- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

STOCKHOLM — Birgit Nilsson, the farmer’s daughter who became renowned in the world’s great opera houses for her dazzling voice and among colleagues for her playful sense of humor, is dead at age 87.

She died on Christmas Day, the Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet reported.

As word spread of her death two decades after she retired, the Swedish singer was remembered as one of the world’s top Wagnerian sopranos.

“With Birgit Nilsson’s passing, Sweden has lost one of its greatest artists,” King Carl XVI Gustaf said in a rare statement.

“She was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century,” said Menno Feenstra, artistic director at Stockholm’s Royal Opera, who developed a close friendship with Miss Nilsson after her retirement.

A funeral was held yesterday at a church in her native town Vastra Karup in southern Sweden, with only her closest relatives attending, said Fredrik Westerlund, the church’s vicar. He did not know when she died or the cause of death, but Miss Nilsson was said to have had heart trouble in recent years.

Born on a farm, Miss Nilsson reigned supreme at the world’s opera houses during her career, which began in 1946 at the Stockholm Royal Opera as Agathe in Weber’s “Der Freischutz” and continued until 1984.

She took on a wide variety of dramatic roles, but her reputation was based especially on her mastery of the most punishing in the repertory. Chief among these was Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” which she sang for her sensational debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 18, 1959.

She was immediately hailed as a worthy successor to her fellow Scandinavian, Kirsten Flagstad, the Norwegian who dominated the Wagner repertory at the Met during the years before World War II.

Other parts Miss Nilsson made her own included Bruennhilde, the warrior maiden of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, the title role of Elektra in Richard Strauss’ opera, and the heroine of Puccini’s “Turandot.”

“Birgit was unique!” Met Music Director James Levine said in a statement. “Her voice, her artistry, her sense of humor and her friendship were in a class of their own. 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.”

Miss Nilsson also was renowned for her playful sense of humor. Once asked what was the chief requirement for singing Isolde, she replied: “Comfortable shoes.”

Miss Nilsson sang with the Met 222 times in 16 roles, making her finale at the October 1983 centennial gala. Her last appearance on the Met stage came more than a decade later, when she took part in an April 1996 gala celebrating Mr. Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company.

After some gracious remarks, she launched into Bruennhilde’s “ho-yo-to-ho” battle cry from “Walkuere,” delivering — at age 77 — a performance that would have been the envy of any younger soprano.

Miss Nilsson married Swedish restaurateur Bertil Niklasson in 1949. The couple had no children.

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