Flagstad, Kirsten (1895–1962)

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Flagstad, Kirsten (1895–1962)

Norwegian singer who was the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the mid-20th century. Pronunciation: KEER-sten. Born Kirsten Malfrid Flagstad on July 12, 1895, in Hamar, near Oslo, Norway; died of cancer in Oslo on December 7, 1962; daughter of Michael (a violinist and conductor) and Marie (Nielsen) Flagstad (an organist, pianist, and operatic coach, known as the "musical momma of Norway"); sister of Karen Marie Flagstad Orkel, an opera singer; graduated from the ninth grade; took private singing lessons from Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen in Oslo and Dr. Gillis Bratt in Stockholm; married Sigurd Hall, in May 1919 (divorced 1930); married Henry Johansen, in 1930; children: (first marriage) Else-Marie Hall (b. 1920).

Made her debut as Nuri in d'Albert's Tiefland at the National Theater in Oslo (1913), where she also sang her first Isolde (1932); sang in Bayreuth (1933–34); made U.S. debut at the Metropolitan Opera (February 1935); returned to America after the war; gave farewell performance at Covent Garden with Tristan (1951), at the Met in Gluck's Alceste (1952), at the Mermaid Theater in London (1953) and at Oslo (December 1953); made numerous recordings with Edwin McArthur and Gerald Moore; served as director of the Norwegian State Opera (1958–60).

Opera appearances:

Tiefland, Les Choches de Corneville, En hellig Aften, Vaarnat, Der Evangelimann, I Pagliacci, Der Zigeunerbaron, Die Schöne Galathee, Die Nürnberger Puppe, Abu Hassan, La Belle Hélène, Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Die Zauberflöte, Otello, Un Ballo in maschera, Das höllisch Gold, La Fanciulla del West, Orphée aux enfers, Boccaccio, Carmen, Die Fledermaus, Les Brigands, Sjömandsbruden, Faust, Orfeo ed Euridice, Der Freischütz, Saul og David, Aïda, La Bohème, Tosca, Lohengrin, La Rondine, Die Meistersinger, Jonny spielt auf, Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer, Rodelinda, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, Götterdämmerung, Tannhauser, Fidelio, Parsifal, Siegfried, Der fliegender Holländer, Oberon, Alceste, and Dido and Aneas.

Kirsten Flagstad grew up as the eldest child of four in a very musical family. To put food on their table, her father Michael worked as a Parliament stenographer, but he was also engaged as a violinist and later a conductor at the Central Theater in Oslo. Her mother Marie Nielsen Flagstad played the piano in the orchestra, besides coaching the chorus and giving private voice and piano lessons. Her brothers played the violin and cello, and, her sister, Karen (Flagstad Orkel ), who as the youngest was unable to eke out her turn at the piano, sang. Kirsten started playing the piano at six. Though she quickly became skilled, it occurred to no one, including herself, that she would make either playing or singing a career. Her mother wanted her to become a doctor, and she dutifully enrolled in high school as a preparatory step towards university studies. Always a hard worker, Flagstad tried to complete the course in two rather than three years but fell ill and had to discontinue her schooling temporarily. Though she made a brief return, she did not graduate. Content to think of herself as someone's future wife, she remained at home, helping her mother with the housework. From the age of ten, she had taken charge of the household when Marie Flagstad was on tour with the theater company.

At ten, Kirsten also had her first introduction to Wagner, given the score of Lohengrin as a birthday present. Having been taught French, English, and German in school, she knew German fairly well; so, she memorized the role of Elsa to sing and play for her own amusement and for the pleasure of her father. From time to time, her mother also asked her daughter to sing duo with one of her voice pupils. At 11, when Kirsten was asked to sing Senta for a man who was studying Wagner's Fliegender Holländer, she did so from score and, in that way, "slowly came to work with opera," she said. "It came as naturally as breathing, with no conscious effort on my part."

At 16, Flagstad started voice lessons with Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen , who had heard her sing and offered to coach her free of charge. With Madame Schytte-Jacobsen, Flagstad would do exercises, while studying a variety of roles by herself, though not planning to bring them to a stage. She paid little attention to her teacher's prediction that she would be ready to sing in public within three years, but she beat that prophecy by a year. On December 12, 1913, only two years after she had started her training, Flagstad made her debut in Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland at the Oslo National Theater, beginning a career that would span 40 years and make her famous worldwide as one of the greatest Wagnerian singers ever.

