Miss Nilsson has no close contender for the title "Queen of Song" at the Metropolitan. The phrase may be a cliche but it tells the story. For scintillating sound, masterful vocal technique and versatility, she is unrivalled." So wrote a critic in 1966 of the great Swedish soprano who died this past December 25.
Nilsson's Met career was a series of triumphs that began with her stunning debut as Isolde in 1959 and continued until her final official appearance as a performer on the Met stage at the company's Centennial Gala in 1983. In the roughly twenty years she sang complete operas (as opposed to the final years' valedictory concerts) at the Met, she was so unrivalled in the most difficult dramatic soprano roles of Wagner and Strauss, that her repertory was kept to a mere fifteen roles. Of those, she sang Met radio broadcasts of all but three: Lady Macbeth, Sieglinde and the Dyer's Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten.
On January 9, 1960, the Met radio audience heard the diamond-like brilliance of Birgit Nilsson's voice for the first time. The role of her broadcast debut was the same one with which she had electrified New York at her Met debut a few weeks earlier - Wagner's Isolde. But her most frequently broadcast role was that of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, which she sang on eight broadcasts, though, surprisingly, only two of them were part of an entire Ring cycle. Perhaps due to finances, the full Ring was rarer on the Met stage in those years, in spite of the availability of near-ideal singers such as Nilsson.
In 1961, the Met revived Puccini's Turandot, for the first time since 1930, with Nilsson in the title role. The Turandot broadcast from that year, available on the Met's Historic Broadcast recording series, reveals the astounding panache and defiant ease that Nilsson brought to the infamous "voice wrecker" title role. Met general manager Rudolf Bing took advantage of Nilsson's unique talents by mounting other new productions for her as well, including Aida, Salome, Elektra, and Tristan again in 1971. All were broadcast with the Swedish diva.
Like the great Kirsten Flagstad before her, Birgit Nilsson remains, for the generation of people who heard her, the touchstone performer in the dramatic German soprano roles. Her legacy and the standards she set remain in the hearts and ears of those millions who heard her live and via broadcasts.