Swedish icons 4: Birgit Nilsson

The diva of all divas, Swedish opera singer Birgit Nilsson was born 1918 in the county of Skåne in southern Sweden. She had an impressive global operatic career spanning decades, and was most known for her performances of Wagner and Strauss.

She had a belter of a voice – the New York Times referred to it as ‘a voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina’. She was like an Olympian athlete, and with her enormously powerful voice, she became the most famous Wagnerian soprano of her time. During her career she played most of the significant roles for a soprano, such as Aida, Tosca, Electra, Brunhilde, Turandot and Salome.

Birgit Nilsson received numerous prestigious awards, one of which was Court Singer to the Swedish Royal Court. Once, asked what was her favourite role, she answered: “Isolde made me famous. Turandot made me rich“.

Birgitta Nilsson was often called ‘La Nilsson’ and, although she wasn’t considered difficult, she was notorious for her assertiveness, directness and her wit. When asked what it was like to sing Isolde with an unattractive male colleague, she responded : “I just close my eyes and think of Plácido Domingo.” When answering a question about her rival Joan Sutherland and if her bouffant hair was real, she gave the iconic response: “I don’t know, I haven’t pulled it yet.’’

Birgit Nilsson died in county Skåne in 2005, at the grand age of 87. She had no children but left an huge musical legacy behind her.

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