The outbreak of World War I prevented Flagstad from following the traditional course of those pursuing a singing career, going to Germany for further studies. Instead, she went to Stockholm. Acknowledged as having a promising, nice little voice, she had been offered a private donation to use as she wished. She invested her funds in four years of study with Dr. Gillis Bratt, a famous Stockholm throat specialist who

taught singing as a sideline. He immediately diagnosed Flagstad's "little" voice to be a result of her vocal cords not closing and thus letting air pass between them. Bratt taught her to close those cords, and in three months her voice had tripled in size. In March 1918, she sang her first recital in Oslo, planning to make her debut at the Stockholm Opera the following spring.

Plans changed when she married a businessman not especially interested in music on May 14, 1919. Instead of returning to Stockholm, Flagstad joined the newly opened Opera-Comique in Oslo, singing operettas by Lehar and Offenbach. Soon pregnant, she gave up singing and stayed home to await the birth of her baby. Else-Marie Hall arrived on May 17, 1920. Life as a wife and mother so contented Kirsten that she did not sing the entire summer, despite her mother's protestations and repeated urgings that she return to the Opera-Comique. Almost desperate on behalf of her daughter's lost opportunities, Marie Flagstad brought her the score of Lehar's Zigeunerliebe, insisting she sing it. Flagstad did as directed, then suddenly stopped, staring in disbelief at her mother. Her voice had doubled in volume. At that discovery, she accepted the role and went back to her career at the Opera-Comique where she would sing light soprano parts for the next eight years.

Kirsten Flagstad">

I am not an artist except when I am dealing with art, and when I am not dealing with art, I am the most commonplace person in the world.

—Kirsten Flagstad

In the spring of 1928, after Flagstad and her husband separated, she accepted an invitation to sing in Finland for the summer and spent the season there in the company of her daughter. Together they departed for Gothenburg, Sweden, where, that autumn, Flagstad was engaged to sing in Aïda, La Bohème, and Tosca. She was an unqualified success; Else, however, found it difficult to adjust to school in another country and returned to Norway to stay with her aunt and uncle.

In June of 1929, Flagstad was booked to sing in Lohengrin at the Theater in Oslo, an engagement that would yield a real life counterpart to her role as Lohengrin's bride. A friend introduced her to Norwegian business magnate Henry Johansen, who was in the audience. It was love at first sight for both, and, though she may not have been conscious of her feelings, Flagstad wrote her husband that night requesting a divorce. About the same time, the first inquiries from the Metropolitan Opera in America arrived. Eric Simon, the Met's European representative, invited her to send reviews, lists of roles, and photos. As before, Flagstad was not sufficiently interested to renounce her marriage plans and did not bother to answer Simon. The Metropolitan seemed as far away as the moon, and she had work to do in Norway. Above all, she was engaged to marry a man she loved. On a spring day in 1930, she became Mrs. Johansen in the office of the Norwegian consul general in Antwerp. The couple had been touring Germany, Austria, and Belgium and among other events had seen Tristan and Isolde at the Vienna Opera. At the end of that performance, Johansen had told his future bride, "This is something you could never sing." She agreed. "It's much too big for me." Both would eat their words some four months later when she sang in Handel's Rodelinda in Gothenburg, and they recognized a potential Isolde.

Flagstad had not planned to go to Gothenburg. Happily married, she felt she had earned a long rest and saw no need to go on singing. She was content to be Mrs. Henry Johansen who accompanied her husband on business trips. But a frantic call had come from Gothenburg. They were in a pinch, could she come and sing in Weinberger's Schwanda within a week. Rodelinda followed it, and two weeks later, by some strange coincidence, the National Theater in Oslo invited her to sing Isolde there the following June.

With her mother for a coach, Flagstad learned the part, "plunging into it like an exciting adventure." Her sister and sister-in-law acted as prompters, and together the four of them rehearsed in the Johansen home. In the evening, her husband would return from the world of business, and they would entertain friends and family, sitting around talking or playing music. Her daughter Else and Henry Johansen's daughter from a previous marriage studied together in Oslo, so for a short while Flagstad had everyone she loved within reach. She found life "complete and satisfying in every way" and could "easily have done without the singing." But her response to the frantic call from Gothenburg had set her feet on a path she would follow for another 23 years.

