Birgit Nilsson, 87; Wagnerian Soprano Known for the Power of Her Voice and Personality

Times Staff Writer

Birgit Nilsson, considered the finest Wagnerian soprano of her generation, has died. She was 87.

Nilsson died Dec. 25, the Stockholm newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported. The cause of death was not announced. It was her family’s wish that her death be kept secret until her funeral Wednesday in her native Vastra Karup, in southern Sweden.

The daughter of farmers, Nilsson became a leading interpreter of the heroines in Richard Wagner’s operas and sang those roles around the world.


She was the essential Isolde, the mythic princess in the composer’s “Tristan und Isolde,” singing the role more than 200 times. She was equally well known as Brunnhilde, the daughter of a god in Wagner’s “Die Walkure,” “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung.”

Nilsson’s rich, powerful voice was considered something of a phenomenon. She could dominate a full orchestra with astonishing force.

“The size and amplitude of her sound is rare at any time and is difficult to find today, when Wagnerian singers just don’t seem to have her projection, star presence and huge personality both on and off the stage,” said Ian D. Campbell, general director of San Diego Opera and Opera San Jose.

“Birgit was unique!” Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine said in a statement. “I was so fortunate to hear her sing many times over the years, and eventually to work with her on several memorable occasions with Wagner and Strauss.”

Said Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed: “No one went to see Birgit Nilsson’s Isolde, Brunnhilde, Elektra or Salome; you simply went to hear her. When she sang, she made nothing else matter.”

Nilsson rose to prominence at a time when opera flowed with memorable sopranos -- Australia’s Joan Sutherland, Austria’s Leonie Rysanek and the United States’ Beverly Sills among them.


The Swedish singer distinguished herself by making Wagnerian opera, the ultimate test of stamina, her calling card. She was sometimes compared to Norway’s legendary Kirsten Flagstad, the Wagnerian soprano about 20 years Nilsson’s senior. Both women had remarkably long careers. Nilsson performed in top voice for 40 years.

Although her name evoked immediate association with Wagner, she won equal acclaim for performances in Verdi’s “Macbeth” and “Aida,” Puccini’s “Turandot” and Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and “Elektra.”

She reached her stride in the late 1950s when she became a regular at the annual Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, site of the renowned opera house that the composer had built especially for productions of his works. Nilsson performed there from 1957 until 1970, and in the early ‘60s the festival’s production of “Tristan” was developed for her.

“It’s a lustful feeling,” she once said about singing the role. “You feel it in your whole body. When everything is functioning and the support is there and the sound is in the right place, I hear those notes ringing in my head.”

It was not easy for Nilsson to find tenors who could stand up to her enormous stage presence. She had several favorites, particularly Wolfgang Windgassen, a German who sang “Tristan” with her more than 100 times, most of them in the 1960s.

She would have liked singing more often with American tenor Jon Vickers, but he was not so eager. They performed “Tristan” only one season in Buenos Aires and one season in New York City during the 1970s.


“I told him at the time that I waited and waited for my Tristan for 14 years,” Nilsson said in a 1999 interview with the New York Times. “Maybe he was uncomfortable with me,” she said, hinting at her strong personality.

She became one of the highest-paid singers in the field, in part because of the rarity of her skills. That and her great popularity. The Swedish government issued a postage stamp showing her as Turandot. She also received the Ilis Quorum medal, the highest honor given a Swedish citizen.

Despite her global fame, Nilsson often spoke of her limits. She said her voice was not a good fit with what she described as the softer textures and refined tones of Italian operas. But she sang those roles anyway.

“This was the only way to survive,” she told the New York Times in 1999. “When I sang too much Wagner, the voice got dark, without shine -- heavy.”

She performed in Los Angeles infrequently.

At the Shrine Auditorium with San Francisco Opera, she sang Brunnhilde in “Die Walkure” in 1956, Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in 1964 and Turandot in 1964. She performed in concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1956.

The event that U.S. opera lovers waited for, however, took place three years later, when Nilsson debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in “Tristan und Isolde.” Her opening night performance made front page news in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.


Although the notices were positive, Nilsson was miffed. Most reviewers made it sound as if she were a new name in opera, although European audiences had revered her for a decade. In Italy, she had been invited to open the 1958 season at Milan’s La Scala, an honor usually reserved for Italian singers.

