Back to the source: “A Sensation at the Metropolitan Opera”

Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket  Portrait of Kirsten Flagstad in the 1940s.

Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket
Portrait of Kirsten Flagstad in the 1940s.

Rigmor Swensen
Norwegian Immigration Association

As a complement to Rolf Stang’s recent article on Kirsten Flagstad, the following is a chapter of a book by Carl Søyland, esteemed editor of Nordisk Tidende in its heyday. It gives a vivid professional picture of Flagstad’s Met debut. The chapter comes from Skrift i Sand (1954), my translation Written in the Wind (2005).

Kirsten Flagstad debuted as Sieglinde in Wagner’s The Valkerie at last Saturday’s matinee at the Metropolitan Opera. Every single seat in the large hall, from the floor to the ceiling, was taken, and standing room was full to overflowing. It was not anticipation in connection with the debut that had attracted a full house. Saturday’s matinee is very popular, and the weekly broadcast has attracted a new audience to the opera. Kirsten Flagstad’s debut has not been preceded by much advertising fanfare. Probably very few of the thousands attending expected in this matinee performance, February 2, 1935, to have an experience that occurs only once in a decade in the opera world.

A new singer walks onto the stage in one of the most famous roles. At the beginning her performance and her tone do not rouse more than the usual interest.

The act continues. Wagner’s music rises from the orchestra pit. And then the amazing happens on the stage—the unusual power that emanates from the stage fills row after row. It is the invisible power that passes farther and farther spreading backwards in the hall, to the farthest and highest rows.

And up on the stage—in the middle of it all—stands Kirsten Flagstad, “the new Norwegian singer,” the source of the miracle.

When the curtain falls after the first act—in front of Hunding’s cabin with the doors wide open facing the spring’s landscape where Siegmund and Sieglinde had sung their duet and their arias—“The Winter Storm Gives Way to Spring”—the applause roars like a storm. Hunding, Siegmund, and Sieglinde come forward and bow. Finally Sieglinde comes forth alone, and now there were ovations—and shouts of bravo. It was all, first and foremost, about Kirsten Flagstad.

It has been a long time since I have seen such an elated audience after an opera act at the Metropolitan. There is a tight, murmuring noise of voices that have suddenly found something to talk about. And I feel the barometer at the Metropolitan all the way from the days of Caruso and Geraldine Ferrar.

Kirsten Flagstad was magnificent as Sieglinde in the middle register; her voice is so dark and rich that you are doubly surprised over its fullness and richness, the golden ring in the upper register. You never get the feeling that anything is an effort for her. That is enough to celebrate. You perceive that here is a singer who is brilliantly musical and so highly intelligent that she completely masters her role. In addition, she knows her Wagner. There is strength and surety in her phrasing. There is a deep understanding in her portrayal of the role.

And what do New York’s music critics say, those who are so eager to look down their noses? Those who are sparse with their expressions of praise and positive adjectives, because they are so swamped with music and song throughout the year—and have already heard the best and the second best. Most often they turn thumbs down, but for sure they must greet this new star with as much joy as an astronomer who discovers a new celestial body. The renowned Olin Downes, in the Times, writes: “No other Sieglinde in the last ten years has made such an impression here with her voice, her acting, her intelligence, and her dramatic sincerity, and with her obvious knowledge of Wagner.”

The just as well known Lawrence Gilman in The Tribune writes: “It is a pleasure to welcome, in Madame Kirsten Flagstad, the Metropolitan’s new dramatic soprano, an artist of overwhelming and joyous quality… The song we heard yesterday was rendered from a musical talent with taste and intelligence and feeling, with poetic and dramatic insight.”

Leonard Liebling in The New York American says: “Kirsten Flagstad’s triumphant American debut was immediate and complete. “The Daily News’s Danton Walker: “…one of the important singers who has appeared on the Metropolitan’s stage in a dozen years… If she should appear in anything but a superb Isolde on Wednesday evening, it will be necessary to jump into the East River for my kin to report on Thursday morning, for the disappointment will be too bitter to bear.”

The Metropolitan already reports frenzied requests for ticket to Kirsten Flagstad’s next performance, Wednesday evening in Tristan and Isolde. The sensation has spread like fire along Park Avenue. We predict the whole city and New York’s dead tired music critics will be there with their eyes in their opera glasses and their ears strained to hear every note.

This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.