novel’s protagonist) had a ticket to hear Birgit Nilsson sing that evening at (Chicago’s) Orchestra Hall.
The Swedish soprano had made quite a reputation for herself both abroad and in the US since her debut at the Met, though she had been a sensation in Chicago before first appearing in New York. Grollman had heard her on records but never in person….
Though Grollman preferred tenors to sopranos, he was excited about hearing Nilsson whose vocal prowess was said to be herculean. Orchestra Hall was full of the variegated types that collect at recitals by opera singers. There were disconnected young males who thought they were in Milwaukee. There were pack-like groups of young males who twittered about the city’s latest artistic convulsion, oblivious to any outside force. There were dwarves wearing long woolen scarves and academics who had come to look down on the audience. There was a large contingent from the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute that was out on pass for the evening and who had come to listen to the piano player. There were at least 100 people who thought they had bought tickets to hear Billy Graham talk, but who were a week late. There was a small group of physicists from the University of Chicago who brought with them a battery of gadgets with which to measure the soprano’s decibel output which was rumored to exceed that which they thought the maximum possible from a human throat. There were 17 archivists who smuggled in 22 tape recorders, against the rules which prevailed at these exhibitions, in order to record the event for posterity. There were at last 1000 zealots determined to make the evening into an epochal event if only by their response. And there was Grollman who had a piece of each group in his psychic baggage.
The program began on time exactly seven minutes late. The first item on the menu was a group of five Scandinavian songs one by Grieg, the others by composers Grollman had never heard of. They were fillers designed to get everyone quiet and to pass a little time without much effort so the recital could build to a boffo finish. The audience, which had responded with polite enthusiasm to the songs, became agitated after Dich, tuere Halle. Next came Gretchen am Spinnrade which though it was sung completely unidiomatically displayed so much voice that interpretation was overwhelmed by nature. The reaction was like that to the first nuclear detonation. Life would never be the same. The first half of the concert ended with the Immolation Scene. Nilsson’s voice caused the building to vibrate and the roof lifted a full six inches off of its support. The psychiatric patients began to weep and pull on their clothes because the piano player had been killed by the volcano standing in his instrument’s curve. Grollman was curarized; his eyes left his head and rolled down the aisle. His tongue fell to his chest and dripped on his lap. He didn’t leave his seat during the intermission. The second half of the program passed like a tornado. Grollman had no memory of its content save that the last encore was In questa Reggia. The final high note caused a miscarriage in Wheeling, diverted airplanes to St Louis, and turned the piano to stone. The physicists machines exploded and 21 of the tape recorders vomited tape 50 feet into the air leaving only one pirate in possession of a record of the miracle. Grollman was released from the enchantment that had paralyzed him for the previous hour and started to shriek and roll on the floor. He was stepped on scores of times by those of the audience who were stamping their feet on the floor. Eventually a section of it gave way and 75 people were lost forever. Grollman stopped rolling when he reached the stage. He then stood up and barked like a cur and then whinnied like Al Borak. The crowd rushed the stage like a reenactment of the Oklahoma land rush. They stretched their arms towards the diva as if pleading for a boon. Nilsson bowed modestly trying to convey surprise at the reaction she had spent her entire life learning to incite. Then she bowed her head and held her arms above it. The disconnected young men tore their clothes to shreds until at last they were naked. They then beat their bodies with the evening’s program. Grollman, crushed by the multitude behind him, tried to climb onto the stage but was pushed to the floor when someone behind him stepped onto his shoulders and then onto the stage. Madame Nilsson smiled at the climber and then with the patent leather shod tip of her right toe pushed him back into the melee. Three lepers fought their way to the stage and held up their stumpy hands. Nilsson reached out both her arms in their direction and they were healed. At last she left the stage. For the next hour the audience roared for her to come back, they ripped the cushions from the seats which they tore to pieces with their teeth, and many set fire to themselves, but she did not return.
The next morning Ed Bradley who was an opera fan stopped Grollman in the hall. “I hear you went to the Nilsson recital last night. How was it?”
“It was pretty good.”
How convoluted!! To find operatic humour that rivals Anna Russell and Victor Borge…..in a book about a medical student!! (I was lucky to see both, plus Lily Pons in the Russell audience).
[…] Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) was one of opera’s miracles. If you heard her during her prime, which roughly coincided with the first decade or so of her 22 years at the Met, you heard a unique voice. At its fullest, it was a Jovian thunderbolt. No technical challenge was too much for her. Vocally, she could do anything required by the score and at the highest artistic level. The only soprano voice I ever heard in performance who was in her class was Zinka Milanov, who was an artist of a totally different type. I first heard her in a recital Columbus, Ohio during the winter of 1962-63. She appeared with a pianist in a big stone barn of a hall that I think was called War Memorial Auditorium. I can’t find a trace of it on the internet. After all these years I may have the name wrong. Nilsson’s voice was so big that it might have undone the building’s structural integrity causing it to vanish at the conclusion of her performance. I had never heard anything like the sound she produced. A fictional account of that recital moved to Chicago is in my novel Doing Nothing. You can get to it by going here: Birgit Nilsson Recital (From Doing Nothing) | Neil Kurtzman (medicine-opera.com) […]