Nilsson, who from her debut in 1946 graced the stages of most of the world’s major opera houses, was best known for her roles in Wagner and Strauss operas.
After starting life at the family farm in Västra Karup in Skåne, southern Sweden, Nilsson started opera school as a young woman. She faced resistance from her father who wanted her to stay on the farm, and even one of her teachers at the school told her that being a singer was “not a job for peasants.”
But Nilsson succeeded against the odds, and got her breakthrough role in 1946 as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s opera. From there, her career took her to the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, to Vienna, Covent Garden, La Scala and the New York Met.
Swedish pianist Lars Roos, who first met Nilsson in New York in 1968, called her “maybe our greatest dramatic soprano of all time”.
“She was an incredible ambassador for Sweden. Together with Jussi Björling, she was our greatest singer.”
Her career spanned four decades, and she made her final public performance in 1984. Her retirement was spent back in Västra Karup with her husband Bertil and her cats.
News of her death was kept private by her family until after her funeral in Västra Karup on Wednesday. A memorial service will be held in May.