For years, Swedish born Nina Stemme has been considered a leading singer of the most challenging roles in major musical dramas: Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Kundry, Salome and Elektra, Minnie/Fanciulla and Turandot. That she initially shied away from these staggering heights of the soprano repertoire is a noteworthy—if not the defining—characteristic of her career. Mozart’s Cherubino is a far cry from Isolde and Turandot, a leap only few have mastered. Stemme made the transition successfully only after taking the time a development of this kind requires.
When she was first offered the part of Isolde—to be performed at the 2003 Glyndebourne Festival—she already had 14 years of on-stage experience, having first taken lyrical parts such as Cherubino, Pamina, the Figaro Countess, Agathe, and Eva, before moving on to increasingly lyrical-dramatic roles such as Mimi, Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, the Tannhäuser Elisabeth, Marschallin, and Senta. Isolde would have been the next step, but it was not until she had conferred with Birgit Nilsson that Stemme accepted the offer. To her surprise, the legendary Wagner singer offered to help her learn the part. Nonetheless, Stemme felt she was not yet ready to sing Isolde. When she did take up the role for the first time, her performance was met with enthusiasm and she subsequently made a recording with Plácido Domingo singing as Tristan and Antonio Pappano conducting. Even then, Stemme remained cautious: “You are never ready with these gigantic roles,” she said in retrospect in an interview with the New York Times.
Respect for the roles and the operas, flexibility, diversity, and a level-headed estimation of her voice’s potential—these were the factors that, alongside the voice itself, as well as native talent and musicality, transformed this highly gifted singer into an artist of global stature. In 1993, she was rewarded for her efforsts when she won Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. Whether at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, the Bayreuth Festival, the Vienna State Opera, or the Royal Opera House in London, Stemme has now joined the great tradition of singers like Flagstad and Nilsson at the world’s leading opera houses.
It will comes as no surprise that she has been lavished with awards and honors. Stemme has been appointed Swedish Court Singer and theBavarian and Austrian “Kammersängerin,” and received the “Premio Abbiati” critics’ award (2010), the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera (2010), the International Opera Award for the Best Female Singer (2013), and the Opera News Award (2013), to name but a few. The German magazine Opernwelt has crowned her Singer of the Year twice, in 2005 and 2012.
That Stemme’s native Sweden is proud of her is amply demonstrated by a generous list of honors that includes the Birgit Nilsson Scholarship, the “Litteris and Artibus” Royal medal (2008), the Jussi Björling Scholarship (2016), the city of Stockholm’s Saint Eric medal (2017), an honorary doctorate from the University of Lund, and the Musical Export Prize of Honor, awarded to her by the Swedish government in 2016.
In 2018, she received the prestigious Birgit Nilsson Prize. The award’s festive ceremony with the Swedish royal family took place in October 2018 at the Royal Swedish Opera.
Stemme’s special status as a singer of “extreme” roles is also reflected in her list of audio and video recordings. Alongside the Tristan recording with Pappano, her performance of Isolde has also been documented in a live recording from Berlin under Mark Janowski as well as a television recording of her Glyndebourne performance in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production. Her rendition of the Die Walküre Brünnhilde is available as an audio recording from St Petersburg under Valery Gergiev as well as a video from La Scala under Daniel Barenboim. The diversity of her repertoire is manifested in her performances in Aida, Jenůfa, Der Rosenkavalier, La Fanciulla del West, and Zemlinsky’s Der König Kandaules.
After a successful debut as the Dyer’s Wife in the anniversary production of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Vienna State Opera—a role that, along with Eleketra, has become an important part of Stemme’s repertoire—the soprano most recently debuted the role of Kostelnicka in Jenůfa at the Theater an der Wien with enormous success.
In May 2022, Stemme performed Brünnhilde for the last time in a complete Ring cycle at the Vienna State Opera, a role she had sung with the greatest success worldwide for more than 10 years.
Projects during the current season include Tristan und Isolde at the Teatro San Carlo in Napoli, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Vienna State Opera; her long-awaited debut as Ortrud (Lohengrin) at the Vienna State Opera; a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten (as the Dyer’s Wife) at San Francisco Opera, as well as recitals at Wigmore Hall (London) and in Geneva, Toulouse, Stockholm, and Budapest.