Birgit Nilsson, one of the supreme dramatic sopranos of the twentieth century, was born on May 17, 1918, on a farm in the town of Vastra Karup in southern Sweden.
She made her operatic debut on October 9, 1946, as Agathe in Der Freischütz, with only 3 days notice. The following year she made a notable debut at the Stockholm Royal Opera as Lady Macbeth. In 1951 she excited the Glyndebourne Festival as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo. It was in Munich during the 1954-55 season that she first sang the Ring Brünnhildes, and during the same season she sang her first Salome. During the next two decades, she sang Elsa, Sieglinde, Elisabeth, Isolde, and Senta, as well as Aida, Turandot, and Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio.
Ms. Nilsson was highly regarded for her interpretations of Elektra and Barak's Wife in Die Frau
ohne Schatten. Her important Italian roles included Tosca and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera as well as Aida and Turandot. She sang at all of the major opera centers of the world including Bayreuth and New York as well as Tokyo, Paris, Buenos Aires, Chicago, San Francisco, Vienna, and Hamburg. She also sang Turandot in Moscow with the Teatro alla Scala. When she was 62, her performance of Strauss' Elektra was videotaped at the Metropolitan Opera House and broadcast around the world.
In addition to her full schedule of opera performances, Ms. Nilsson also gave recitals at the major music centers of Europe and North America, as well as tours of Australia and Japan. Her recital programs concentrated on German and Scandinavian songs, and often included light favorites such as "I Could Have Danced All Night" as encores.
In 1954 Ms. Nilsson was named "Hofsängerin" (Swedish Royal Court Singer), and in 1960 was made a Life Member of the Swedish Music Academy. In 1981, she was the first woman in more than 200 years to be awarded the Medal "Illis quorum meruere labores" by the Swedish government. Ms. Nilsson married Dr. Bertil Niklasson in 1948.
Her autobiography, Mina Minnesbilder, was published in Stockholm in 1977; the English translation, La Nilsson: My Life in Opera was released in 2007. She retired in 1984 to her childhood home in southern Sweden, and died on December 25, 2005. The Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which she personally funded, awards a prize of one million dollars every few years to a singer, conductor, or opera house for a specific production.
It has been noted that the voice of Brigit Nilsson was brilliant, “like a laser beam that cut through the orchestra.” Certainly, as long as the operas of Wagner are performed, the voice of Birgit Nilsson will be remembered and cherished. Happily all of her important roles have been preserved on recordings, including two versions of her Turandot, with Björling and Corelli as her Calafs, for RCA and EMI.