Swedish opera singer Ulla Westlund called ‘The best quality voice material since Birgit Nilsson’

Swedish opera singer Ulla Westlund, who lives in New York and in Sweden, performed at a fundraising gala for The Swedish Alzheimer's Association in Borl?ge Jan. 24. Swedish opera singer Ulla Westlund (www.ullawestlund.com), who lives in New York and in Sweden, performed at a fundraising gala for The Swedish Alzheimer’s Association in Borl?ge Jan. 24.

SWEDISH opera singer Ulla Westlund (www.ullawestlund.com) nowadays calls New York City her home, but she still gets to Sweden often. During a recent trip there to perform during the Christmas and holiday season, she visited Gothenburg and also performed Jan. 24 at a fundraising gala for Alzheimerf?reningen i Sverige (The Swedish Alzheimer’s Association) in her hometown of Borl?ge in the Dalecarlia area of the country. Additionally, she gave several Christmas concerts at other Swedish locations.

AT HER ONE-PERSON show in Borl?ge she performed works by Wagner as well as a more modern repertoire with songs, jazz and her own compositions to great acclaim.

THE VIVID AND charismatic Ulla recalls growing up on a farm outside Borl?ge in V?ter-Tuna sl?ten, which also happens to be the birthplace of the world-renowned Swedish opera star Jussi Bj?rling.

“I HAVE SUNG since I was a child, and my parents and sisters sang also,” she says. “I could sing before I talked. Since my voice was particularly strong, I was often the soloist.” Her influences were Swedish jazz singer Meta Roos and opera singer Jussi Bj?rling.

“I PEFORMED AND entertained, and started with theater at the age of 14, in such plays as ‘Klas Kl?termus’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (‘Spelman p?Taket’) and toured around all of Sweden. I studied two years at theater schools in ?ebro K?vesta in Central Sweden and Vendelsberg, in M?lnlycke in the Gothenburg area, and I finished with a degree in theater.”

Swedish opera singer Ulla WestlundSwedish opera singer Ulla Westlund

SHE DID free lance work in Gothenburg for three years, from 1992 to1995, dabbled in TV, film and in musicals, sang in a big band, had her own shows and worked as a stand-up comedienne, but decided to pursue a singing career. She met Sten Sj?stedt, an opera singer and also a director. He directed the musical “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, at Kung?v Theatre outside Gothenburg, and gave her a chance in that show in 1994. This was followed by excerpts from the role of Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” at the Gothenburg’s Opera House small scene, a role she learnt in a short period of time. Mr. Sj?stedt called her an “uncut diamond.”

SHE CONTINUED her music education in Gothenburg, and applied to the University Colleges of Opera (Operah?gskolorna) in Stockholm and Gothenburg, but was rejected. Even though one of the jurors — a prominent Scandinavian conductor — considered her “the best quality voice material since Birgit Nilsson.”

“BIRGIT-LOISE Franz? – a Swedish coloratura soprano – worked with me during one year, in 1995. In 1994-95 a jury from England went to the northern part of Sweden scouting for new talent, and I was immediately accepted at the Birmingham Conservartory (Bmus),” says Ulla.

During her first year in Birmingham, she briefly met and came to know Simon Rattle, who was responsible for the school’s orchestra. And she debuted before the first year’s end, in 1996, in “Sounds of Sweden” with Swedish opera stars Nikolai Gedda and Elisabeth S?derstr?m and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at a performance that was broadcast on BBC Live, with Swedish Princess Christina present. She also toured in England, Wales and Sweden, and performed Nanetta in “Falstaff” by Verdi with conductor Mark Elder.

ULLA WESTLUND finalized her education in Birmingham, and received the Diploma in Opera Performance – the conservatory’s highest award. After returning to Sweden, she performed Jenny Lind, when the Stockholm Music Museum had its celebration in 1999. And she was awarded the European Union Art Scholarship.

“I SPENT TWO YEARS in Rome. It was a fantastic time, and I got a chance to see all the opera prima donnas. But I also met people who said that ‘America is where you should go.'”

“MY DREAM was to work with a really good coach, and I contacted conductor Jeffrey Goldberg at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, who became interested since I had worked with the opera diva Antonietta Stella in Rome.” She received a cultural scholarship from Konstn?sn?nden, a Swedish authority under the supervision of the Department of Culture and traveled to New York.

ULLA Westlund rehearsed the roles Tosca and Aida with Mr. Goldberg, and her debut – as Maddalena in “I Tre Compagni” by Louis Gioia — was in 2009 at one of the Metropolitan scenes. Singing at Caf?Tacci in New York, she met Eric Kaufmann, an opera aficionado, who became a close friend and introduced her to his connections. He helped her become the soloist at two music festivals, and participate at church concerts. Other performances include at the Oslo Concert House with conductor Laurent Pillot, at the Concert House of Sweden with French-Italian guitarist Alexandre Pier Federici, and at Teatro Flavio Vespasiano in Rieti, Italy.

Swedish opera singer Ulla WestlundOpera singer Ulla Westlund

“THE ATMOSPHERE in New York is so dynamic, full of energy and enthusiasm, with a wonderful pulse, you grow as an artist – but it is also extremely competitive, and Americans are very professional,” says Ulla.

IN 2008 she got an agent, Rita Sardos, who helped her with auditions, and in 2009 she got the leading role in a Verismo opera near Lincoln Center, which opened to splendid reviews. One of the conductors told her “you should sing Wagner.”

AND SO, in a Wagner Society of New York competition, she won the first prize, and the prize check gave her the opportunity to study at Berliner Staatsoper. It was also in Berlin she met her partner, and with whom she now has a daughter and lives in New York. She recently had to study Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” for a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

ULLA WESTLUND says that her favorite roles are Tosca, Isolde and Amelia (“Un ballo in Maschera”) and favorite composers Puccini, Verdi and Wagner. Among conductors she is specially fond of Claudio Abbado, and her favorite orchestra is The Orchestra of Metropolitan Opera Theatre.

“MY PLAN FOR THE future is to learn more Wagner roles and do auditions in Europe, and learn to sing in Russian, since many say that would suit my voice.” In the summer she will tour Sweden and work on a CD with guitarist Alexandre Pier Federici. She says: “My dream role is Tosca and to perform it at Il Teatro dell’Roma in Italy — with Jonas Kaufman as Cavaradossi and Pl?ido Domingo as Scarpia. A collaboration with Domingo would be fabulous – and to do an opera film with Zeffirelli and the role Maddalena in ‘Andrea Chenier’ by Giordano!”

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