Swedish icons 9: Zarah Leander

Zarah Leander was a legendary Swedish singer and actor born in 1907 in the town of Karlstad. She was enormously famous in her day, a huge star and a scandalous provocateur. With her robust, characteristic deep voice, Zarah Leander was one of highest selling international recording artists prior to 1945.

Although a famous and popular film and cabaret artist in Sweden, she made her fortune in wartime Germany. Between 1936 and 1943, she was contracted by the German Universum Film corporation and starred in ten highly successful films. For the Germans of that time, she was a mega star – a box office sensation. She has been strongly criticized for participating in Nazi propaganda, although she vehemently denied that she supported the party.

It seems like she walked a hazardous line between entertainment and politics; she didn’t socialize with German officers, nor take part in Nazi party functions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called her an ‘enemy of the state’, and once upon meeting her said ‘Zarah? Isn’t that a Jewish name?’ Her iconic response was ‘What about Joseph?!’

In 1943, she retreated to Sweden and died in 1981 of a stroke. Throughout her time in Sweden, she was considered highly controversial, partly because of her association with Nazi Germany and partly because of accusations against her for being a Soviet Agent operating under the name ‘Stina-Rose’. Naturally, she went to her grave denying all allegations.

After her return to Sweden, she eventually made a come back. She released hit songs, and performed in successful films and cabarets and, once again, reclaimed her mantle of prima donna supreme.

Zarah Leander was a fascinating woman, a legendary artist and a true diva. She is buried just outside the town of Norrköping, opposite the Zarah Leander Museum.

The signature song she is most associated with in Sweden is called ‘Vill ni se en stjärna, se på mig’ – ’If you want to see a star, look at me’. Many impersonators and drag queens have mimicked her melodramatic performance in this song. You can listen to it below.

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.