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Birgit Nilsson (1918 - 2005)


Nilsson was born into a farming family. She recalled that she could sing before she could walk, adding ‘I even sang in my dreams.’ When she was five she sang at a school Christmas concert, accompanying herself on the organ, while her mother lay on the floor to work the pedals that her daughter could not reach. Her father however wanted Nilsson to take over the family farm, and so did not support her in pursuing a singing career. Nonetheless, with her mother’s encouragement, she first studied with Ragnar Blennow in Båstad.

Eventually her father relented and when Nilsson was nineteen she entered Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Music, where she was a pupil of Joseph Hislop and Arne Sunnegårdh. During her first year she survived on a small legacy her mother had inherited, but from then on was forced to support her studies by singing at weddings and funerals and taking small roles in films. She attributed her success to native talent rather than to formal instruction: ‘My first voice teacher almost killed me… The second was almost as bad,’ she later commented.

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