Elisabeth Soderstrom , 82

Elisabeth Soderstrom , 82; Swedish opera singer

Elisabeth Soderstrom's career stretched 50 years. Her wide-ranging repertoire included more than 50 roles in 10 languages.
Elisabeth Soderstrom's career stretched 50 years. Her wide-ranging repertoire included more than 50 roles in 10 languages. (Suzanne Plunkett/associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Elisabeth Soderstrom, 82, a Swedish soprano who was greatly admired for her sensitive operatic roles and for her refined, delicately shaded voice, died Nov. 20 of a stroke in Stockholm.

During a career of more than 50 years, Miss Soderstrom was renowned for the subtlety of her performances and was considered one of the foremost actors on the operatic stage. Her dramatic skill made her particularly effective in portraying such complex characters as Leonore in Beethoven's "Fidelio," Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and Marie in Alban Berg's "Wozzeck."

She had a versatile lyric soprano voice and a wide-ranging repertoire that included more than 50 roles in 10 languages. Highly regarded for her interpretations of dramatic works by Tchaikovsky, Leos Janacek and Richard Strauss, she also had a superb sense of comedy that allowed her to excel in lighter fare, such as Rosalinde in "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss II.

"All my life I have striven to show that it is not in the slightest unnatural to express yourself in song," she wrote in her 1978 autobiography. Her goal was "to find a balance between music, words and gestures [to achieve] the work of art."

Miss Soderstrom gained international acclaim in the 1950s, after making operatic debuts in Salzburg, Austria, and at England's Glyndebourne Festival. When she gave her first performance at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1959, as Susanna in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," a New York Herald Tribune critic called her "simply a darling, with a bright, delectable, and accurate soprano that carried the treble like a crystal flute."

From 1959 to 1963, she often appeared at the Met, portraying Marguerite in Charles Gounod's "Faust," Adina in Gaetano Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" and Musetta in Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme." She also performed three separate roles in Richard Strauss's 1911 comic opera "Der Rosenkavalier."

She then vanished from U.S. stages for more than a decade, and many American admirers assumed she had retired. But, with three young sons at home, she temporarily confined her singing career to Sweden and northern Europe. She also had a television show about classical music in Sweden.

"In my own country I try to spread opera wherever I can -- in factories, prisons, hospitals, mental institutions," she later said. "I'm preaching, I admit it."

By the time Miss Soderstrom returned to the United States in 1977 as Katya in a San Francisco Opera production of Janacek's "Katya Kabanova," her voice had begun to lose its youthful buoyancy. Nevertheless, as Peter G. Davis wrote in the New York Times, she still had "beautifully tapered diminuendos, a variety of fascinating colors, gorgeous tonal quality at any dynamic level, controlled pliancy of phrasing and above all the essential sentiment of a song, effects governed by a deep musical intelligence and emotional honesty."

Elisabeth Anna Soderstrom was born May 7, 1927, in Stockholm. Her Russian mother had fled her homeland during the 1917 revolution, and her father was a music-loving Swedish businessman. She began to study singing in earnest at 14 and also showed early interest in acting. After being rejected for admission to the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts, she concentrated on singing.

She had allergies to animals, nuts, apples and feathers but was otherwise not known for being temperamental, except when she thought directors did not respect the integrity of a musical score. In a production of Janacek's "The Makropulous Case" in Marseilles, the stage director wanted Miss Soderstrom to perform her final scene behind a screen, concealed from the audience.

"I was never so close to killing a person," she told the Toronto Star in 1989. "I screamed at him that he was unworthy of staging this opera. His response was, 'We break for lunch,' and I collapsed in a chair, crying violently.

"The stage hands, by the way, all came up to me and said 'Bravo, madame, bravo, c'est magnifique!' After lunch, the screen was gone."

Miss Soderstrom continued performing well into her 60s and often gave recitals of songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Jean Sebelius with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. American composer Dominick Argento wrote an opera for her, "The Aspern Papers," which she premiered in Dallas in 1988.

At 71 in 1999, she came out of semi-retirement to appear as the Countess in Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" at the Metropolitan Opera.

Survivors include her husband of 59 years, Swedish naval officer Sverker Olow, and three sons.

"There should be an intensity when people listen to music, since listening is valuable only when it is active," Miss Soderstrom said in 1988. "For me, it is more important to communicate than to sing a pretty note."

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