STOCKHOLM — As a young conductor, Maestro Riccardo Muti would set his alarm at an unbearable hour and take the three-hour train ride between Florence and Rome just to hear Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson sing.
On Thursday his quest came full circle when he arrived in Stockholm to pick up a $1 million prize established in the late singer's name, an award that organizers say is one of the largest in the world of classical music.
The 70-year-old Naples native is the second Birgit Nilsson Prize laureate, winning the 2011 award "for his extraordinary contributions in opera and concert, as well as his enormous influence in the music world both on and off the stage."
He received the award from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a lavish ceremony at the Swedish Royal Opera later Thursday.
"I'm honored and happy," he told reporters before the ceremony. "It's important because you realize that maybe you have done something important in your life, and people around the world recognize work that you have done as a musician."
Muti is the second musician to receive the award, which was established by the Birgit Nilsson Foundation after her 2005 death.
The prize was first awarded in 2009 to Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, a laureate Nilsson had picked herself but whose name was kept secret for nearly a decade before it was revealed.
Nilsson, considered one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos, never picked another winner, with a jury taking over the selection task once Domingo received his prize.
And just like his predecessor, Muti also had special relationship with the Swedish opera star.
"I've learned a lot from her way of singing and making music and her way of putting herself in front of the composer," he said, jokingly recalling his early devotion to Nilsson's music.
Muti is currently the musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Previously he has conducted the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Teatro alla Scala.
"When I was a music director in Florence I took the train and I went to Rome just to hear Birgit Nilsson singing in concert form," he said. "To wake up in the morning that very early to take the train was sort of a sacrifice that you do just for exceptional things. For Birgit Nilsson but not anybody else."
Earlier this year, the maestro defied doctors' advice and took to the podium at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera just five weeks after heart surgery following a fall from the podium while rehearsing in Chicago. He ended the performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco" by conceding a rare encore of the chorus and conducted the audience.
The encore was a statement to politicians to protest the cuts in the Culture Ministry's budget.
Muti, who is also awarded for his participation in "The Roads for Friendship" project, staging concerts in locations such as Sarajevo and Beirut since the mid-1990's, also spoke of the power of music and the importance of giving music to the world.
"You realize how music can be essential and important in communicating with people of other nations, of other religions and languages. This is extremely important."
Although talkative on most subjects, Muti did not want to reveal his plans for the award money.
"What I will do is something that will remain very private, and even if I will use the total sum or part of that for philanthropic reasons, certainly it will remain something that I will do in an anonymous way because I don't want to make publicity helping other people," the conductor said.
Watch Muti talk about how he, more and more, believes less in what the conductor can do:
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