Artist Profile: Birgit Nilsson, THE Wagnernian Soprano

By David Salazar

Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson is arguably the ultimate Wagnerian soprano.

Born on May 17, 1918, Nilsson grew up on a farm with parents who had hoped she would grow up to perpetuate this lifestyle. But music came early to her at the age of three and she noted herself in interviews that she could sing before she could walk.

She would go on to study music and by 1946 made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. She would struggle through that initial debut but by 1947 she garnered national attention for her performances of “Macbeth” under Fritz Busch.

International repute would come in 1951 at the Glyndebourne festival with a Vienna State Opera debut in 1953 opening the floodgates. She would then perform at the Bayreuth Festival, San Francisco Opera, Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, La Scala, Teatro Colón, and Paris Opera, among others. She credits with the opening of La Scala’s 370th season, during which she performed “Turandot” with being the biggest event of her life.

She passed away on Dec. 25, 2005, leaving the Birgit Nilsson Foundation in her midst. In 2016, Nilsson’s portrait started featuring on the 500 kronor banknote.

Signature Roles

Nilsson’s potency as an artist made her the most dynamic interpreter of many of opera’s most dramatic roles. Among her major roles were Brünnhilde, Isolde, Elektra, and Turandot. Nilsson herself once stated that Isolde made her famous and Turandot made her rich.

Many of her recordings of these roles are often considered among the finest ever of said opera, the soprano’s brilliancy and directness allowing her to cut through any orchestra, no matter how dense.

Her Brünnhilde, in particular, is legendary, particularly since she was the choice for George Solti’s famous recording. Her “Turandot” was also noted, especially in her onstage collaboration with Franco Corelli, the two titans often sharing a professional rivalry in this work.

Read More on Nilsson

Her Professional Relationship & Rivalry with Zinka Milanov

Watch and Listen

Here is her famous interpretation of the Liebestod from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

And here is more on Nilsson from conductor Antonio Pappano.


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