Courting the attentions of Birgit Nilsson…

by Alden Cole on April 15, 2015 · 0 comments

“Imagination creates reality.” – Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Illumination1WPMy obsession with the great Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) was set in motion in 1969, my first year in New York, when I heard/saw her as Brunhilde in Die Walkure as guest of music critic Alan Rich, whom I had met through a mutual friend who lived in the basement apartment of the brownstone I also resided in at 340 W. 89th Street in New York’s Upper West Side. The fascination with Ms Nilsson’s voice and presence grew during the early 70s as I acquired and became familiar with recordings of all the Wagner operas, particularly Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s great paean to the joys and sorrows of passionate love, and three of the operas of The RingDie Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung – in which she sings the role of Brunhilde, the most demanding soprano role in the operatic repertoire. My fascination with her artistry led me to do some rather quirky things to gain her attention; like baking a fruitcake – not just an ordinary fruitcake, an Aldenized FruitCake – and gifting her with it after a solo recital at Avery Fisher Hall. Why the obsession? Envy most likely. Although I did not recognize this as a major dynamic behind the emotions at the time, Birgit was another of those women – Heroine Worship – with whom I wanted to switch places, seeing their lives as so much more satisfying than my own – one of the greater follies of my youth. “Joy is not in things; it is in us.” – Richard Wagner.

Glorification-A18x14-4.75WPA full accounting of the ways and means used to gain Ms. Nilsson’s attentions will have to wait for THE BOOK, but the long-story-short is this: I created art(s) to gift her with. The first, an unframed b&w pen-&-ink drawing on 18″ x 24″ paper inspired by Tristan und Isolde, I neglected to record photographically before rolling it into a tube and delivering to the gracious lady who acted as her secretary while Birgit was in NY. I have only the vaguest memories of its composition. However the drawing, or possibly the gesture itself, impressed her enough to respond with a signed hand-written thank-you note; an autographed treasure which I misplaced at some point during my years of unsettled peregrination, so that it is lost in time’s transient river. The second piece, a painting in watercolors – pictured at the top of this posting – was also inspired by Tristan; an illustrative depiction of the moment early in the second act when Isolde throws caution to the wind and signals Tristan with a torch to come to their trysting place, with dire consequences. This art was gifted to Ms Nilsson while she was in NY doing performances of Isolde in which Jon Vickers was singing the role of Tristan. Seven performances of the opera were scheduled that spring, but both stars were singing only four performances each, with only one overlapping mid-week performance in which they were singing together – the Hottest Ticket in town that spring for Wagnerians. My financial status determined that Family Circle Standing Room was the only way I was going to be able to see the opera. So the preceding Saturday morning when Standing Room tickets went on sale for all the following week’s performances, I got down to Lincoln Center a little later than ideal, and was disappointed to discover that I was something like #389 in line. Undaunted I stayed there knowing that not every one in line was after the same tickets, so I was hopeful. As fate would have it. I was about five people from the box office when an employee loudly announced that all standing room tickets for Tristan were sold out. Crushed, I considered my options, fortunately remembering what a friend who had performed as an extra in crowd scenes at the opera had told me about performers being able to give away tickets for Grand Tier standing room. Knowing that Ms Nilsson was already aware of my artistic presence, I decided to created another artwork. Through her secretary I discovered that she was staying at the Hotel Alden on Central Park West that year (particularly nice synchronicity there). I wrote a note explaining the situation and asked if she would be willing to grant me a standing room pass for a performance that shouldn’t be missed. And my request worked. Her secretary let me know that there was indeed a ticket in my name at the box office; which allowed me to experience one of the great musical events of my life to that date. A year later, in the spring of 1975 (if my recollections are correct) Birgit was in town to sing the role of Brunhilde in Gotterdammerung. Instead of standing in line for Family Circle standing room, I repeated my plan of the year before. I created a third artwork – the one featured at the head of this paragraph, especially for Ms Nilsson, and delivered it to the hotel where she was staying, the name of which I’ve forgotten since it wasn’t a repeat of the year before, with a note requesting a reprise of last year’s favor, which was gracefully granted. Ant that was the extent of our relationship; we had no further contact. She was the muse of my first few years as an aspiring artist, trying to make my own mark, inspired by her artistry and presence, as well as the source, the Master himself, whose power to move me through music has not been surpassed. Anyway…

Tristan&IsoldeWPWhat ever happened to those three artworks is anyone’s guess. Presumably they may still be part of Ms. Nilsson’s estate, which was probably quite extensive considering how many other people around the world also wanted some of her attention. Oh, the cost of being star-material, of being public property, and being gifted with material presents both desirable and undesirable from admirers and strangers looking for ones recognition. Fame is not for sissies.

As one last comment to a story that could be much longer and fuller, considering what an important role both composer and interpreter have played in my development, I’d like to quote another from the Master himself, about himself: “Richard Wagner, a musician who wrote music which is better than it sounds.” I can only paraphrase that to accommodate my own case: “Alden Cole, an artist who paints pictures which are better than they look.” How’s that for adaptation?

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