“I guess I felt I had been neglected a little too long,” Nilsson wrote in her memoir about her New York debut. “After all, I was 41 years old and had already made my mark at most of the leading opera houses in the world.”

Her relationship with the Met’s managers was not always smooth. She complained when front row tickets for her performances were set at $200. Her most loyal fans couldn’t afford it, she said.

“I know the Met needed the money, but I don’t think they should have made it all out of me,” Nilsson told the Manchester Guardian in a 1981 interview.

Part of the reason for the high price was her salary, Nilsson’s critics said. Once, during a rehearsal of “Gotterdammerung” with conductor Herbert von Karajan, he teased her, saying she should sing from the heart, “where you have your cashbox.”

“Why, then,” she replied, “we have something in common, Mr. Von Karajan.”

Nilsson’s finances made international news in the mid-1970s when the Internal Revenue Service said she owed $500,000 in unpaid taxes. She stopped singing in the U.S. because of it and did not perform here from 1975 until 1979, when her lawyer was able to arrange for her to clear her debt in installments.


Her next U.S. opera role was in “Elektra,” which she sang at the Met in 1980. Nilsson was 62 that year, but “the shining trumpet of a voice is still far from sounding like a coronet,” the New York Times said.

She taught voice more often as she cut back her singing commitments starting in the early 1980s. Her longest teaching stint in the United States was at the Manhattan School of Music from 1983 to 1991.

She retired from professional engagements in 1984.

For all her vocal strength, Nilsson was accident prone and faced health crises throughout her career. She had tuberculosis in 1952, followed by cancer a few years later. In 1971, she fell on stage and dislocated her shoulder during a dress rehearsal for “Gotterdammerung” at the Met.

“My friends said it was a tragicomic sight to see me being rolled into the emergency room in long, false eyelashes, Brunnhilde’s flowing red wig still on my head,” Nilsson wrote in her memoir. On opening night she sang with her arm in a sling.

“I ask a great deal of myself,” Nilsson told author David Blum in his 1999 book, “Quintet: Five Journeys Toward Musical Fulfillment.” “But I also ask very much of others.”

Born Marta Birgit Svennsson, Nilsson was the only child of Nils and Justina Svennsson, sixth-generation farmers. She grew up picking potatoes and milking cows.


Her parents named her Nilsson because of a Swedish tradition in which a child can be given her father’s first name, with the suffix “son,” as her last name.

Nils Svennsson encouraged his daughter’s musical talents, to a point. He bought her a harmonium when she was in grade school and a piano when she was 15.

At 17 she auditioned for the best church choir in her area. The choir director, Ragnar Blenow, stunned her when he predicted that she would be a great soprano. She had dreamed of it but never dared to do more.

Blenow helped arrange an audition for her at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. She was accepted to the school and began classes at 23.

For the next five years -- three at the Royal College followed by two at the Royal Opera School nearby -- she suffered voice teachers who mocked her farm background.

After graduating from school in 1946, she was her own teacher for some years.

“I’ve always said the best voice teacher is the stage,” she told the Independent of London in 1993. “I learned the hard way from every performance and grew with every role.”


She made her opera debut in 1946 in a Swedish Royal Opera production of “Der Freischutz” by Carl Maria von Weber.

After the original soprano had dropped out, Nilsson was given the lead role of Agathe with three days to rehearse. Opera house administrators were not impressed, however, and labeled her “unmusical and untalented,” she later recalled.

The next year she was given another role, again as a substitute, singing Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s “Macbeth.” This time, reviews convinced her that she would have a career in opera.

Nilsson married Bertil Niklasson in 1948, three years after they met on a train from Skane, her native region in Sweden’s far south, to Stockholm. They were both students at the time, and he went on to become a prosperous businessman.

The couple had no children.

Through most of her career, Nilsson and her husband made a second home of the farm where she was raised. She once said she became ill if she wasn’t able to return to Skane during Scandinavia’s long summer hours of daylight.

She arranged local concerts and donated the money to the Heritage Society Museum in her town.


“I never thought I’d go as far as I did,” Nilsson told Blum, looking back over her career at 75. “But if one has determination, one can move rocks.”


Times staff writer Chris Pasles contributed to this report.