Kirsten Målfrid Flagstad (12
July 1895 – 7 December 1962) was a Norwegian opera singer and a highly
regarded Wagnerian (dramatic)
She ranks among the greatest singers of the 20th
century; indeed, many critics called hers "the voice of the
century." To quote New Grove
: "No one within living memory
surpassed her in sheer beauty and consistency of line and
Early life and career
Kirsten Flagstad as Aida in Aida, opera by Giuseppe
was born in Hamar to a musical
family; her father was a conductor and her mother a pianist.
received her early musical training in Oslo and made her
stage debut at the National Theatre in Oslo as Nuri in Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland in 1913.
Stora Teatern, Göteborg, Role debut 7 March 1929.
Her first recordings
were made between 1913 and 1915.
further study in Stockholm with Dr. Gillis Bratt, she pursued a career in
opera and operetta in Norway.
In 1919, she married her first
husband Sigurd Hall. Later that year she signed up with the newly
created Opera Comique in Oslo, under the direction of Alexander
Varnay and Benno Singer. Varnay was the father of the famous
soprano Astrid Varnay
. Her ability to
learn roles quickly was noted, often only taking a few days to do
so. She sang Desdemona opposite Leo
, Minnie, Amelia and other lesser roles at the Opera
Comique.She sang at the city theater of Göteborg, Sweden, between 1928 and 1932.
It was there
that Flagstad made her debut singing Agathe in Der Freischütz
. In 1930, a revival of Carl Nielsen's Saul and David
featured Flagstad singing
the role of Michal
. On 31 May 1930 she
married her second husband, the Norwegian industrialist and lumber
merchant Henry Johansen, who subsequently helped her in expanding
her career. In 1932 she made her debut in Rodelinda
by George Frideric Handel
claimed that her voice was too big for Handel and much more suited
After singing operetta and lyric roles such as Marguerite in
for over a decade,
Flagstad decided to take on heavier operatic roles such as
. The part of Aida helped to unleash
Flagstad's dramatic abilities. In 1932, she took on the role of
Isolde in Wagner's Tristan and
and appeared to have found her true voice.
Ellen Gulbranson (1863-1946), a Norwegian
soprano at Bayreuth, convinced Winifred
Wagner to audition Flagstad for the Bayreuth
Flagstad sang minor roles in 1933, but at the next season in 1934,
she sang the roles of Sieglinde in Die Walküre
and Gutrune in
at the Festival.
Career at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere
Flagstad's debut at the Met, as Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walküre
on the afternoon of
February 2, 1935 created a sensation, though it 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 nationwide 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
discarded her prepared notes, overwhelmed by what she
had just heard, and breathlessly announced that a new star had just
been born. Days later, Flagstad sang Isolde, and later that month,
she performed Brünnhilde in Die
for the first
time. Later that season, Flagstad sang Elsa in Lohengrin
, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser
, and her first
Kundry in Parsifal
overnight, she had established herself as the pre-eminent Wagnerian
soprano of the era. According to most critics, she still remains
the supreme Wagnerian dramatic soprano on disc by virtue of her
unique voice. It has been said that she saved the Metropolitan
Opera from looming bankruptcy. 'Fidelio
(1936 and later) was her only non-Wagnerian role at the Met
before the war. In 1936, she performed all three
Brünnhildes in the San Francisco
Opera's Ring cycle.
In 1937, she first appeared at the Chicago City Opera
and 1937, Flagstad performed the roles of Isolde, Brünnhilde and
Senta at the Royal Opera
Garden, under Sir Thomas
Beecham, Fritz Reiner and Wilhelm Furtwängler, arousing as
much enthusiasm there as she had in New York. She toured Australia
in 1938, while her rendition of Brünnhilde's Battle Cry from
Wagner's Die Walküre was
captured on film in a segment of the Hollywood musical anthology The Big Broadcast of
However, her career at the Met was not without its ups-and-downs.
Flagstad got involved in a long-running feud with tenor
after Melchior took offense to some comments Flagstad
made about "stupid publicity photos" which Flagstad felt Melchior
had pressured her into doing. Flagstad also feuded with the Met's
general manager, Edward Johnson
after conductor Arthur Bodansky
death, when she wanted to be conducted in future by her
accompanist, Edwin McArthur
than by Erich Leinsdorf
. When she
left the Met during the early 1940s she had patched up her
differences with both Melchior and Johnson. Melchior and Johnson,
however, did little to help.In response to repeated entreaties from her
husband, Flagstad had returned to Norway via Berlin in 1941, though
she only performed during the war in countries (such as Sweden and Switzerland) not occupied by German forces.
was arrested after the war for war-time profiteering in Germany.
This, together with her decision to remain in occupied Norway, made
her unpopular, particularly in the United States. The Norwegian
ambassador and the columnist Walter
spoke out against her, and the anti-Nazi
bypassed her for his NBC radio broadcasts, choosing
the American dramatic soprano Helen
instead. In a conciliatory gesture, in 1948 she
performed several benefit concerts for the United Jewish Appeal.
Flagstad eventually returned to the Metropolitan Opera
, invited by its new
general manager, Sir Rudolf Bing
was furiously criticized for this choice: "The greatest soprano
of this century must sing in the best opera"
During four consecutive Covent Garden seasons, from 1948 to 1952,
Flagstad repeated all her regular Wagnerian roles, including Kundry
and Sieglinde. It was also during this time that she gave
the world premiere of Richard
Strauss's "Vier letzte
Lieder" under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Royal Albert
The final rehearsal on 22 May 1950, was a
legendary performance and was captured on tape and is commercially
available today. She toured South
in 1948 and returned to San Francisco in 1949 but was
not invited back to the Met until Sir Rudolf
became manager. In the 1950-1951 season, although she was
aged well into her 50s, Flagstad showed herself still in remarkable
form as Isolde, Brünnhilde and Leonore.
her farewell operatic performance at the Met on 1 April 1952 in the title role
of Gluck's Alceste, and in London as Dido in
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Mermaid
Theatre (in the 1951 Festival of Britain season): the
portrayal was recorded (in studio), and issued by EMI in January 1953 (see: Recordings).
