Classical Notes: Onetime food critic now reimagining comic opera

Photo of Joseph Dalton

 For 30 years Byron Nilsson wrote with insight and candor about restaurants and classical music under the byline B.A. Nilsson for Metroland, which folded in 2015. These days he practices the culinary arts mostly at the home he shares with his wife in the little community of Glen, Montgomery County, and he applies his writing skills primarily to a blog and to a slowly developing first draft of a novel. Also fluent and prolific in theatre, Nilsson is an Equity actor who performed for 10 years with the now-defunct New York State Theater Institute and has written a substantial body of plays and musicals.

For some years now Nilsson’s dramatic skills have found a home, onstage and off, with the Musicians of Ma’alwyck. In one of the chamber ensemble’s most high profile and ambitious outings, the 2018 commissioned opera “Aleda: The Flight of the Suff Birdwomen” by Max Caplan, Nilsson played a sharp-eyed no-nonsense reporter who tracked a group of suffragists in their daring antics. “That was a tough piece. Max is incredibly talented but I’m a musical theater guy. I don’t sing diminished sevenths,” he recalls, adding that he was saved by music software that helped him learn the tricky role.

Nilsson’s friendship with the group’s director, Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, dates back to the early ‘80s when they both had relatively short tenures as on-air hosts for WMHT-FM. “She’s always coming up with inventive stuff and we work well together,” he says.

Their latest collaboration is an English-language production of “The Ship’s Captain,” a one-act comic opera from 1817 by Carl August Blum. The hourlong show for three singers and three instrumentalists is light-hearted in spirit, something akin to a vaudeville skit or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Most of the melodies are borrowed from more famous works, including Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” “The audience will come in humming the tunes,” says Nilsson.

There are three upcoming performances: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 19, at the Strand Theater in Hudson Falls; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21, at the Conservancy in Glen; and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany. (More info at

 Lucky for Schwartz, Nilsson likes a challenge. He took on the task of making an English-language edition of the songs and writing a new book. He also did the stage direction.

“This really got a hold of me. I translated from German with the old German typeface, which made it hard to distinguish many of the characters. Between my high school German and Dr. Google, I figured out what was going on in the story. I then reworked the libretto to make sense and have a little more contemporary humor,” he says.

Creating fluid and rhyming lyrics is no easy task but Nilsson brings a natural sense of humor and, inspired by his forebears, seems to relish the work. “I’m kind of particular, I like them to rhyme correctly and have punch lines that work. There are so many lazy songwriters out there now. They don’t make the rhymes work,” says Nilsson. “Discovering Gilbert and Sullivan started me off, then there was Porter and Berlin. When I found Sondheim it was all over.” A crucial tool in Nilsson’s work is Clement Wood’s Rhyming Dictionary, which was first published in 1936 and was also the go-to resource for Sondheim.

Another top-notch songsmith in Nilsson’s pantheon is Tom Lehrer, whose stuff from the '60s poked clever fun at the politics of the day. Last year Nilsson and his longtime accompanist, Malcom Kogut, gave a concert at the historic Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs to celebrate Lehrer’s 93rd birthday. They subsequently released the live recording on a CD titled “Songs to Amuse.” (

“Lehrer’s lyrics are beautifully rhymed and were just right for savaging the stuffy conventions of the 1960s in a wonderfully literate manner,” says Nilsson. Among the favorite numbers in the cabaret duo’s set were “Alma” (about Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel), “The Masochism Tango” and “Vatican Rag.” In a nod to the pandemic, the finale was “I Got It from Agnes.”

Coming up next month from Nilsson and the Musicians of Ma’alwyck is a revival of “Buxtahude’s Daughter,” a comic cantata with music by Thomas F. Savoy and lyrics by Nilsson. Savoy was a prominent church musician in the Capital Region who now lives in Charlotte. Just one of many collaborations between Nilsson and Savoy, the cantata tells the true (though embellished) story of how a young J.S. Bach applied to take the church organist job that the elder Dieterich Buxtahude was giving up. It would be a good steady position but it came with an unusual condition. The musician who got hired would have to marry Buxtahude’s daughter, who was an old maid at age 30.

“It’s totally irreverent, a clash of wills between Bach and Anna, the daughter. It’s full of so many little musical jokes and is just something we put together to delight ourselves,” says Nilsson.

The concert, on June 25 at Hyde Hall in Cooperstown, will also feature P.D.Q. Bach’s “Twelve Quite Heavenly Songs,” a satirical journey through the signs of the zodiac. “It’s funny and delightful with many levels of humor,” says Nilsson, who has had sundry contacts over the years with P.D.Q. Bach creator Peter Schickele, a resident of Woodstock. The 86 year-old Schickele has retired from performing but Nilsson hears that he’s working on an autobiography, which will perhaps be a more true to life follow-up to the fictional biography he wrote of his famous imagined persona.

Recently Nilsson celebrated his 66th birthday by coming up with a new and personal verse of “Route 66,” the standard by Bobby Troup. Given how clever and playful Nilsson is in conversation, it’s seems pretty clear that he has deep stores of ideas and good humor. Asked if his relatively remote and presumably quiet homestead was conducive to creativity and productivity, he said that it’s actually the opposite for him.

“I get more done sitting in a place like Uncommon Ground, where there’s a bit of hubbub. In my house there’s always something to do like sweeping or cleaning. The only time I do housekeeping is when there’s a deadline,” he says. Yet once he does dive into a new endeavor, the world slips away, as he explains: “I’m very project oriented, not time oriented. I’ll go into a tunnel and later immerge and think that’s it? I don’t remember doing anything!”

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

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