It is widely felt that the character of Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera was modeled after Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson. Nilsson first sang in Paris in 1864 and repeatedly returned to the city until her retirement in 1888. It is almost certain that Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) would have heard her at least once.
Kristina Jonasdotter was born in southern Sweden on August 20, 1843. She was the seventh child of dirt-poor peasants Cajsa-Stina Mansdotter and Jonas Nilsson. Her older brother taught her to play the violin and she earned money by performing in the streets. When she was fourteen, she caught the eye of a local politician who later adopted her. Her singing voice was discovered after he began funding her music lessons.
The young soprano was sent to Stockholm and later to Paris where she continued her studies and played her violin and sang at concerts. After her professional life took off, she began signing her name “Christine Nilsson”.
Nilsson made her stage debut in 1864 singing Verdi’s La Traviata at Paris’ Theatre Lyrique. She was immediately hailed as the successor to Jenny Lind and was dubbed the “second Swedish nightingale”.
Nilsson sang all over the world in roles such as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Valentine in Les Huguenots, Ophelia in Hamlet (a role which she created), and, of course, Marguerite in Faust. On October 22, 1883, Nilsson sang Marguerite in the Metropolitan Opera House’s inaugural performance.
Nilsson’s first marriage was in 1872 to a French banker named Auguste Rouzeaud. He died ten years later. In 1887, she became a countess when she married Count Angel Ramon Maria Vallejo de Casa Miranda. Nilsson decided to end her career after her second marriage and retired from the stage in 1888.
She, unfortunately, never made any recordings. Music historians say that her voice had a range from G3 to F6 and that its timbre was ethereal. Moreover, Nilsson was a beautiful woman with a lovely figure and clear blue eyes. She was, undoubtedly, the image of Leroux’s Christine Daae.
Although the soprano’s love life was not overly exciting and she was never serenaded by the Angel of Music, Christine Nilsson, like Christine Daae, fought a constant battle with a temperamental diva.
Nilsson’s “Carlotta” was the arrogant Italian soprano Adelina Patti (1843-1919). The two singers seemed destined to fight: they were the same age and sang the same repertoire. Although Nilsson was extremely popular, Patti had an almost fanatical following. Music critics made a game of comparing the two divas and deciding who sang better. Patti ultimately won the battle. During her lifetime, Nilsson was never as famous as her rival. Since her death on November 20, 1921, Christine Nilsson has been remembered only when people come across a blurb about her in music history books. Patti, on the other hand, remains in the minds of opera fans as one of the art form’s first and finest superstars.
Source: Klein, Herman “Great Women-Singers of My Time”