Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962)
Today it is my great pleasure to present another in our series of guest commentators, Dr.Marie-Louise Rodén, whose photo appears to the left. Professor Rodén is Swedish but grew up in the United States and received a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. She is currently Professor of History at Kristianstad University in Sweden, and her research specialty has been the political development of the Roman Papacy in the Early Modern Period. She also has a background in classical music and is currently, together with Daniele D. Godor, preparing a biography of Set Svanholm, which will be published in 2014. I am indeed honored to have so distinguished a scholar make a presentation today on Kirsten Flagstad.
December 7 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kirsten Flagstad's death. There is little risk that this memorable Wagnerian soprano of the past century will ever be forgotten. She is considered to be Norway's foremost practicing musician of all time and her countrymen have dubbed her "The Voice of the Century (Århundredets Stemme)".
Kirsten Målfrid Flagstad was born on July 12, 1895 in Hamar as the eldest of four children to Mikael Flagstad and Marie Nielsen. Both parents were professional musicians—her father a violinist and her mother a pianist. Flagstad was surrounded by music during her youth and her parents soon recognized that she possessed an extraordinary talent. She was given a score of Wagner's Lohengrin to mark her tenth birthday, and she managed to learn and sing Elsa's part in a short time. Flagstad also recalled that her deep speaking voice led her father to presume that she was an alto, so when he presented her with a score of Schubert's Lieder, he chose the setting for lower voice. Flagstad's vocal education began with Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen and continued with Albert Westwang in Oslo. She also studied with the controversial Dr. Gillis Bratt in Stockholm, who was active both as a physician and voice teacher, specializing in the development of extended breath.
In 1913, Flagstad made her operatic debut as Nuri in Eugene d'Albert's Tiefland, and during the early part of her career sang roles in both opera and operetta. In 1919 she married Sigurd Hall and her only child Else was born the following year. The marriage failed after a few years and in the 1920's Flagstad resumed her singing career. She did so with a voice that had grown considerably in size and now took on more dramatic roles in the Italian repertoire, such as Desdemona, Tosca and Aïda. Norway did not yet have a permanent National Opera, so many singers from that country had to find other opportunities, and therefore Flagstad sang at the opera in Gothenburg, Sweden from 1928. Her years at Stora Teatern have unfortunately not been documented in any known "in-house" recordings, for this was the last period in her career in which she sang a great variety of roles in French and Italian repertoire.
In 1930 she married the wealthy Norwegian industrialist Henry Johansen (1883-1946) and, together with him and her daughter Else heard her first performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper in Vienna—or at least part of it. Her American accompanist and friend Edwin McArthur recounts that "[s]he confessed many times later that she was so bored that she could hardly stay awake. Actually, she would not have stayed through the performance except for Johansen's insistence: he wanted her to know the work."
She could not have guessed that she would sing the role of Isolde as soon as 1932, when the National Theater in Oslo decided to stage the music drama, giving Flagstad only six weeks to learn the part. The performance was a great success and now word of this talented Wagnerian began to spread outside her native country. Alexander Kipnis had sung the role of König Marke in the Oslo performance and was convinced that Flagstad should perform at the Metropolitan Opera. In the meantime, she did participate in two seasons at Bayreuth—1933 and 1934 -- but mainly in smaller roles. The Metropolitan Opera was in need of another Wagnerian soprano at that time, and Flagstad finally agreed to travel to St. Moritz in Switzerland to audition.
Present at Flagstad's audition in 1934 were Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the General Director of the Metropolitan, and the conductor Artur Bodanzky. The audition took place in a hotel room with heavy draperies and curtains: for that reason the representatives of the Metropolitan did not receive a correct idea of Flagstad's vocal resources. According to Robert Tuggle, archivist of the Metropolitan Opera, the telegram that went back to New York simply stated "We've heard Flagstad and we think she'll be fine." It was therefore only a few days before her debut that Bodanzky really understood what kind of singer he had recruited. During a dress rehearsal of Götterdämmerung he simply dropped his baton and ran to get Gatti-Casazza so that he too could come and hear for himself. Flagstad's first Saturday afternoon broadcast on February 2, 1935 was thus almost unheralded. The renowned soprano Geraldine Farrar had been engaged to speak during broadcast intermissions, and she too dropped her prepared manuscript to announce: "a new star has been born". Let us share what thousands of American listeners heard on that Saturday afternoon. Here is Kirsten Flagstad in "Du bist der Lenz" from the first act of Wagner's Die Walküre. (Be patient. There is a 30-second pause before the singing begins on this video):
The young American pianist and conductor Edwin McArthur (1907-87) was among those who heard that historic broadcast. He immediately obtained Flagstad's address in New York and wrote a letter requesting an interview for the position of accompanist, and sent it off by special delivery. Flagstad asked him to meet her at the Astor Hotel and after a pleasant chat requested that he play two songs by the Norwegian composer Eyvind Alnæs (1872-1932). The interview ended with a cocktail and the soprano later revealed that she hired McArthur not only because he was an excellent pianist with a good knowledge of Scandinavian music, but also because he was so very tall. They would therefore look good together onstage and Flagstad, who was quite tall herself, would not appear as a giant at his side. Let us listen to a recording where McArthur accompanies Flagstad in Edvard Grieg's "En Drøm":
Flagstad's debut in Tristan und Isolde followed on February 6 and before the month was over the Metropolitan audience had heard her as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and in Götterdämmerung. The same season she added the role of Kundry in Parsifal to her repertoire but wisely refused to take on the role of Norma in Bellini's opera of the same title. She neither felt comfortable with the Italian language or the stylistic demands of the work. The leading Wagnerian tenor of that generation at the Metropolitan was the Danish-born Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973). Flagstad and Melchior were soon hailed as the greatest soprano-tenor couple since Caruso and Ponselle, but their partnership off the stage was not equally cordial.
