With her sensitive demeanour she was particularly successful at portraying the troubled women who abound in opera, such as Leonore (Fidelio), Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Evgeny Onegin and the Countess in Richard Strauss's Capriccio, three of the roles with which she delighted audiences at Glyndebourne, where she achieved her most notable successes in Britain.
She was born in Stockholm, the daughter of a Swedish naval captain and a Russian mother, and studied at the Royal Academy and Opera School there. She made her debut as early as 1947, when she was just 20, as Mozart's Bastienne, in the Drottningholm Court Theatre. Thereafter she joined the Swedish Royal Opera, of which she remained a member through the rest of her career. Her roles there stretched from Monteverdi's Nero (Poppea) through Mozart's Countess Almaviva (in Figaro, one of her most palpitating portrayals), Strauss's Octavian and Marschallin (both in Der Rosenkavalier) to Janacek's Jenufa.
At the Royal Opera, she also loved playing the Governess in Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Marie in Berg's Wozzeck, two further distressed women. But she also revelled in lighter things, such as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus and Saffi in the same composer's Zigeunerbaron. She sang many of her roles both in Swedish and in the original.
ln 1955 she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival, as the boy Ighino in Pfitzner's Palestrina. She first appeared at Glyndebourne in 1957, as the Composer in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, and in 1963-64 she was much admired there as Elisabeth Zimmer in Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers. She made her debut at Covent Garden in 1960, with the Royal Swedish Opera as Daisy Doody in Blomdahl's Aniara and as Morgana in Handel's Alcina. She returned there, with the resident company, as Octavian and as an unforgettable Mélisande (1969-70) under Pierre Boulez (a role that she recorded with him).
Her Metropolitan Opera debut was as Susanna (Figaro) in 1959, followed by Strauss's Sophie, which meant she had undertaken all three of the women's roles in Der Rosenkavalier, once joking that she would now have to undertake Baron Ochs. She continued to appear in New York for the following four seasons. One of her later roles, that of the 300-year-old Emilia Marty in Janacek's The Makropulos Case was undertaken with, among others, Welsh National Opera, an unforgettable experience, also seen in London. She wonderfully conveyed the woman's emotional cynicism and eventual boredom at having lived so long. She followed that with the old Countess in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, showing that she could still command complete attention even with reduced resources.
Söderström often sang in concerts: she appeared at the Royal Festival Hall, London, and in the recording studio with Otto Klemperer in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. She was also an accomplished recitalist, singing a wide repertory, but particularly happy in the songs of Sibelius, which she recorded complete in the company of the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. She always delighted her audiences by introducing specific items with her peculiar blend of fey charm and assumed naïveté, nowhere more successfully than with Mussorgsky's Nursery cycle. She was also an engaging broadcaster, and often regaled Radio 3 and 4 audiences in Britain with her experiences in her career, always replete with a veritable book of anecdotes.
From 1993 to 1996 she was director of the Drottningholm Palace Theatre, where she had started her career. In retirement, she became an accomplished giver of master-classes, passing on her knowledge of singing and acting to a new generation. She leavened her lessons with a good deal of the humour and general bonhomie for which she was noted.
Söderström was one of the most distinguished artists of her generation. The combination of a charming, yet elusive personality, very Swedish in character, with her vibrant voice and sincere acting enhanced all her portrayals, and while she was as happy deploying them on comedy as on drama, it is undoubtedly for her interpretations of the heroines in the operas of Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Janacek that she will be longest remembered.
As a person, she was the soul of kindness, had a ready wit and was never more at home than when taking part in lively conversation. Colleagues and friends alike were treated generously. In the opera house, she could be demanding, wanting others to meet her own high standards, but she was always cooperative with directors she trusted, and with them she was willing to work as hard and as long as it took to create a result full of inner meaning.
John Amis writes: When Elisabeth was invited to make her debut in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, she took all three of her sons with her for the season. When they got to school age, she gave up New York and rejoined the Royal Opera in Stockholm. This was typical of her approach to a happy marriage, and to being both a wife and a mother.
By that point being rather older than many of her colleagues, she developed the knack of being an elder sister to them and coaching them at rehearsals. She excelled in masterclasses, partly through her eternal good nature, but also because she always sought to encourage her students to give their best; at the same time she delighted her audience without ever buttering her own ego (as many masterclass teachers do).
Elisabeth giggled and laughed a lot, but that only seemed to complement the essential seriousness of her devotion to her art. Sometimes she would point out to people who implied that a singer's life was an easy one, how hard it could be. "Sweat, phlegm and dirty feet is often what its about," she would say. "What do we do all day when not rehearsing? We memorise and that takes up a lot of time, all part of the job. And so is winding down after a performance."
Coming from a country whose language is comparatively remote from most of the repertoire meant that Elisabeth very often would sing operas and lieder in several languages. Some of the Janacek operas, for example, she sang in the original Czech, and also in German, English and Swedish.
She was the least divaish diva that you could meet. There was no side to her whatsoever. She was a thoroughly good person, a good friend, good wife, good mother, good humoured and a very attractive woman.
Sometimes she had a hard time of it. In Janacek's Jenufa once her heel caught in a hole in a floorboard: broken knee. Another time in Offenbach's La Périchole, she took a dive nearly into the orchestral pit: bad back. Deputising, she was manhandled in the last scene of an unfamiliar version of Gounod's Faust in which Marguérite does not get wafted to heaven, but bundled down to hell: broken arm.
Elisabeth wrote an informative and very readable little book, In My Own Key (1979), and in the photographs of her in various roles you can usually guess which role she was playing just by her facial expression, whether it was Tatyana, Leonore, The Governess, Mélisande, Katya Kabanova or the Marschallin or Octavian in Rosenkavalier. She was amazingly different in each part.
At Glyndebourne, we regulars idolised the singer Serna Jurinac, who left Sussex in 1956 when her marriage broke up, leaving her husband Sesto Bruscantino to sing there by himself. We heard that there was some unknown Swedish singer coming to sing Sena's roles, and we all hated her in advance. But as soon as she sang the Composer in Strauss's Ariadne, our hatred turned to love and adoration. The Swede was of course Elisabeth Söderström.»