This Bulgarian-born, but Italian-based mezzo soprano possessed one of the largest, most exciting instruments of her time. Less smooth of voice than her colleague -- and competitor -- Ebe Stignani, Elena Nicolai had a by far more tempestuous stage personality, one perfectly suited to such characters as Santuzza, Eboli, Amneris, the Principessa Bouillon, Ortrud -- and even the Die Walküre Brünnhilde, usually the province of true sopranos. Nicolai made a vivid impression in the theater, much of that frisson translating to her recordings, notably her Don Carlo with Stella, Gobbi, Christoff, and Santini conducting. Born with a family name of Nikolova, the young singer traveled from Bulgaria to Milan when she was 19. There, she undertook a five-year program of study at the conservatory, working first under Vincenzo Pintorno and later with Ettore Pozzoli. Nicolai (now with her name Italianized) made her debut in the relatively small role of Annina in Der Rosenkavalier. The venue was Naples' Teatro San Carlo and the experience was intended as a means for the singer to test her stage legs. It was the only secondary part she ever sang. Soon thereafter, she was engaged for Laura in La Gioconda, singing the role under Franco Ghione at Noto in Sicily. Her success there led to an engagement for the same opera in Cremona, this time with Gina Cigna and Beniamino Gigli and Tullio Serafin leading the performances. This, in turn, led to a booking to sing in Ponchielli's more obscure Il Figliuol Prodigo, once more with the same three stars. She was soon engaged by La Scala, first for the Principessa Bouillon, subsequently to replace Ebe Stignani in Boito's Nerone. Under the baton of Gino Marinuzzi and with Aureliano Pertile and Maria Carena as colleagues, she won a firm place for herself among company favorites. So great was her accomplishment that she was asked by Marinuzzi to sing the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel and the Zia Principessa in Puccini's Suor Angelica. Refusing the roles as unsuitable for a young voice, Nicolai incurred the temporary displeasure of the famous conductor. Later, however, Marinuzzi came around to Nicolai's viewpoint. Engaged to perform Ortrud in Trieste, the mezzo found La Scala pleading for help when their own production of Lohengrin was imperiled by the illness of Stignani, their Ortrud. With no other singers available to undertake the part, management at La Scala sought Nicolai for the role, assuming that they could persuade Trieste to modify its schedule. Thus, Nicolai commuted by train between Trieste and Milan, singing the demanding role almost nightly. When Marinuzzi heard the mezzo as Ortrud, he granted that she had been correct to decline his earlier offer. A last minute cancellation led to Nicolai's lengthy relationship with Verona. She came to take over Ortrud from an ailing colleague and remained as a favorite company singer for two decades. At Verona, she first encountered Maria Callas with whom she sang a number of memorable performances. Nicolai had the temperament to provide balance in her collaborations with the Greek soprano. From their 1947 Verona La Gioconda to later performances of Norma, their joint appearances brought together two artists of extraordinary dramatic perception. Other roles for which Nicolai had a special fondness were Carmen, Dalila, and Azucena. The constant demand for her services in Italy led Nicolai to concentrate her career there, venturing abroad only occasionally to, for example, South America.