Birgit Nilsson Prize

Oliver Condy reports from Stockholm where Riccardo Muti was honoured with the prize and a cheque for $1m

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It was the question on everyone's lips. How was conductor Riccardo Muti intending to spend the $1m awarded to him as recipient of the Birgit Nilsson Prize? From the start of the press conference, however, it was clear that that sort of thing was off the agenda. 'Money is a private matter', said Rutbert Reisch, president of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation. And, added Muti, he wasn't about to share the details of his charitable giving with a bunch of journalists, thank you very much.

Fair enough. Before the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson died in 2005, her wish was not only for a prize big enough to honour the very greatest musicians, but that whoever won classical music's richest prize, awarded to a singer, conductor or institution with an outstanding contribution to opera under their belt, could choose to spend it however he or she wished. No strings attached, whatsoever.

But a million dollars is a large sum of money – and the fact that it has been awarded to someone with already considerable wealth has raised a few eyebrows (Plácido Domingo, the prize's first recipient in 2009, chosen by Nilsson herself, isn't short of a bob or two, either). But throughout the day, hints were dropped that led one to believe that the Birgit Nilsson Prize was intended to be something of a Nobel Prize for music. And for a prize of such importance to be noticed and taken seriously (Nobel Prize winners receive cheques of up to $1.5m), it had to be accompanied by a similarly serious sum. Nilsson had clearly squirrelled away a tidy sum during her illustrious life.

The press conference, held in the afternoon of the award ceremony, took place in a beautiful gilded room at Stockholm's magnificent river-side opera house, where Nilsson made her debut in 1946 and where she returned to make hundreds of appearances during her lifetime. Muti, who was announced as the second winner earlier this year 'for his extraordinary contributions in opera and concert, as well as his enormous influence in the music world both on and off the stage', deflected the more inquisitive questions with considerable wit and charm. Was he going to set up a foundation in his name? 'You make it sound as if I'm already dead', joked Muti. 'What have you learned during your life as a conductor? asked a Chinese TV station. 'You expect me to answer that in two minutes?', Muti's smile seemed to say. His answer? That he could teach anyone to conduct Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in two minutes. Just beat in three, remember to stop at the end, and if you get lost, simply pretend you're transported by the ecstasy of the music. Simple. Cue much laughter.

One question, from a German radio station, prompted a more considered response from the maestro. There was no doubt who the great singers of the past were but, she pondered, where are the great singers of today? Well, there simply aren't any, Muti replied, of the stature of Nilsson, Corelli or Björling. The frantic way we live our lives, the food we eat, the constant expectations we pile on to our musical stars – all of this he was sure makes it impossible for the western world to produce an artist like Nilsson.

This was to be one of Muti's themes during his acceptance speech at the hour-long prize-giving ceremony, held in the opera house's opulent auditorium later that evening in the presence of the King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. 'Birgit Nilsson took time to get inside the score, inside the music and she did it with authority and dignity', said Muti. '[She] is the only artist that pushed me as a Neopolitan to travel. Today, we don't have these kind of singers any more… not because there are not excellent singers, but because Birgit Nilsson was an exceptional singer. As Verdi said when somebody asked him "What is the secret of your talent?" And he said, "My secret consists of three things: laboro, laboro, laboro."'

It is Muti's contribution to education that was a large factor, too, in the Prize's decision to honour him. His work in prisons and war-torn countries has helped people rediscover, in his own words, their 'dignity'. And his Italy-based Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra has helped develop the next generation of professional orchestral players. 'Education in music is essential. Why? Not because we have to make a miserable life for our children with a small flute in the mouth… But it is important to teach young boys and girls in a modern society that a symphonic orchestra is the symbol of a society – how a society should work and stay together… Each player knows that his freedom must exist but should not stop or damage the freedom of the other players. But all the players in expressing their feelings, they all must work in one direction to taste harmony.'

And finally, a plea. 'This is the reason why I'm worried about the future. Europe is forgetting the importance of our culture, our traditions, our history, We are today what we have been and we will be what we are today, so music and culture are parts extremely important of the history of Europe, so I take this opportunity… to send the message that Birgit Nilsson certainly sent during all the years of her musical life: let's help the new generations towards a good future. One of the weapons is good music and culture.'

The ceremony over, we headed to the banquet at City Hall, where the Nobel Prize dinners take place each year. But will such aligning of the Birgit Nilsson Prize with the world's most famous awards finally bring classical music centre stage? Of course, we have to hope. But if it simply draws attention to the extraordinary achievements of its winners, then we shouldn't complain.

Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine