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My picture of Birgit


In 2018, the music world will observe the 100-year anniversary of Birgit Nilsson. Konserthuset will begin this anniversary year by presenting Kenneth Derlow’s lithograph Min Bild av Birgit (My Picture of Birgit) in the stairwell of the main foyer.

The personal reflections of artist Kenneth Derlow

The hunt for the picture I had in my mind was not easy. But a light came on with a tip that I search the Royal Swedish Opera’s picture archives. For two days, I opened countless envelopes containing black and white prints from the Royal Swedish Opera’s performances over the years. Tons and tons of pictures, but very few of Birgit.

On the third day, I arrived at the crack of dawn. The woman from the day before discussed what remained to be looked through. After lunch, my optimism began to flounder. Soon, I had turned over every single picture in the Opera’s archives and I had yet to find what I was looking for. At last, hope emerged with the discovery of a few boxes whose contents were unsorted: envelopes with no specified image; loose pictures and unmarked photos all in a jumbled mess.

The bottom of the second to last box held a few parchment envelopes: one contained two copies of Birgit in the role of Turandot in Puccini’s opera. The other had yet another picture of Birgit. I liked it. The photo copy is 6 x 7 cm. Birgit wears a veil. Her face has a lovely smile and a gaze that moves me. I ask the staff, ‘Who took this picture?’ I await a response eagerly. But no, no one knows and no one can answer my question.

The next day, I talk to someone from the archives. “So we’ve asked around a little, and this might be helpful for you. A photographer who used to work for the Royal Swedish Opera thinks the photographer may have been German. He suggests that you consult the Austrian Theatre Museum in Vienna.” I wrote an email and attached the picture, and promptly received a positive response. “The picture was probably taken by American photographer Lillian Fayer during Birgit Nilsson’s period in the role of Tosca in 1965 at the Vienna State Opera.” The email included an address to a writer and journalist who had collaborated with Mrs. Fayer on many occasions. I could now see an end to my journey ahead of me. One more letter, this time to the writer. Her response contained Mrs. Fayer’s address in Vienna. And I could now write that crucial letter, the one to the photographer.

One spring day in May 2009, the phone rings. I’m standing at the stove, flipping pancakes. I pick up the phone in irritation, a spatula in my other hand. “Is this Kenneth? This is Lillian Fayer; I’m calling from Vienna.”

The voice belongs to the renowned photographer Lillian Fayer, born in New York in 1917 to a family of famous photographers. (Her grandfather was one of Daguerre’s employees in the 1830s. The “daguerreotype”, the first photograph.) She’s called me, 92 years old, bubbly and cheerful. The conversation lasts quite a while. Before hanging up, she says, “Kenneth, do something good with the picture – use it however you like.”

Two versions of the prints are made. The one with Birgit’s portrait in gold, sepia and red is what is called a tone separation. The other one with four portraits is a lithograph in various colours, a so-called etàt. The editions are small: some in just a few copies, others fewer than ten. My primary goal was to successfully print the picture in a palette that could duly present Birgit Nilsson’s roles on the stage. My work on this project was consistently a joy and a passion.

I would like to thank Peter Eriksson, chairman of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, who saw the opportunity for an exhibition at Konserthuset Stockholm, and concert hall director Stefan Forsberg, who made the exhibition possible.

Kenneth Derlow in December 2017

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