Sunday, September 1, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Speight Jenkins: My ultimate summer concert ...

In the summer of 1959, after I had finished my first year of law school, I convinced my parents to let me spend almost four months in Europe. The ruse I used was a course in international law in Salzburg and a need to perfect my French.

Six weeks in Paris did improve my French a lot, but I'm afraid that the course was a fraud: There was such a course, but I spent most of my time in Central Europe attending opera in Salzburg, Munich and at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany (I had very little money to spend; in those days, tickets for opera performances were to Americans very, very inexpensive).

As I was a thorough-going Wagnerian, the last was nirvana to me, and the days spent there changed my life. My exposure to the productions of the director Wieland Wagner, the chance to attend six of Wagner's operas on consecutive days and the atmosphere of this town devoted to Wagner influenced me enormously.

The greatest performance (my most memorable non-Seattle Opera festival event), "Tristan und Isolde," took place Aug. 16. The memory has nothing whatever to do with drama; the production was not by Wieland but by his brother, Wolfgang. It is all about personality — vocal and theatrical. The Isolde, a Swedish soprano, was scheduled to make her Metropolitan Opera debut in the same role the next December. But I had never heard her sing.

I was sitting in the fourth or fifth row, just to the right of center. I can still see the rather simple setting of the ship's cabin. When Birgit Nilsson sang the opening line, "Wer wagt mich zu hoehnen? (Who dares to mock me?)," I instantly knew that I had never heard anything like that voice.

As the act progressed, my wonder went from excitement to awe. Her breathtaking, soft singing coupled to the most exciting curse I had ever heard, her thoughtful delivery of the text and her total domination of the mighty Bayreuth orchestra, under conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, almost blew my mind.

In one section her voice brimmed over with sarcasm as she poured out her disdain at Tristan. At the time all I could think of was her amazing volume; I learned later that what seemed like great volume was created by a kind of focus given usually only to laser beams.

Her Tristan was the greatest heldentenor of the time, Wolfgang Windgassen, and when the two of them united in the short duet at the end of Act I, I was sent into a kind of ecstasy.

Howard Taubman, writing in The New York Times on Dec. 19 of that year after her Met debut the night before, said, "A great star is flashing in the operatic heavens," echoing my thought. When the act was over, I said to a friend, "The Wagnerian sun has risen." My friend didn't seem to know what I meant, and I just walked away.

The intermissions at the Wagner Festival are an hour long, and for the rest of the intermission I just walked in the gardens near the Festival House, saying nothing, just reveling in the most amazing Wagner singing I had yet heard. The rest of the opera was marvelous, but it was that first act, the first encounter I ever had with the presence of Birgit Nilsson, that was forever engraved in my memory.

I couldn't have even imagined that this was only an early pass at her Isolde. It would become even greater. But that day she was — and always remained to me afterwards — a revelation.

Speight Jenkins is a former music critic host of "Live From the Met," and current general director of Seattle Opera. A noted Wagnerian, Jenkins has presented two new productions of the Ring cycle since joining the opera in 1983.


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