Born into a musical family, Wixell sang and played in a local choir and orchestra (viola). He studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, where his principal singing teacher was Dagmar Gustafson, and initially performed in concerts and light entertainment. For the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest he sang all the songs short-listed for Sweden’s entry, before performing the selected number, the Elsewhere Waltz, in the contest itself at Naples.
However, in 1955 Wixell had made his operatic stage debut as Papageno / Die Zauberflöte in a touring production given at the Rikstheater, Stockholm, and joined the Royal Swedish Opera in 1956, making his debut as Silvio / Pagliacci. He remained a member of this company until 1967, afterwards appearing frequently as a guest. When the Royal Swedish Opera gave a short season in 1960 at the Royal Opera House, London, Wixell appeared as Ruggiero / Alcina and Silvio / Un ballo in maschera. He was noticed by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which invited him to sing Guglielmo / Così fan tutte during its 1962 season. He made his debut at the Salzburg Festival as the Count / Le nozze di Figaro in 1966, and appeared there until 1969, also singing Don Pizarro / Fidelio.
For Wixell 1967 was a year of significance: he made his American debut with the San Francisco Opera as Belcore / L’elisir d’amore, becoming a regular guest of this company until 1985; and in addition joined the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Here he made his debut as Guglielmo and remained a member of the company for more than thirty years. His repertoire at this point was focused upon lyric baritone roles, including the title part in Don Giovanni. However he gradually took on heavier roles, for instance singing Scarpia / Tosca and the title role in Rigoletto with the Hamburg State Opera during 1970 – he was eventually to sing a total of ninety-eight performances as Scarpia with the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. In 1971 he sang the Herald / Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival and during 1972 made his debut with the Royal Opera Company, London in the title role of Simon Boccanegra. He proved to be very popular with London audiences and returned to Covent Garden often, as Scarpia (1973, 1981, 1986, 1987), Belcore (1976, 1990), Mandryka / Arabella (1977, 1981), Rigoletto (1978, 1989) and Amonasro / Aida (1984).
At the Metropolitan Opera Wixell first appeared in 1973 as Rigoletto, the New York Times praising his command of text as well as vocal line. He sang over eighty performances with the Met during the six years following his debut, his parts including Germont père / La traviata, di Luna / Il trovatore and Marcello / La Bohème as well as major dramatic baritone roles such as Amonasro, Boccanegra, Rigoletto and Scarpia. Later he returned to the USA, to appear with the Houston Opera as Jochanaan / Salome (1987) and Amonasro (1988) and in the same year with the Chicago Lyric Opera in the title role of Falstaff (a role he also sang with the Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen in 1997).
Wixell made his final operatic appearance at Malmö as late as 2003 as the Music Teacher / Ariadne auf Naxos. A man who knew how to live well, he was a regular at La Traviata, a San Francisco restaurant where still on the menu is the dish that bears his name: salmone alla Wixell, baked in parchment with fresh tomatoes, black olives, pesto, garlic and white wine.
In his prime Wixell possessed a voice of voice of effortless smoothness and richness which was extraordinarily beguiling. Not surprisingly, given the length of his career, the vocal quality coarsened slightly later, but his masterly command of the stage enabled him to mitigate the consequences of this in live performance.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).