One role led to another. After one of the Isolde performances, Ellen Gulbranson , who for 18 years had been singing Brunnhilde at Bayreuth, approached Flagstad, insisting that she audition there. Thus, in July of 1932, with the urging of her husband, Flagstad tried out for Bayreuth and was engaged for the following two summers. The world of Wagner opened to her.

Nor did Henry Johansen object when an offer to sing came from the Metropolitan. Together they left for America at the end of December 1934, and Flagstad made her American debut on February 2, 1935, as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Her next role was the Walküre Brunnhilde followed by the Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde, a total of 125 performances. On April 21, she made her first radio debut before a live audience of 4,000. By the summer of 1935, she was so overworked she had to cancel her engagements in South America, but she had sung to full houses and rave reviews. Flagstad had been deeply moved by the kindness and cooperation of her colleagues: at a flower show at the Grand Central Palace in New York, a flower had been named after her. Her first season in America, she felt, had been worth the price of exhaustion.

Rested after a summer in Norway, she returned to America on September 26 to commence a series of concerts. Thousands attended her performances, even in smaller cities; she found her audiences enthusiastic and receptive to unfamiliar songs, which encouraged her to make increasingly bolder choices for her repertoire. Only one thing troubled her: the American habit of turning celebrities into public property. Shy, with a deep need for privacy, Flagstad felt haunted by the attention. She refused to meet members of the audience backstage and frequently left the opera house with applause still ringing in her ears.

After five years of touring America, Australia, and Europe, she experienced a severe bout of homesickness and longed to return to Norway. She was concerned, too, about losing her daughter to another country. Else had accompanied her mother on her second trip to the States and had fallen in love with an American whom she wanted to marry. Hoping she would reconsider, Flagstad persuaded her daughter to return with her to Kristiansand, and Else agreed. They packed their bags and set their departure date for April 20, 1940.

On the morning of April 9, however, they learned that the Germans had invaded Norway and Denmark, and the Bergensfjord on which they were to sail remained at dockside. Her husband cabled around April 18 to tell her to stay where she was, so she made herself available for bookings through the next twelvemonth. In the middle of her tour, she received a different message: "Why don't you come home? I am waiting for you." She cabled back that her commitments demanded she stay, but she was growing exceedingly anxious about conditions in Norway and worried about every move she made, fearful of what the Germans would do to her family, all of whom had received notoriety due to her success. Flagstad was torn between her duty to go home and her obligation to honor her contracts running through April of 1941.

In October of 1940, her stepdaughter arrived in San Francisco, bringing with her the devastating truth that not only were Germans in command of her country, but Norwegians were arrayed against Norwegians in a war as serious as the one between them and the Nazis. Americans, among them Herbert Hoover, urged her to stay rather than return to a country occupied by Germans, but Flagstad could bear the agony of un-certainty no longer. She thought it her duty as a wife and a Norwegian to return to her homeland and made plans for leaving on April 19, 1941.

Her journey home took a circuitous route, involving visas and permits at every stage of the road through Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, and Sweden. At her hotel in Portugal, she had her first intimation of something being terribly wrong. There she learned, in the company of three Norwegian businessmen, that Henry Johansen, as a member of Quisling's political party, was thought to be keeping very strange company. Vidkun Quisling was vaguely familiar to Flagstad as a man who had formed his own political party, the National Union, ten years earlier. She also knew that, as a political conservative, her husband had joined the party some years before, believing it was a businessman's best defense against radicalism in Norway. What she did not know was that Quisling, who was friendly with the Nazis, had collaborated in the German invasion of her country and become head of the only party permitted in wartime Norway, Nasjonal Samling. When she finally reached Oslo after numerous delays, she decided to stay until the war was over.

The Johansens moved to their home in Kristiansand to live quietly together with friends and family. Again the issue of Henry Johansen's membership in Quisling's party surfaced when his daughter asked Flagstad to plead with her father to leave the party. Flagstad did, and her husband allowed that he was waiting for an opportunity to do so, realizing the danger connected with resigning at this time. He nonetheless ventured his resignation and bought them some quiet years at Kristiansand, interrupted only by Flagstad's performances in Stockholm and Zurich. The Norwegians in Stockholm protested her presence there—a privilege they interpreted as a signifier of her collaboration with the enemy—by boycotting her performance. So she sang to a half-empty house and an audience that gradually and finally enthusiastically let themselves be won over. In Switzerland, her audiences were supportive and appreciative from the start, and she returned there in the summers of 1942 and 1943, after which traveling became prohibitive. Though she sang at home, the times were getting increasingly difficult. Norwegians were seized and sent to concentration camps, reprisals for slaying of members of the Quisling party were conducted, and finally Henry Johansen was arrested and kept a prisoner for eight days before being released.

