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Obituaries

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

January 12, 2006|Mary Rourke | 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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 13, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Nilsson obituary -- The obituary of Birgit Nilsson in Thursday's California section identified Ian D. Campbell as general director of Opera San Jose. The general director is Irene Dalis.

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.

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