After her retirement from the stage, she continued to give concert
performances and record, primarily for Decca Records
. She even made some stereophonic
recordings, including excerpts
from Wagner's operas with Hans
and Sir Georg
conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
In 1958, she sang the part of Fricka in Wagner's Das Rheingold
, the first installment in
Solti's first complete stereophonic set of the Ring Cycle, released
on LP and reel-to-reel tape.
From 1958 to 1960, Flagstad was the general manager of the Norwegian National Opera
. She died
in Oslo from bone marrow cancer
in 1962 at the age of 67.
Kirsten Flagstad Museum in Hamar, Norway,
contains a private collection of opera artifacts.
costumes draw special attention, and include several examples on
loan from the Metropolitan Opera Archives. Her portrait appears on
the Norwegian 100 kroner
bill and on
the tail section of Norway Air planes. "That voice! How can one
describe it?" wrote opera critic Harold
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
Early role photo of Kirsten Flagstad
as Aagot in "The Mountain Adventure", opera by Waldemar
The Open Air Theatre at Frogner Park, Oslo 1915.
Of her many recordings, the complete Tristan und Isolde
with Furtwängler is considered the finest representation of her
interpretive art in its maturity. It is widely regarded as one of
the greatest recordings of the work. Throughout her career she
recorded numerous songs, by Grieg and others, and these are
evidence of a voice that maintained its stable beauty during her
many years in the limelight. A comprehensive survey of her
recordings was released in several volumes on the Simax
Her pre-war recordings, which show her voice in its freshest
brilliance and clarity, include studio recordings of Wagner arias,
Beethoven arias, and Grieg songs, as well as duets from
, and Tristan und
with Lauritz Melchior. These have been (and probably
still are) available on RCA/BMG CDs, as well as on good CD
transfers from the Naxos, Preiser and Romophone companies.
Many Metropolitan Opera broadcasts also survive and have circulated
among collectors and more recently on CD. These include:
- Die Walküre, Act I and fragments from Act II from her
1935 début broadcast.
- Tristan und Isolde, performances from 1935, 1937, and
1940 all readily available.
- Tannhäuser: 1936, with Melchior and Tibbett, and 1941
(the latter having an official release on Metropolitan Opera
- Siegfried: 1937, Lauritz Melchior and Friedrich Schorr
(available on Naxos and Guild labels).
- Lohengrin: 1937, with René Maison
- Fidelio: 1941 with Bruno Walter (available on
- Die Walküre: 1940, various labels.
- Alceste: 1952 (available on Walhall)
After World War II, many important studio recordings followed
- Wagner Scenes including the final duet from Siegfried
(Testament CDs, licensed from EMI)
- Götterdämmerung: Final Scene, with Furtwängler -
- Tristan und Isolde: Complete opera with Furtwängler -
- Norwegian Songs: EMI
- Götterdämmerung: Walhall. With Fjeldstad and Bjoner
and Set Svanholm. 1956
- Der Ring des Nibelungen: Gebhard. From Teatro alla
Scala with Furtwängler, Lorenz, Svanholm, Frantz. 1950
Perhaps her most famous operatic recording is the 1952
with Furtwängler, which has never been out of
print. It is available from EMI and Naxos, among others.
Tristan of note is the live performance from the Teatro
Aires), with Viorica
Ursuleac as Brangäne, Svanholm as Tristan, Hans Hotter as Kurvenal, conducted by Erich Kleiber.
Two live concerts are of particular historical significance:
- Flagstad's celebrated 1951 appearance at the
Theatre, London in Purcell's
Dido and Aeneas is
represented by a cast recording in which the Mermaid
Belinda (Maggie Teyte) was
replaced by Elisabeth
Schwarzkopf, but under the original direction of Geraint
Jones. (HMV ALP 1026, EMG review January 1953). A live
performance with Teyte is available on the Walhall label.
- The Alceste (original
Italian version edited by Geraint Jones) in which she also made a
farewell was recorded with Raoul Jobin, Alexander Young, Marion
Lowe, Thomas Hemsley, Joan Clark, Rosemary Thayer, Geraint Jones
Orchestra and singers, Geraint Jones (Decca LP LXT 5273-5276;. c.
After about 1955, she moved to Decca where in the autumn of her
career further important studio recordings followed:
- Several albums of Grieg, Sibelius, Brahms, etc., with orchestra
- Wagner arias with Knappertsbusch (stereo)
- Acts I and III of Die Walküre (as Sieglinde and
Brünnhilde respectively) as well as the Brünnhilde/Siegmund duet
from Act II (these conducted variously by Knappertsbusch and Solti,
as a sort of preparation for Decca's complete Ring project).
- And her great valedictory as Fricka in the Decca
Rheingold of 1958.
- Biancolli, Louis (1952). The Flagstad Manuscript
(Putnam, New York) 293 pgs (available online at Questia)
- Edwin McArthur (1956). Flagstad: A Personal Memoir
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York, reprint 1980).
- Lanfranco Rasponi (1982). The Last Prima Donnas
(Alfred A Knopf). ISBN 0-87910-040-0