Birgit Nilsson, whose prodigious voice, unrivaled stamina and thrilling high notes made her the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the post-World War II era, died Dec. 25 in Sweden. She was 87.
Born on a farm in Vastra Karup, Sweden, Nilsson reigned supreme at opera houses around the world during her long career, which began with her debut in 1946 at the Stockholm Royal Opera as Agathe in Weber’s “Der Freischutz” and continued until the mid-1980s when she retired.
She sang a wide variety of dramatic soprano roles, but her reputation was based especially on her mastery of a handful of the most punishing in the operatic repertory. Chief among these was Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” which she sang for her sensational debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 18, 1959.
Other parts Nilsson made her own included Bruennhilde, the warrior maiden of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, the title role of Elektra in Richard Strauss’ opera of the same name, and the heroine of Puccini’s “Turandot.”
At her peak, Nilsson astounded audiences in live performance with the unforced power of her voice, which easily cut through the thickest orchestrations, and with her remarkable breath control, which allowed her to hold onto the highest note for seemingly endless amounts of time. Her interpretive powers grew as her career developed, and she became a moving artist as well as a vocal phenomenon.
Nilsson sang with the Met 222 times in 16 roles, making her finale at the October 1983 centennial gala. Her last appearance on the Met stage came more than a decade after she retired, when she took part in an April 1996 gala celebrating music director James Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company. After some gracious remarks, she launched into Bruennhilde’s “ho-yo-to-ho” battle cry from “Die Walkuere,” delivering — at age 77 — a performance that would have been the envy of any younger soprano.
Nilsson’s breakthough in her native Sweden came in 1947 in a performance of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Stockholm Royal Opera. In 1954 she received the title “Hovsaangerska,” or court singer, for her contributions to Swedish opera.
Even before that, she had dazzled audiences. Her first major foreign engagement came on June 20, 1951, at the Glyndebourne Festival near London, then as Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” Early in 1954, she performed with the Vienna State Opera, and later that year made her first appearance at the Bayreuth Festival.
Nilsson married Swedish restaurateur Bertil Niklasson in 1949. The couple had no children.