She established herself as one of the foremost dramatic sopranos of the late 19th century and early 20th century due to the high quality of her voice and her ability to perform an unusually wide range of roles in German, French and Italian operas.
As a youth, Nordica is said to have possessed an inherent fondness for music and the sounds of singing birds and running brooks. When she was eight her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts to continue the musical education of her sister Wilhelmina. Wilhelmina died before her 18th birthday. Family hopes were then pinned on Lillian and her musical education began soon thereafter. She trained as a singer at Boston, and later in Milan in Italy. She graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston with the highest honors at the age of 18. She made her debut at the Conservatory as a soloist with the Handel and Haydn Society.
As Madame Nordica, she made her operatic debut at Brescia in 1879. She went on to assume a high rank among the international prima donnas of her era, appearing in many major musical venues in Western Europe and Russia. She sang for example at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1887-93 and performed at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 1894 as Elsa in Lohengrin. In her native America she was particularly associated with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her frequent stage partner was the cultured Polish tenor Jean de Reszke. She sang at the Met from 1891 until 1910, with some breaks in between.
Like many singers of her day, Nordica had a bitter run-in with the imperious Australian diva Nellie Melba, who for one season insisted on "exclusive rights" to the part of Brünnhilde, despite the inappropriateness of her lyrical voice for the part. Nordica was enraged, but ended up with the upper hand: Brünnhilde was a disaster for Melba, and Nordica's role as a premier Wagnerian soprano was restored.
By all accounts Nordica possessed an extremely big, agile and pure-toned soprano voice which she was prepared to use unstintingly. (See, for instance, Michael Scott, The Record of Singing, Volume One, pp. 38-40.) An adventurous artist, she embraced an enormously varied repertoire which included, among other works, Aida, Brünnhilde in Wagner's Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde, Lohengrin, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, La Gioconda, Faust, Les Huguenots, Mignon and Le Nozze di Figaro. She established her world-wide reputation as an opera singer of the first magnitude despite facing powerful competition during her career from a number of other outstanding dramatic sopranos. Her rivals included Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Sucher, Katherina Klafsky, Milka Ternina, Johanna Gadski, Felia Litvinne, Olive Fremstad, Anna von Mildenburg and Emmy Destinn.
Nordica made a number of acoustic discs for Columbia Records. They were recorded comparatively late in her career, however, and are of a poor technical standard. Nevertheless, they do indicate her considerable range as a singer, for she is able to perform both coloratura showpieces (such as "Io son Titania" from Mignon) and dramatic Wagnerian solos (such as "Mild und leise" from Tristan und Isolde). Her best known record is probably that of a demanding aria from the Hungarian opera Hunyadi Laszlo, which she cut in 1907. Nordica can be also heard briefly in some of the Mapleson Cylinders that were recorded during actual performances at the Metropolitan Opera House during the first years of the 20th century. The sound of these cylinders is primitive but the size of Nordica's voice can be better appreciated as it rings out in a theatre acoustic. A CD of her gramophone and cylinder recordings was released by Marston Records in 2003, complete with extensive liner notes dealing with Nordica's voice and career (see below).
The Lillian Nordica biography, Yankee Diva, written by Ira Glackens and published in 1963, goes into great detail both about Nordica's successful operatic career and her disastrous personal life. Nordica married three times, (the middle one being to a minimally talented tenor named Zoltan Dome). Her third marriage was to a wealthy New York banker, George W. Young. All the marriages were unhappy.
She wrote a treatise called Hints to Singers which is appended at the end of Yankee Diva.
Nordica Auditorium in Merrill Hall at the University of Maine at Farmington is named after her.