When music lovers imagine a female opera singer of the Teutonic sort, they may imagine a performer like Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962), who towered above other vocalists attempting the punishing soprano leading roles in the music dramas of German composer Richard Wagner. Following her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1935, Flagstad dominated the stage there until the outbreak of World War II, and for generations afterward, every soprano who has sung Wagner since has been measured against listeners' memories of Flagstad. The singer's voice was large, elegant, and rather uncannily reliable—in short, it was a powerhouse, making Flagstad a vocal talent that comes along perhaps once in a century.
Flagstad was a native of Hamar, Norway, and she was raised in a musical family where her mother, Maja, gave her voice lessons. Showing talent, Flagstad moved on to study in Christiana (now Oslo), Norway with Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen, a friend of her mother's. Later she worked with bass Albert Westwang, who assigned her passages from Wagner although that kind of music was the farthest thing from Flagstad's mind at the time. While she was still a student, the 18-year-old Flagstad impressed audiences to such a degree that she won a role on Norway's premiere stage, the National Theater in Oslo, in the hyper-realist opera Tiefland, by Eugen d'Albert.
While Tiefland was written in German, Flagstad sang it in a Norwegian translation; in the days before theater supertitles, operas were frequently translated into other languages for performance. For the first part of her career, Flagstad's singing bore little resemblance to that for which she later became famous. She sang mostly in Norwegian, and instead of the large Wagnerian roles she favored lighter material such as the operas of Mozart, operetta, and even popular revues. In 1919 she married a salesman, Sigurd Hall, and a year later the couple had a daughter, Else. Her marriage to Hall dissolved in 1928, and Flagstad was soon married again, this time to a lumber executive named Henry Johansen. Perhaps unaware at the time of her aptitude for the Wagnerian repertory, Flagstad prematurely announced her retirement from singing.
For much of her subsequent career, Flagstad struggled privately with the conflict between art and family. The stage won out at first, attracting her once again four months after her second marriage as she agreed to perform with Norway's Philharmonic Society Orchestra. Soon she took on the substantial role of Aïda in Verdi's opera of the same name. World War II and its aftermath would bring this central conflict in Flagstad's life dramatically to a head.
Postponed Heavier Roles
Flagstad's decision to stick with lighter roles, many opera experts felt, was a wise one that prolonged her career. Many sopranos rush into Wagner's extreme music before they are ready, and consequently they burn out early. Wagnerian operas are huge spectacles; often set in the world of Germanic or Norse mythology, performances of these works sometimes last four or five hours. Flagstad had memorized the role of Brünnhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre (The Valkyries) many years before, but she held back from performing it. Nearly 20 years after her debut, with a few roles in shorter Wagnerian operas under her belt, Flagstad felt she was ready to take on the massive role of Isolde in Tristan und Isolde for the first time. She appeared in the opera, singing in German, at Oslo's National Theater on June 29, 1932. Fellow Scandinavian soprano Ellen Gulbrandson, who had sung regularly at the Bayreuth theater operated by Wagner's family in the German state of Bavaria, happened to be in attendance and recommended Flagstad to the curators of the great Wagnerian shrine.
Flagstad excelled in small parts at Bayreuth in 1933 and 1934, and she was thrilled by the new environment in which she found herself. "Everything I saw and heard fascinated me and increased my interest in Wagner and his operas," she was quoted as saying by Howard Vogt in his biography Flagstad: Singer of the Century. "A whole new world was opening up for me." Flagstad's performances also caught the attention of the management of America's great operatic theater, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. They invited her to audition, and although she was convinced she had failed when her audition was cut off midway through, she was invited to appear.
Flagstad's debut at the Met, as Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walküure on the afternoon of February 2, 1935, was not planned as a special event. Flagstad was virtually unknown in the United States at the time, and the Saturday afternoon slot was usually reserved for lesser-known singers while the top stars performed in the evening. The performance was, however, broadcast on the Met's weekly syndicated radio program, and the first inkling of the deluge of critical praise to come was given when intermission host and former Met star Geraldine Farrar discarded her prepared notes, overwhelmed by what she had just heard, and breathlessly announced that a new star had just been born.
That was just the beginning, as a unanimous chorus of New York music critics began to sing Flagstad's praises. The singer herself, according to Vogt, recalled the experience fondly, saying "I'll never forget the day when I leaped from complete obscurity to world fame, for I actually became world-famous with my Metropolitan debut." Her triumph was amplified by radio. As the other singers began to congratulate her even during the first intermission, Flagstad was asked to guess the size of the radio audience and responded with an estimate of a hundred thousand, thinking that even that figure was too high. She was informed that the actual figure was closer to ten million.
No Slump in Sophomore Performance
Flagstad fever spread quickly in the four days between Flagstad's first performance, as Sieglinde, and her second appearance, as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde. Flagstad was nervous, afraid that she would not be able to live up to the praise that had been heaped upon her, but the impression she made for her second Met audience was perhaps even stronger than that of her debut. Her future performances sold out as soon as they went on sale, and for much of the late 1930s Flagstad—often working in tandem with another Scandinavian singer, Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior—ruled the Met stage. Her success was not confined to the United States, as she appeared at London's Covent Garden and other top European houses, with audiences and critics responding as ecstatically as they had in New York.
Throughout her career Flagstad retained a special affection for the United States and the enthusiastic audiences she found there not only in New York, but on her frequent operatic and recital tours across the country. She formed several lasting friendships in America, and her daughter Else eventually lived there. Flagstad, although she made clear that she had no ambitions toward movie stardom, even appeared in a film musical revue, The Big Broadcast of 1938, singing Brünnhilde's "Battle Cry" sequence from the second act of Die Walküre.
