(b. 6 July 1910 in Montclair, New Jersey; ¿. 18 November 1992 in Los Angeles, California), lyric soprano, specializing in Puccini roles, who sang for thirty years with the Metropolitan Opera and was the first opera star to appear on the cover of Life magazine.
Kirsten was one of four children of George William Kirsten, a building contractor, and Margaret Irene Beggs, an organist and music teacher. The family had a musical background. Her grandfather, James J. Beggs, was a conductor and a bandmaster for Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaigns as well as Wild Bill Cody’s Buffalo Bill Band. Her great aunt Catherine Hayes, an opera singer, was known as the “Irish Jenny Lind.”
Early in life Kirsten knew she wanted to be on the stage, either as an actor or singing on Broadway. In high school she took classes in drama, dancing, and voice and continued piano lessons with her mother. To finance her dream of a career on Broadway, Kirsten left high school when she was sixteen to work as a demonstrator of Singer sewing machines and for the New Jersey Bell telephone company as a troubleshooter. She traveled to nearby New York City for dance lessons, believing in the importance of dance for body movement, and for voice lessons with Louis Darnay. During this time Eddie Albert and Grace Albert were studying voice at the same studio and befriended Kirsten. In 1938 they set up an audition for her at the Hearst radio station WINS that resulted in her first professional engagement as a singer. Her show was a fifteen-minute spot, five days a week, paying $5 a show, and featured songs from musicals and operettas.
J. E. “Dinty” Doyle, a columnist with the New York Journal-American, wrote flattering reviews of her voice that led to jobs on the Kate Smith Show and with the Ted Straeter Singers. But Doyle’s biggest boost to Kirsten’s career was introducing her to Grace Moore, a star of the Metropolitan Opera. On 30 March 1938 Moore told her to prepare two arias from La Boheme, Mimi’s aria from Act I and Musetta’s aria from Act II, and present herself at Moore’s apartment to sing for her. Kirsten had never sung opera and until this moment had no plans to do so. The closest she had come to opera was operettas. Kirsten’s audition was a success and Kirsten had found a mentor. Moore provided the financing for Kirsten to study in Rome with Maestro Astolfo Pescia. She sailed to Italy in March 1939. With Peseta’s training, Kirsten’s voice developed; her range was enlarged as was her volume.
The political situation in Europe, however, was becoming more serious, and Pescia’s students began to leave Italy. For Kirsten, leaving was difficult. She sold all of her possessions, including clothing, to get passage money. Later Moore brought Pescia to the United States and Kirsten continued studying with him. Moore also arranged Kirsten’s debut as a professional concert singer on 8 August 1940, in Newtown, Connecticut. She was a success. Moore also recommended her to the Chicago Opera Company. Kirsten auditioned for Henry Weber, General Director, who immediately engaged her for two seasons of supporting comprimario roles. Kirsten wrote in her autobiography that “Those days of learning in Chicago were probably the hardest work I have ever experienced while studying to be an opera singer.”
Kirsten’s operatic debut was in Chicago on 9 November 1940, playing the role of Poussette in Jules Massanet’s Manon. Her performance was singled out by the critics. That year she played Flora in La Traviata, and Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor. In total Kirsten sang seventeen different minor roles. The most exciting moment for Kirsten during her first season at Chicago was appearing with Grace Moore in L’Amore dei Tre Re. For the second year of her contract she was given larger roles: Nedda in Pagliacci, Musetta in La Bohème, and Michaela in Carmen. In 1941 Kirsten began classes with Ludwig Fabri, a strict disciplinarian. For one year he only allowed her to sing scales during the lessons. The second year he introduced arias by Mozart. Kirsten acknowledged that Fabri gave her “fine vocal technique” and focus, and worked with him until his death.
In the spring of 1942 Kirsten made her New York opera debut as guest artist with the San Carlo Opera at the Center Theater as Michaela in Carmen, and a week later in the lead role of Mimi in La Bohème. From that point concert dates, opera roles, and appearances on the radio, including the Telephone Hour and the Prudential Family Hour, followed. During the 1942-1943 season, in addition to singing with the Chicago Opera Company, she sang concerts in thirty-eight states. From September 1943 to September 1944 Kirsten had her own radio program, Keepsakes. In 1944 Kirsten sang with a number of orchestras and was engaged by the New York City Center Opera Company for roles in Faust, La Traviata, La Bohème and Manon Lescaut. Kirsten’s debut at the Met was 1 December 1945, as Mimi in La Bohème. Before the performance Moore presented Kirsten with a small ermine muff; she used it in Act IV that night and never sang as Mimi without it. Kirsten never forgot Moore’s help and many kindnesses. When Moore died in an airplane crash in 1947 Kirsten sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at the funeral.
