The centennial of Norwegian dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad’s debut celebrated on December 12, 2013.
By Donald V. Mehus
New York, N.Y.
On Saturday afternoon, February 2, 1935, a little-known Norwegian soprano made her Metropolitan Opera debut, appearing in Wagner’s Die Walkure as the tragic young heroine Sieglinde. The almost unheralded singer, Kirsten Flagstad, electrified the Met audience and the listeners of the nation-wide broadcast by her resplendent voice and her profoundly moving interpretation of the Wagnerian demi-goddess. It was through this performance more than through any other single event that Flagstad was recognized as an operatic star of the first magnitude, and the performance launched the singer’s celebrated international career.
Four days later, on February 6, Flagstad thrilled the Met audience anew with her now eagerly anticipated Isolde, singing the demanding role with which she was soon to become so universally identified. Her partner as Tristan was the well-established Danish heldentenor, Lauritz Melchior. The two Scandinavians, ideally matched artistically, quickly became one of the most admired operatic pairs of all time.
Five More Wagnerian Roles
The Metropolitan Opera management, now fully aware of what an extraordinary artist they had engaged in signing Flagstad, hastily rearranged the remainder of the season so as to have the Norwegian soprano appear as often as possible. During the next few weeks Flagstad sang five more of the great Wagnerian roles, several for the first time anywhere. They included both the Walkure and the Gotterdammerung Brunnhildes (only illness prevent her from undertaking the Siegfried Brunnhilde that first season) as well as Elsa in Lohengrin, Elisabeth in Tannhauser, and Kundry in Parsifal. A Sold Out sign always went up whenever Flagstad sang at the Metropolitan
Indicative of the high esteem in which Flagstad was universally held is this sampling of reviews of the Norwegian soprano during her first months at the Metropolitan Opera in early 1935:
“An artist superbly gifted,” wrote one critic. “Wholly magnificent achievement opined another reviewer. A third: “An extraordinary and overmastering voice.” Yet another: “The audience filled with wonder and gratitude.” And finally: “So sensitively musical, so lofty in pathos and simplicity, so memorable in loveliness.”
Soon in demand everywhere, Flagstad repeated her triumphs again and again, appearing to acclaim in the great opera houses of Europe and America – London (Covent Garden), Milano (La Scala), San Francisco, Paris, Vienna – as well as on the concert stage in long concert tours on both sides of the Atlantic. Lauded above all for her magnificent interpretations of the Wagnerian roles, Flagstad was much admired as well for her Leonore in Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio; for the title role in Gluck’s noble Alcestis; for the songs and lieder of many composers, both European and American. In her recitals she almost invariably included a group of Norwegian songs; and throughout her career Flagstad was a foremost exponent of the music of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s pre-eminent national composer.
During the first half a dozen years at the Metropolitan Opera, Kirsten Flagstad easily reigned supreme, bringing much honor to the land of her birth. For it was in Norway that her heritage lay, the country where she received the largest share of her musical training from her early years onward, and where for many years this indefatigable singer had performed a wide range of roles in over fifty operas, operettas, musicals, and revues, thereby creating the solid foundation for the great ingternational career that was to follow. It is a remarkable tribute to Flagstad that soon after her Met debut in 1935, she came to be widely hailed as not only the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her time (some of the more historically-minded critics, including leading authorities at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth went even further, maintaining, with some justification “of all time”) but also the greatest of living operatic singers in the world.
The artistry to this legendary singer lives on through a wealth of recordings – not only studio recordings but also tapings of many live performances in the opera house, concert, and recital stage. A comprehensive Flagstad discography prepared in the early 1980s lists an astonishing total of over 900 recordings by this artist.
Together they offer a vast repertory of works by nearly one hundred composers of opera, lieder, songs, and and hymns – including much Norwegian music which the soprano steadfastly championed.
Wealth of Flagstad Recordings
Indicative of the continued admiration for this Scandinavian singer, even half a century after her death, is the fact that over fifty Flagstad CD sets comprising more than seventy-five individual discs – among them the sets many complete operas – have been issued by leading companies both here and abroad. More will be said about some of these superlative recordings in a subsequent article.
These include Flagstad’s great Tristan und Isolde recording (early 1950s) with Tenor Ludwig Suthaus as Tristan and with Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting London’s Philharmonia. There will also be a discussion of the fascinating ten-CD set of a wide range of Flagstad’s recordings over the years, issued on Simax Records by Naxos of America.
In the meantime let us discuss what is apparently Flagstad’s only professional film appearance in opera. This was made in the late 1930s during Flagstad’s glory years when this new Star of the North had soared to the height of her fame, adulation, and thrilling vocal splendor. Flagstad was invited to appear in a Hollywood film entitled The Big Broadcast of 1938. In this motion picture she performed in complete Wagnerian regalia an excerpt from Die Walkure, Bruinnhilde’s joyous Battle Cry, “Hojotoho” with full orchestra, as in an opera house. Her thrilling rendition was part of a “variety show,” the master of ceremonies being none other than the Hollywood star, Bob Hope!
The radiant Flagstad Brunnhilde excerpt can be readily be found on the Internet by searching: Flagstad-Brunnhilde-Big Broadcast of 1938 – or by typing in this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAo_fTiZ2hY
You will doubtless not be able to reproduce the thrilling, full-bodied sound that would be heard in a movie theater, but Flagstad is most impressive in any case. And you will see the younger, glowing artist as she appeared on stage at that time. So do log on, and enjoy the holidays even more!
Part Two of this article on this legendary artist will appear in a future issue of Norwegian American Weekly, with special attention – as mentioned above – to the remarkable recordings of this great Norwegian opera singer, Kirsten Flagstad.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 6, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.