The diplomatic McArthur successfully mitigated some of the feuds in which the two Scandinavians were engaged, and conducted them on several occasions. Recordings of excerpts from Wagner's works made in November 1939 under McArthur's direction are among the finest that document these two singers. The very same month Flagstad appeared in a production of Tristan at the Chicago Opera with Giovanni Martinelli -- she was convinced that the Italian tenor would make a very fine Tristan and McArthur conducted even on this occasion. In February of 1941 he became the first native-born American to conduct Wagner at the Metropolitan, and also did so in Flagstad's final pre-war performance of Tristan und Isolde on April 12 of that year. Acceding to her husband's wishes, she had decided to return to Norway, occupied by Nazi Germany almost exactly a year before. Here is Kirsten Flagstad in an exceptional recording of the "Liebstod" from Tristan, recorded in London in 1948. She performed Isolde's role 182 times in the course of her career.
Years of Silence
Kirsten Flagstad's decision to return to Norway in 1941 was catastrophic in terms of her career, but she had always considered private life to be her first priority. Flagstad never sang in Germany during the war and never sang officially in occupied Norway. During these years of silence she gave a couple of performances in Sweden and Switzerland, which were both neutral countries. Her husband Henry Johansen was a conservative businessman and member of the party founded by Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), Nasjonal Samling (NS). He was eventually persuaded by Flagstad and his daughter to leave the party, but was arrested at the end of the war and accused of war profiteering. He died in prison before a trial could ever take place.
The Norwegian government now accused Flagstad of complicity in her husband's affairs. They would not renew her passport, fearing that she would leave the country with some of the wealth that Johansen had accumulated. She was only exonerated from all charges against her— which included not only economic matters but also performing German Lieder in concerts in the United States -- once Edwin McArthur traveled to Norway to witness at the Torridal County Court in Kristiansand in October of 1946. But the rumors of her Nazi sympathies were persistent, especially in America, and after the war she initially had great difficulties in obtaining any engagements. Organized protesters marched outside concert halls where she was to perform and hired claques disrupted concerts with shouting and stink bombs. An invitation to return to the Metropolitan would have helped her greatly during this dismal period, but the General Manager Edward Johnson, soon to retire, was hesitant.
The situation was eventually resolved when Sir Rudolf Bing succeeded Johnson in 1950 and established that Flagstad was completely innocent of any involvement in her husband's economic affairs and of any sympathies for the Nazi regime: she would thus return in his first season as General Manager. Lauritz Melchior had questions about this decision, and made it fairly clear that he did not wish to share the stage with Flagstad again. Bing in turn stated that he did expect a certain level of professionalism from his artists and felt that he had been forced into a position where he had to take a stand, whatever his personal feelings may have been. He therefore dismissed Melchior. In 1951, Flagstad sang a number of performances of Tristan, an entire Ring cycle and the following year Gluck's Alcestis marked her farewell to the Met.
Some of Flagstad's most significant activity in the post-war period took place in the recording studio. Stereophonic recording technique was in a process of development in the 1950's and therefore we have a fine record not only of her Wagnerian roles, but also of Lieder repertoire and sacred music. Her most frequent partner on stage and in the recording studio during this period was the Swedish tenor Set Svanholm (1904-64). Among the memorable recordings from this last period in Flagstad's career are a complete Tristan conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler with Ludwig Suthaus from 1952; the first act of Die Walküre with Svanholm, conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, the third act of the same music drama and the "Todesverkündigung" from the second act with Svanholm, both conducted by Sir Georg Solti and recorded in 1957; and finally a complete Norwegian Radio broadcast recording of Götterdämmerung, also with Svanholm and conducted by Øyvin Fjeldstad from 1956. Flagstad's voice had grown deeper in the late 1940's and '50's, and thus she made some rare recordings of alto repertoire as well as taking on the mezzo-soprano role of Fricka in Das Rheingold in the first part of the "Solti Ring", recorded in 1958.
Though we today associate Flagstad mainly with the works of Wagner, it should not be forgotten that she even in later years made other valuable contributions to both German and Scandinavian repertoire. She was the soloist in the first performance ("Uraufführung") of Richard Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder in London 1950 with the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, and has left us as an outstanding interpretation of selected songs of Jean Sibelius from 1958. The same year Flagstad was appointed first General Manager of the Norwegian National Opera, whose initial activity she generously supported with private funds. She could only retain that position until 1960, when she retired due to a cancer that she had been fighting for several years.
During the last years of her life she confined her performances to benefit concerts in the local churches of Norway. In remembrance of Kirsten Flagstad's commitment both to her native country and to sacred music, I would like to close with her rendition of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's beautiful motet "Oh for the Wings of a Dove."