Kirsten performed at the Met for the next thirty years, playing fourteen starring roles. She sang a total of 281 performances; most were Puccini operas. Kirsten was conscious of conserving her voice and would only sing roles she felt were right for her. She became a specialist in Puccini roles; she sang the part of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly sixty-eight times at the Metropolitan Opera. In an interview with John Rockwell for Opera News, Kirsten stated that she liked Puccini’s music best and that “it’s the sexiest in the business.”
A non-Puccini role she excelled in was Louise in the Gustave Charpentier opera of the same name. During the summer of 1947 she studied the role in Paris with the composer. She dedicated her first performance to Grace Moore since this was one of Moore’s great roles. For the April 1966 gala celebration to bid farewell to the old Metropolitan Opera House, Kirsten sang “Depuis le Jour” from Louise.
In addition to engagements at the Met, Kirsten also sang for twenty-five years with the San Francisco Opera. She appeared in a number of opening-night performances and in the American premieres of Francis Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmelites and William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida. She managed to achieve international fame, yet she only appeared on two tours outside of the United States. One was sponsored by the United States State Department in 1962; Kirsten, the first American soprano to sing in the Soviet Union, sang to huge, enthusiastic audiences. She made her second tour as a fill-in for the ailing Renata Scotto, who was to sing Mimi in the Met’s tour of Japan. Although Kirsten officially retired from the Metropolitan Opera on 31 December 1975 at age sixty-five, with a gala performance of Tosca, she continued to sing when needed. In 1979 she flew in from California at the last minute to replace the ailing Leonie Rysanek in Tosca.
Kirsten’s career also included radio, Broadway, television, and film. She never lost her affinity for singing popular music and appeared on the Kraft Music Hour with Al Jolson and Nelson Eddy, and The Railroad Hour with Gordon MacRae. For two years she starred with Frank Sinatra, who always called her “Diva,” on Light Up Time, which aired five times a week. She sang everything from Cole Porter to Puccini; duets with Sinatra included “Old Fashioned Walk” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” In her autobiography Kirsten states, “I learned more about how to sing a ballad or a popular song from Frank Sinatra than from anyone.” She also appeared on Broadway and television and in two films, Mr. Music (1950) with Bing Crosby and The Great Caruso (1951) with Mario Lanza.
Kirsten described her recording career as a “big faux pas.” She signed with Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1964 for five years, but RCA was not recording complete operas at that time. Columbia made promises and lured her away from RCA. The operas promised by Columbia never materialized, and Kirsten saw RCA pressing opera after opera with other sopranos singing her roles.
In January 1943 Kirsten married Edward MacKayes Oates, an executive with CBS. They first met when he was on staff at WINS when she was beginning her radio career. They divorced in 1949. Her second marriage, in 1951, was to Dr. Eugene R. Chapman, obstetrician and later Assistant Dean of the Medical School at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He died in January 1954. In July 1955 she married Dr. John Douglas French, first director of the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. After it was discovered that he had Alzheimer’s disease, she devoted the rest of her life to raising money to find a cure. She set up the French Foundation for Alzheimer’s Research and, in 1985 the 148-bed Center for Alzheimer’s Disease in Los Alamitos, California, was opened. She continued her efforts to combat Alzheimer’s disease after French’s death in 1989. Kirsten had no children.
A glamorous and gifted lyric soprano, Kirsten had a second successful career working to find a cure for and to ease the suffering of those with Alzheimer’s disease. She was an individual who knew her own strengths and never forgot those, such as Grace Moore, who helped her become much more than a Broadway singer. Kirsten suffered a stroke on 5 November 1992 and died at the UCLA Medical Center.
A collection of Kirsten’s scrapbooks, programs and videotapes is housed in Boston University’s Mugar Library. Another primary source of information is Kirsten’s autobiography, A Time to Sing (1982). Included in the book is a discography by Stanley A. Bowker. Books with significant chapters or sections on Kirsten include Lanfranco Rasponi, The Last Prima Donnas (1982); Schuyler Chapin, Sopranos, Mezzos, Tenors, Bassos, and Other Friends (1995); and Peter G. Davis, The American Opera Singer: The Lives and Adventures of America’s Great Singers in Opera and Concert, from 1825 to the Present (1997). Periodical articles include Kirsten’s reflections on her trip to the Soviet Union in “Diary of a Soprano,” Musical America 82 (Apr. 1962): 56–57; an interview with John Rockwell, “Kirsten on Puccini,” Opera News 6 (Mar. 1971): 21-23; and her farewell to the Met, “Farewell, Not Goodbye,” Opera News 3 (Jan. 1976): 12-13. Tributes include Richard Dyer, “A Distinguished Voice Against Alzheimer’s,” Boston Globe (19 Nov. 1985), and Bruce Burroughs, “... al Fine,” The Opera Quarterly 9.3 (Spring 1993): 215-18. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (both 19 Nov. 1992); Washington Post (20 Nov. 1992); London Times (21 Nov. 1992); and Opera News (30 Jan. 1993). An oral history interview with Sybil D. Hast, “La Voce Lirica-Spinto” (1990), is at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Marcia B. Dinneen