Birgit Nilsson has died at the age of 87. She's often described as the greatest Wagnerian soprano in the years after World War II. Nilsson's family in Sweden is keeping private the cause of her death. A Swedish newspaper says she died on Christmas Day. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

Birgit Nilsson was raised to be a farm wife, but she was born to be a diva.

(Soundbite of Birgit Nilsson singing in opera)

ULABY: It was over the objections of her father that Nilsson attended music school in Stockholm. Nilsson became a national, then global star known for her glorious interpretations of Wagner.

(Soundbite of Birgit Nilsson singing in opera)

ULABY: Alan Blythe is a longtime opera critic. He says Nilsson's pastoral upbringing helped shape her powerful constitution. Nilsson's stamina was marvelous, he says, as was her ability to project over an orchestra in full roar.

(Soundbite of Birgit Nilsson singing in opera)

Mr. ALAN BLYTHE (Opera Critic): And, I mean, at the top, some people sometimes describe her voice as a little bit steely, but if it was steely, it was a steel coming from absolute strength in the voice. It was not in any way harsh.

ULABY: Blythe saw Birgit Nilsson at Bayreuth, the German festival of Wagner where the wait for tickets can last 10 years. But he's haunted by her performance in another dramatic role.

Mr. BLYTHE: In Richard Strauss' "Elektra," she managed to project really the desperation of the woman in quite an amazing way.

(Soundbite of Birgit Nilsson singing in "Elektra")

Mr. BLYTHE: I can remember her sitting there, looking absolutely phlegmatic and implacable as she dealt with her terrible mother, Klytamnestra.

ULABY: Birgit Nilsson's extraordinary range had soundmen begging her to step back from the microphone during her highest notes. She shattered wine glasses, windows and once, it's said, a turquoise gemstone. Deborah Voigt is one of today's most acclaimed sopranos, who remembers Nilsson also for her sense of humor.

Ms. DEBORAH VOIGT (Soprano): Well, I remember singing a performance at the Vienna Staatsoper of "Ariadne(ph)," and during the intermission, the head of the theater came to me and said, `Oh, Ms. Voigt, there's a very young student here who would like to talk to you about possibly having some lessons,' and I open the door, and I heard this (laughs), this very fabulous laugh, and in walked Birgit Nilsson, and I'd never met her before.

ULABY: Voigt was there 10 years ago when Nilsson briefly came out of retirement at age 77 to help celebrate music director James Levine from the Metropolitan Opera stage.

Ms. BIRGIT NILSSON (Opera Singer): On an occasion like this, if it would have been in Sweden, we would all have saluted you with a four times `hurray,' but since I'm a daughter of the Vikings, I am used to do it my way.

(Soundbite of laughter; Nilsson singing; applause)

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Birgit Nilsson singing in opera)

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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