Inga Nielsen: Soprano with a passion for Strauss

The soprano Inga Nielsen had, in effect, two careers. The first was as a light, lyric soprano with a repertory including Blonde in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale and Nannetta in Verdi's Falstaff.

During this period she had had a silvery, pure-toned voice with great facility for coloratura. Later, her voice developed in strength and she took on heavier roles. In this second career she became a noted exponent of Richard Strauss, in particular the title role of Salome, Chrysotomis in Elektra and the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Her voice, still pure-toned but now magnificently dramatic, easily encompassed this new repertory.

Inga Nielsen was born in Holbaek, near Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1946. Her mother was Austrian and her father a professor of languages. When Inga was three her parents moved to Iowa in the United States. She sang on radio shows from the age of six and recorded Danish Christmas carols at nine. After the family returned to Denmark, Inga studied at the Vienna Academy of Music with the tenor Anton Dermota. Later she moved to another teacher in Stuttgart, but was not happy there and finished her studies in Budapest.

Nielsen made her début in 1973 at Gelsenkirchen, Germany, in Millöcker's Der Bettelstudent; she was then engaged at Munster (1974-75), Berne (1975-77) and finally Frankfurt, where she was a member of the company from 1978 to 1983, and where she met her husband, the American bass-baritone Robert Hale. In 1979 she sang a Flower Maiden in Parsifal at Bayreuth and the following year she made her professional American début as Adele in Die Fledermaus, also singing Nannetta in Falstaff. In 1981 she scored a great success as Ilia in Idomeneo in Buenos Aires.

Nineteen eighty-three was a particularly interesting year for Nielsen. In June at the Schwetzingen Festival she created Minette, the feline heroine of Hans Werner Henze's The English Cat, with text by Edward Bond, which was extremely well received, and later repeated in Paris. Then in August she sang Donna Clara, the Infanta in Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg with the Hamburg State Opera company at the Edinburgh Festival. Donna Clara is 12 years old, and according to one critic, Nielsen did not look a day over 15.

The Stuttgart State Opera re-opened after extensive restoration in 1984 with Don Giovanni, in which Nielsen sang Donna Elvira – until then her role in Mozart's opera had been Zerlina. In 1985 she sang Minette in the US premiere of The English Cat at Santa Fe. Violetta in La traviata followed in Oslo, where she sang her first Lucia di Lammermoor, in the role of the eponymous heroine, the following year. Apparently the audience rose to its feet, yelling its applause, at the end of the "mad scene". In 1986 Nielsen sang another role loaded with coloratura, Amenaide in Rossini's Tancredi, which attracted equal torrents of applause.

Neilsen sang Konstanze in Die Entfuhrung at the Salzburg Festivals of 1987, 1988 and 1989. She also sang Konstanze for her Covent Garden début in 1987. On the opening night she was indisposed, but at later performances she attacked the music and the drama with her usual energy and commitment. After Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte at Strasbourg (1989), Aspasia in Mitridate, re di Ponto at Munich (1990) and Electra in Idomeneo at Paris-Bastille (1901), Neilsen sang Lina in Verdi's Stiffelio at Ludwigshafen (1902). Her second career was well underway.

Another crucial year for Nielsen was 1993, the year her Strauss repertory really blossomed. She had sung Sophie, the young girl in Der Rosenkavalier, Christine Storch, the composer's loving portrait of his wife Pauline, in Intermezzo and Aithra, the sorceress in Die Agyptische Helena; now she took on the title role of Salome at Zurich, scoring a huge success; the following year at Leipzig, she was even better. Her ability to express the most violent emotions without spoiling the vocal line or clouding the purity of her tone made her an ideal Salome. She also sang the role at Santa Fe, Naples and made a superb recording in 1999.

In 1994 Nielsen sang her first Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at Copenhagen, then returned to Leipzig for Chrysothomis in Elektra. This was another Strauss role that could have been written for her; she sang it with the Berlin State Opera at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, at Cincinnati and in a concert performance at the Verbier Festival. Her final new Strauss role was the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, which she sang in Leipzig in 1997, at La Scala, Milan, in Athens in a fine production by Michael Hampe and in Los Angeles.

Nielsen did not totally neglect other composers in her passion for Strauss. She returned to Covent Garden in 1995 to sing Ursula in Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, most effectively staged by Peter Sellars. She sang Elsa in Lohengrin at Hamburg in 1998; she sang the title role of Bellini's Norma at the Berlin State Opera in 1999 and returned to Hamburg for a magnificent Jenny in Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny in 2000.

She made a final appearance at Covent Garden in 2002 as the unnamed Woman in Schoenberg's Erwartung, which she had first sung the year before in Cincinnati. A dramatic monologue sung by the woman to her dead lover, Erwartung displayed all of Nielsen's vocal and dramatic skills to their utmost limits. The final two years of her career were devoted to Strauss – Chrysothomis and the Empress.

Elizabeth Forbes

Inga Nielsen, concert and opera singer: born Holbaek, Denmark 2 June 1946; married Robert Hale; died Copenhagen 10 February 2008.