When I started going to the Metropolitan Opera as a young adolescent, typically in the upper balconies or the standing-room sections, some opera goddess must have been looking out for me. I didn't really know what I was doing. Yet at my first "Bohème" the Mimi was Renata Tebaldi. My first Aida was Leontyne Price. And my first Turandot was Birgit Nilsson.
I did not know Puccini's "Turandot" at all when I attended this performance in 1965. I had never heard Ms. Nilsson. Imagine having had no idea of what was about to happen when Birgit Nilsson, as Puccini's icy and exotic princess in ancient China, descended the staircase of the Met's old Cecil Beaton set and started to sing the dramatic soprano showstopper "In questa reggia." In retrospect, I'm glad that I had not been prepped or heard a recording in advance, or done much more than scan a synopsis of the opera's plot. I will never forget the overwhelming impact of hearing Ms. Nilsson's stupendous voice soaring over the full orchestra and chorus in the climax of that scene. Her sustained high C's must have shaken dust off the ceiling of the old Metropolitan Opera House, the year before it closed.
Since the news this week that Ms. Nilsson had died at 87 in the Swedish farming village where she was born, commentators have been recalling her artistry and describing her singing. But it is almost impossible to convey what it was like to hear her in person. Even her recordings, many of them landmarks in the discography, do not do full justice to her singing.
It was not just the sheer size of her voice that overwhelmed recording studio microphones. It was the almost physical presence of her shimmering sound that made it so distinctive. Her colleagues often remarked that when they stood next to Ms. Nilsson on stage her voice did not seem all that big. Because she thoroughly understood the technique of supporting the voice from the diaphragm, her sound projected outward into the hall. There was never any sense of effort in her singing. Volume and stamina seemed to come naturally. Therefore, she could bring lyricism and elegance to the most punishing roles, including Strauss's Elektra and Wagner's Brünnhilde. She would meltingly shape pianissimo phrases as Wagner's Isolde, confident that her voice would carry to every corner of the house.
Though she was born with that voice, she had to learn to tame it, something she figured out for herself, she often said. Apparently, she got a more helpful education at the agricultural school that her father, disappointed his only child was a girl, sent her to than she did at the conservatory in Stockholm, where first one, then another voice teacher "almost ruined me," as she said in a 1999 interview.
Ms. Nilsson once explained, after singing in "Tristan und Isolde," a five-hour evening at the opera house, that although she would be mentally and physically tired, and her feet might be sore from so much standing even if she had worn her requisite "comfortable shoes," vocally she usually felt as if she could start all over again.
"Actually, when I sing a performance, my voice gets higher and higher," she said. "When I finish Isolde, I could sing the Queen of the Night."
Of course, she never performed the coloratura role of the menacing queen in "The Magic Flute." She did, however, keep Donna Anna in her repertory. She knew she was not the most subtle Mozart singer. But she wanted to maintain some lightness and lyricism in her voice as she soldiered on with the weighty Wagner repertory that the international opera world depended upon her to sing. Explaining to James Levine why she continued to sing Donna Anna, Ms. Nilsson once said, "Jimmy, I know I haven't been very good to Mozart, but Mozart has been very good to me."
For all her vocal charisma, there was something innately cool and Nordic about her sound. Ms. Nilsson could not abide Wagnerians, especially tenors, who sang with thick vibrato and, as she put it, such a "big wobble" in their voice that "you can't decide within four notes which one they are trying to hit." Her sound was intensely focused, with a narrow vibrato yet plenty of radiance and color. When her pitch was true, this made her intonation seem uncannily accurate, the vocal equivalent of a laser beam zapping a brilliant high B.
But this focused sound caused even slight imperfections of pitch to stand out. Ms. Nilsson occasionally sang slightly sharp, something she joked about during a master class with students from the Met's Young Artist Development Program in 1999. Working with a young tenor, she cautioned him about singing sharp, while adding that on balance, it was probably better to be a little sharp than a little flat. She, too, had that tendency, she said. "Maybe singing sharp a bit is Swedish," she said. "Jussi Bjoerling, you know, was also sometimes sharp a little."
I think Ms. Nilsson was willing to poke fun at herself because she knew full well that her strengths were obvious, that in her repertory she was unrivaled in her time. Whatever the sources of her humor, she could be wickedly funny.
There is the great story about working with Walter Taussig, who grew up watching Strauss conduct opera in Vienna and later became a close colleague of the conductor Karl Böhm. Ms. Nilsson went to Taussig, a vocal coach at the Met for more than 50 years, to learn the role of Elektra. Afterward she wrote an impish letter to Taussig's wife: "Dear Mrs. Taussig. I have a confession to make. I have had a child with your husband. Her name is Elektra. I am quite sure she is his because nobody else could have given me this child."
In 1999, 40 years to the day after Ms. Nilsson's historic Met debut as Isolde, she attended a matinee performance of "Tristan," starring Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner. After Act I she paid a courtesy call backstage to meet Ms. Eaglen. She congratulated Ms. Eaglen profusely but warned her not to "let them talk you into singing the role too often," while casting an accusatory glance at Joseph Volpe, the Met's general manager. "What are you looking at me for?" Mr. Volpe said, a little sheepishly.
Alas, I never heard Ms. Nilsson sing Isolde, though I did hear her as Brünnhilde in "Die Walküre," as Salome and, of course, as Turandot. I also heard her in a full recital at Symphony Hall in Boston, for which I had a student rush ticket, an excellent orchestra seat in the 14th row. Being that close to her, I was impressed all over again by the visceral impact of that voice. Standing before the piano, she would place her hand on its rim and take a deep breath, her hefty upper chest expanding. I would grab the arms of my seat in preparation, knowing what was about to hit me.