Birgit Nilsson, dramatic soprano, Died at 87

Birgit Nilsson 25 December 2005 at the age of 87, she was a celebrated Swedish dramatic soprano who specialized in operatic works of Wagner and Strauss, though she sang the operas of many other composers, including Verdi and Puccini.

Born Märta Birgit Svensson on the 17th of May 1918 on a farm at Västra Karup in Skåne (100 km/60 miles north of Malmö) to Nils Svensson and Justina Svensson née Paulsson.

When she was three years old she began picking out melodies on a toy piano her mother bought for her.

She once told an interviewer that she could sing before she could walk, adding, “I even sang in my dreams”.

Her vocal talent was first noticed when she began to sing in her church choir. A choirmaster near her home heard her sing and advised her to take voice lessons.

In 1946, Nilsson made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm with only three days’ notice, replacing the ailing Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz.

Conductor Leo Blech wasn’t very kind to her and, as she wrote in her autobiography, she even contemplated suicide after the performance. In 1947 she claimed national attention as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth under Fritz Busch.

A wealth of parts followed, from Strauss and Verdi to Wagner, Puccini, and Tchaikovsky.

In Stockholm she built up a steady repertoire of roles in the lyric-dramatic field, including Donna Anna, Aida, Lisa, Tosca, Venus, Sieglinde, Senta and the Marschallin, one of her favorite roles (though she later lamented that she was never asked to sing it outside of Stockholm), all sung in Swedish.

Her long career at the Bayreuth Festival and her immersion in Wagner in general, began in the mid-1950.

No dramatic soprano truly approached her stature thereafter, and in the roles of Isolde, Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, she began her stately 30-year procession around the opera houses of the world.

Her United States debut was in San Francisco in 1956. Three years later she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing Isolde under Karl Bohm, and some listeners treasure the memory of that performance as much as they do her live recording of the role from Bayreuth in 1966, also under Bohm.

The exuberant review of her first Met performance appeared on the front page of The New York Times on December 19, 1959, under the headline, “Birgit Nilsson as Isolde Flashes like New Star in ‘Met’ Heavens.”

Nilsson was suspicious of opera’s recent youth culture and often remarked on the premature destruction of young voices brought on by overambitious career planning.

“Directors and managers don’t care about their futures,” she once said. “They will just get another young person when this one goes bad.”