The end of the war brought only a few days of respite for the Johansens. Henry Johansen was again arrested, this time by Norwegian patriots, and taken to a detention camp. He fell ill there and was refused hospital care until it was too late. He died in June of 1945.

Tied no longer with bonds of love and matrimony, Flagstad was free to leave and resume her career. She discovered she still had a voice—more voluminous than ever for the enforced rest—and she sang in Cannes, Paris, London, and Milan before returning to America on March 14, 1947. After a press conference on March 15, she went straight to her daughter in Bozeman, Montana. Else had married her American and, six months before, had made Kirsten Flagstad a grandmother, "the nicest thing that could happen to me," as she put it. Her first concert was in Boston on April 6. Flagstad had been told to expect picket lines protesting the performance of an alleged collaborator, but there were none, and the response of those who lent their presence to the half-full house was a welcome so encompassing it threw her "completely off balance." Two weeks later, she appeared in Carnegie Hall, looking regal in a black gown and a white lace collar, and received a standing ovation from a crowd of loyal friends and music lovers. As the great singer Elisabeth Rethberg commented afterwards, she had on that afternoon experienced perfection. "The audience, the artist, the gown she wore, the way she walked on the stage, the way she acted, the applause, the program and the way she sang it—it was the whole thing." But the newspapers were cool, carrying references to her husband's arrest. Flagstad thus felt under constant scrutiny, but she made up her mind to sing as she had never sung before. She knew she was innocent of betrayals, or she could not have faced her public or sung at all. So she said nothing about the "Kirsten Flagstad case"—she just sang. Putting up with booing and picket lines, she kept on singing.

She was sought-after everywhere but the Metropolitan Opera. In 1948, she returned to England to sing at London's Covent Garden, then on to Paris, Switzerland, Italy, and South America. Finally in July of 1949 came the coveted invitation. The Metropolitan cabled: could she do the Brunnhildes and Kundry there in 1950 and on tour in Boston and Cleveland. Flagstad, however, had to refuse because she was fully booked for the 1950 season. Her reply resulted in furious letters from friends and admirers wondering how she dare say no to such an institution, but she felt she had no choice. Ahead of her she had a season with the San Francisco Opera, whose management had replied to objections over her appearance from war veterans: "If we cannot have Kirsten Flagstad, we won't have any opera season at all." She sang to "packed houses" both there and three times at Carnegie Hall as well. In December, she was approached again by the Metropolitan and agreed to do Tristan, Fidelio and the Ring Cycle. She appeared there for the last time in Gluck's Alceste on April 1, 1952.

Flagstad's last public appearance prior to her retirement as a singer was on December 12, 1953, at the National Theater of Oslo where she had made her debut 40 years earlier. Five years later, in 1958, she opened her first season as director of the Norwegian State Opera with d'Albert's Tiefland. She had come full circle. Returned home both as an artist-director and a daughter of Norway, she gave the State Opera's official welcome to King Olav V whose father, back in 1937, had honored her with his country's highest distinction, the St. Olav decoration.

Flagstad's voice of gold had thrilled audiences worldwide and brought her vast acclaim; yet, she would write in her memoirs that "fame, glory—they are empty meaningless words. One does what one can." Her "doing" was of gargantuan proportions, too great for the conventional life she so craved of wife-mother. Flagstad accepted that, but she never ceased blaming herself for the accusations levelled against "Flagstad's husband."

Kirsten Flagstad died of cancer in Oslo on December 7, 1962. In his tribute to the famous singer, Edwin McArthur, her American accompanist for 17 years, calls her a "great lady—a great artist—a simple woman—a complex individual—sweet and bitter like all human beings—but above all, a true personification of uncompromising integrity." On December 12, 1963, 50 years to the day after Flagstad made her first appearance on stage, he presented her life-size portrait to the Metropolitan Opera Association. She had bequeathed it to her grandson Sigurd, who in turn donated it to the Association and thus ensured his grandmother a place in the company of other greats who together record the history of music on the walls of New York's Lincoln Center.


Biancolli, Louis. The Flagstad Manuscript. NY: Putnam, 1952.

McArthur, Edwin. Flagstad. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. NY: Macmillan, 1980.

Inga Wiehl , Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima Valley, Washington