Kirsten, Dorothy (1910–1992)

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Kirsten, Dorothy (1910–1992)

American opera and concert singer . Born on July 6, 1910, in Montclair, New Jersey; died on November 18, 1992, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of George W. Kirsten and Margaret (Beggs) Kirsten; attended Montclair High School; studied voice at Juilliard School, New York, and in Rome with Astolfo Pescia; married Edward MacKaye Oates (a broadcasting production expert), in January 1943 (divorced); married John Douglas French (a physician), on July 18, 1955.

American lyric soprano Dorothy Kirsten was born in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1910, into a musical family. She was the granddaughter of James J. Beggs, conductor of the Buffalo Bill Band and an early president of New York Local 802, and a grandniece of singer Catherine Hayes , known as the "Irish Jenny Lind ." Her mother Margaret Beggs Kirsten was an organist and music teacher, her two sisters played the piano, and a brother played the trumpet and was a professor of music. Kirsten set her sights on a stage career at an early age and, as a student at Montclair High School, took music, dance, and dramatics lessons. After high school, she financed her own voice lessons with a job at the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company, in Newark, as a "trouble-shooter" in the classified office. After appearing on several local radio programs, including her own five-day weekly feature, Kirsten had an opportunity to audition for Grace Moore , who was so impressed with the young singer that she financed her further training with Astolfo Pescia in Rome.

Kirsten's time in Italy was cut short by the turmoil that presaged World War II, and her family's insistence that she return home. She made her concert debut at the New York World's Fair in 1939, followed by her operatic debut with the Chicago Civic Opera in November 1940, in the minor role of Pousette in Massenet's Manon. She remained with the company for the rest of the season, singing various minor roles. During the next season, she appeared as Nedda in Pagliacci, Micaela in Carmen, and Musetta in La Bohème, a production that also featured her sponsor Grace Moore in the role of Mimi. Kirsten left Chicago in 1942 and joined the San Carlo Opera Company, making her New York debut with the troupe as Micaela in Carmen. From 1943 to 1944, in addition to opera and concert work, she had her own radio show, "Keepsake," and also appeared frequently as a guest artist on other radio programs.

Kirsten made her debut with the New York Metropolitan Opera on December 1, 1945, as Mimi in La Bohème, winning acclaim, if not raves, from the critics. "On the whole Miss Kirsten's vocalism entitled her to the enthusiastic reception accorded her after each of the acts," wrote Noel Straus of The New York Times, "as did her simple and direct, if not especially warm or tender, impersonation." Kirsten would sing with the Met for the next 30 years, distinguishing herself in the lyric roles of Verdi and Puccini, and steadfastly refusing roles that she felt were beyond her vocal capacity. Her first performance in Madama Butterfly (March 1947) was greeted enthusiastically by the critics. The reviewer from The New York Times called it "one of the most

distinguished performances of her career," and John Briggs of the Post praised Kirsten as "an artist in every fine sense of the word." The soprano subsequently performed in Met productions of Roméo et Juliette, La Traviata, Tosca, Faust, and in Charpentier's Louise, a role she prepared with the help of the composer.

Along with her regular performances with the Met, Kirsten continued to appear with the San Francisco, New Orleans, and Chicago opera companies, and she was a frequent guest at City Center. In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, Kirsten was the first American soprano to sing grand opera in the Soviet Union. At the time, the director of the Tbilisi Opera called her "the strongest link in the chain of friendship between the Soviet Union and the United States."

Kirsten retired from the Met in December 1975, after a farewell performance on New Year's Eve in Tosca. She continued to sing opera and give concerts ("I will sing as long as I sing well," she said), but also devoted time to her second love, painting. Dorothy Kirsten retired from singing completely in 1982, upon learning that her second husband, Dr. John Douglas French, head of the Brain Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), had Alzheimer's disease. (Her first husband, Edward MacKaye Oates, was a Columbia Broadcasting System production expert.) From then on, until her own death in 1992, Kirsten devoted herself to raising funds for Alzheimer's research.


Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1993.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Obituary. The Day [New London, CT]. November 19, 1992.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1948.

suggested reading:

Kirsten, Dorothy. A Time to Sing, 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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