Dorothy Kirsten was born into a musical family in Montclair, N.J., in 1910. Her mother was an organist and music teacher and her grandfather was a conductor, so it is not surprising that young Dorothy was drawn to music and acting early in life. It was not opera, but popular music that attracted her at the beginning. Her life was one almost exclusively dedicated to music from the beginning, as she left high school at 16. (Not as drastic a thing then, however, as it would be now.) She took ordinary jobs for a while, trying to save enough money to take voice lessons, and eventually did work for her vocal teacher in exchange for free lessons. She was showing the spunk and determination at a young age which are such important motivating factors in the successful artist. However, she did not set her sights on an operatic career until she had achieved some modest success as a popular singer.
By the late ‘thirties, she was singing professionally on radio, both as a member of the Kate Smith Chorus and in her own solo spots. Grace Moore heard her on the radio in 1938 and became her mentor and benefactor, sending her to Rome for a year of study with Astolfo Pescia, who was Beniamino Gigli's vocal coach. She had to return to New York, however, at the beginning of WWII.
She did a concert at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and soon reunited with Grace Moore, who helped arrange a debut for her at the Chicago Grand Opera, where Dorothy made her operatic debut as Pousette in Massenet's Manon in 1940. She went on to sing 15 small roles during her first season and the following year shared the stage with Grace Moore in a Chicago performance of La Bohème, singing Musetta to Moore's Mimi.
By 1942, Kirsten was singing leading roles in opera, including the San Francisco Opera, and had launched her own radio program, "Keepsakes," which ran for a year.
She was not an instant operatic success story. She paid her dues the old fashioned way, with a lot of hard work, concerts, smaller (but serious) opera companies, and radio work. Little by little, she made the acquaintance of famous singers and many conductors and directors, until, in 1945, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi in La Bohème. Four years later, she recorded Manon Lescaut with Jussi Björling, and she had by then pretty well made it.
Kirsten was to sing primarily in America, making the Metropolitan Opera her artistic home, for almost 30 years! She sang abroad on occasion, but she was solidly planted here, as she was an American artist through and through, maintaining a long-lasting relationship with her popular work, such as singing on the radio with popular entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nelson Eddy and Perry Como. She appeared in two films, Mr. Music (1950) and The Great Caruso (1951). Her last performance at the Met was in 1979 as Tosca, at the somewhat astonishing age of 69! An American success story if ever there was one.
I have heard many compare Dorothy Kirsten’s voice to that of Renata Tebaldi, and it is not a bad comparison. She could sing dramatic roles, such as Tosca, but the voice never lost a natural freshness and youthful sound, which is almost certainly one of the reasons she was able to sing for so many years. She was very well trained, and had learned to take care of her voice singing in so many popular venues. Here is “Vissi d’Arte,” from Tosca, one of her better known roles:
I do not know her age at the time of this telecast, but she was clearly a middle-aged woman, yet her voice is light, and has the sound of youth about it. Yet, as I say, there is drama in the voice and that is a result of musicality, style, and—not a small thing—excellent stage Italian. Also, she was a remarkably pretty woman, something very much in evidence in her youth. Here is “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess:
You can see what I mean! A very beautiful woman, and her switch-over to Broadway style is perfect. What enunciation! Not many opera singers are willing to sing “and your ma is good lookiNN,” laying on—and actually singing—that nasalized N. She does it though, and the extreme longevity of her voice is good evidence that it didn’t hurt her a bit. What it does do is make the sentence perfectly understandable. English is a tough language to sing in the theater, largely because of those harsh nasal sounds. But it can be done. And she did it!
And finally, an aria done beautifully, and in a repertoire that is perfect for Kirsten. Here is “In quelle trine morbide,” form Manon Lescaut:
As I pointed out in the description part of that video, that is the kind of repertoire in which she excelled, and in which extreme longevity is possible. She displayed great intelligence, all her life, in how she took care of herself and her voice: Popular music, lighter (near ingénue) operatic repertoire, and the intelligent mix of French and English into the always more common Italian. I will again, however, in that regard, reiterate that her Italian is excellent, and very cultured. All in all, a superb American singer, and a fine model for English-speaking American sopranos to study very, very carefully!