Thorborg, whose father was a newspaper editor based in northern Sweden, had musical parents and she herself showed signs of musicality from an early age, later studying with a local teacher. When she entered a competition to study at the opera school of the Royal Swedish Opera she was one of only three to be successful out of over a thousand applicants. Between 1922 and 1924 she sang small parts with this company, including Lola / Cavalleria rusticana, Countess Ceprano / Rigoletto and Grimgerde / Die Walküre.
Remaining a member of the Royal Swedish Opera until 1930, she first sang a major role in 1924 (Ortrud / Lohengrin) and took part in several first performances, including Atterberg’s Bäckahästen (1925) and Peterson-Berger’s Adils och Elisiv (1927); and took the key role of the Commander in the Swedish premiere of Zandonai’s I cavalieri di Ekebù in 1928, excerpts from which were recorded. She also sang as a guest elsewhere, for instance as Amneris opposite Flagstad’s Aida at Gothenburg and as Waltraute / Götterdämmerung at Dresden (1929).
From 1930 to 1932 Thorborg was a member of the Nuremberg Opera, before joining the Städtische Oper, Berlin in 1932 where she came into contact with Bruno Walter who was to be a significant influence. Here she sang Ulrica / Un ballo in maschera with Fritz Busch, her preferred conductor. In the summer of 1935 she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival as Brangäne / Tristan und Isolde; she sang regularly at Salzburg up to 1937 in a wide range of roles including the title part in Gluck’s Orfeo, Magdalene / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Eglantine / Euryanthe and Donna Mercedes in Der Corregidor by Hugo Wolf.
A strong anti-Nazi, Thorborg jumped at the offer to move from Berlin to join the Vienna State Opera in the autumn of 1935, making her debut there as Amneris opposite Alfred Piccaver. She later scored a major success as Venus / Tannhäuser with Furtwängler conducting, and in 1936 recorded Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Walter at the helm, the first of her three recordings of this work to have survived. She remained with the Vienna Opera until the Anschluss of 1938, when she broke her contract and left for the USA.
At the Royal Opera House, London Thorborg had made her debut in 1936 as Fricka / Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and Waltraute with Beecham conducting. Ernest Newman described her as ‘the finest Fricka I have ever seen or hope to see’. The following year she sang Kundry / Parsifal to equally high praise: ‘the greatest Wagnerian actress of the present day’ (Newman). In 1938 she took on Klytaemnestra / Elektra under Beecham and in 1939 Brangäne opposite Germaine Lubin, as well as Fricka and Waltraute.
By this time Thorborg was well established at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, making her debut in 1936 as Fricka, when Lawrence Gilman had noted her ‘power and subtlety and effectiveness’. At the Met she sang all her Wagner and Verdi roles (including Erda / Siegfried, Mary / Der fliegende Holländer and Azucena / Il trovatore) as well as Orfeo, Marina / Boris Godunov, Octavian / Der Rosenkavalier, Herodias / Salome and Klytaemnestra. While in the USA she also sang with the San Francisco Opera in 1938 and 1943 and with the Chicago Opera between 1942 and 1945. Having been under-used by the Johnson administration towards the end of her time at the Met, she gave her final performance there as Magdalene in February 1950 and then effectively retired, returning to Sweden to live her with her husband, the theatre director and opera singer Gustav Bergman, who regrettably died in 1952.
Thorborg possessed a fine mezzo-soprano voice with a powerful top which made her an ideal exponent of dramatic roles; she was also extremely attractive on stage and a fine actress, rigorously coached by her husband and notable for her restrained intensity. Off-stage a shy and private person, a keen sportswoman who swam and shot regularly, she took no pupils.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).