Her voice, rarely rivaled for sheer beauty and power, was notable for its consistency. Over one memorable three-day stretch in 1937, Flagstad sang three difficult Wagnerian roles on three successive days, inspiring New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg to remark that "the durability of her voice was fantastic." The consistency of her voice was matched by consistency of temperament; Flagstad was not a typical diva, but was generally cheerful in her encounters with the public as well as with fellow performers and opera company managers. She preferred to spend free time with family and friends.
Flagstad's ties to North America were not strong enough to keep the singer from returning to her homeland when war broke out in Europe. She reacted with shock when she heard that Germany had invaded Norway and Denmark on February 9, 1940. Against the advice of her American friends, she finished her contracted U.S. engagements and returned to Norway in 1941 to be with Johansen. The decision was a fateful one, for Johansen was alleged to have placed his lumber business at the disposal of the occupying German troops. After the end of the war, he was arrested by Norwegian police and charged as a Nazi collaborator.
Reputation Suffered from Husband's Activities
Her husband's postwar difficulties posed major problems for Flagstad, who maintained that she herself had no sympathy for Germany's fascist regime. Although she could point to the fact that during the war she had appeared in concert only in the neutral countries of Switzerland and Sweden, and never in Germany, these explanations did not satisfy some of the musicians with whom Flagstad worked. Other colleagues, including a group of Norwegian artists, took out an advertisement in Oslo's Aftenposten newspaper affirming their support for Flagstad's disavowal of Naziism.
American public opinion was split down the middle. When Flagstad returned to the United States for a 1947 tour, veterans' groups mounted demonstrations against her and carried picket signs that, according to the Los Angeles Times, read "Flagstad preferred a Nazi regime—Don't play second fiddle—Stay out!" However, opera lovers, many of whom were aware of Flagstad's response to the criticisms leveled against her, were enthusiastic about the chance to hear the vocalist once again. An audience in New York's Carnegie Hall, the first place she performed after her return to the United States, greeted her with shouts of "Welcome!" In contrast, a particularly ugly incident took place at Philadelphia's Academy of Music, where Flagstad was pelted with stink bombs and rotting vegetables. "You sure have guts, lady!," a Philadelphia policeman providing security told her, as quoted by Vogt, impressed with her refusal to back down. "Thank you, officer," Flagstad replied. "It must be my Viking blood."
Ultimately, the talented Flagstad outlasted the controversy, although Harold C. Schonberg later reported in the New York Times that she had, in fact, met Hitler once. "And he had the most beautiful blue eyes," she told Schonberg. In a conciliatory gesture, in 1948 she performed several benefit concerts for the United Jewish Appeal. By the early 1950s, as Flagstad began to say her farewells to performing, all was forgotten. She closed out her operatic career in 1953 with a performance as Dido in Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas, although she continued to give occasional song recitals after that.
Flagstad's career, most of it taking place prior to the era of LP albums, is not well documented on recordings. She did, however, make one famous recording of Tristan und Isolde under German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. After her retirement, she returned to Norway and entered the field of music administration, becoming director of the Norwegian Opera in Oslo in 1958. In 1960 she began to suffer the effects of a bone disease that initially infected her hip. She died in Oslo on December 7, 1962.
"That voice! How can one describe it?" wrote Schonberg in his New York Times obituary of Flagstad. "It was enormous, but did not sound enormous because it was never pushed or out of placement. It had a rather cool silvery quality, and was handled instrumentally, almost as though a huge violin was emitting legato phrases." While veteran opera lovers, citing such performers as Enrico Caruso, are forever proclaiming a past golden age that will never be repeated, in the case of Flagstad and her mastery of Wagnerian opera, they may indeed be correct.
Vogt, Howard, Flagstad: Singer of the Century, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1987.
Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1962.
New York Times, December 18, 1962; December 7, 1987.
Washington Post, December 9, 1962.
Flagstad, Kirsten (Malfrid)
Flagstad, Kirsten (Malfrid)
Flagstad, Kirsten (Malfrid), famous Norwegian soprano; b. Hamar, July 12, 1895; d. Oslo, Dec. 7, 1962. She studied voice with her mother and with Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen in Christiania, then made her operatic debut there as Nuri in d’Albert’s Tiefland (Dec. 12, 1913). During the next 2 decades, she sang throughout Scandinavia, appearing in operas and operettas, and in concert. In 1933 she sang a number of minor roles at Bayreuth, and then scored her first major success there in 1934 when she appeared as Sieglinde. She made an auspicious Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. in that same role on Feb. 2, 1935, and was soon hailed as the foremost Wagnerian soprano of her time. On May 18, 1936, she made her first appearance at London’s Covent Garden as Isolde. While continuing to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, she made guest appearances at the San Francisco Opera (1935–38) and the Chicago Opera (1937), and also gave concerts with major U.S. orchs. She returned to her Nazi- occupied homeland in 1941 to be with her husband, a decision that alienated many of her admirers. Nevertheless, after World War II, she resumed her career with notable success at Covent Garden. In 1951 she also returned to the Metropolitan Opera, where she sang Isolde and Leonore; made her farewell appearance there in Gluck’s Alceste on April 1, 1952. She retired from the operatic stage in 1954, but continued to make recordings. From 1958 to 1960 she was director of the Norwegian Opera in Oslo. Among her other celebrated roles were Brunnhilde, Elisabeth, Elsa, and Kundry. She narrated an autobiography to L. Biancolli, which was publ. as The Flagstad Manuscript (N.Y., 1952).
E. McArthur, R: A Personal Memoir (N.Y., 1965); T. Gunnarson, Sannheten om K. R: En dokumentarbiografi (Oslo, 1985); H. Vogt, R (London, 1987); E. 0stby, edv K. R: Arhundrets stemme: The Voice of a Century (Hamar, 1994).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire