“Kirsten Flagstad, Triumph and Tragedy”
Playwright/director Einar Bjørge and actor Nina Bendiksen bring “the Voice of the Century” to life
Rolf K. Stang
Some background is called for in speaking now of this timely one-woman show Kirsten Flagstad, Triumph and Tragedy, which was presented before three standing-room-only audiences at New York’s Scandinavia House, the last weekend of February.
For connoisseurs of opera and the singing voice in general, few names evoke the level of appreciation as that of Kirsten Flagstad. She was and remains unique and a legend. She and famed tenor Enrico Caruso are mentioned together as, perhaps, the two greatest vocalists ever. When Flagstad made her Metropolitan Opera debut in February of 1935, she did so in a depression-stricken house thinking of closing its doors at the end of the ’35 spring season. Her debut, however, caused a sensation, and the Metropolitan Opera would suddenly thrive.
To draw audiences, the Met had been scheduling mostly the comic, buffo operas, naturally. But Kirsten Flagstad made her debut singing Sieglinde in Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” The conductor, who had not heard her before, is said to have dropped his baton in rehearsal as she began to sing, and ran to the general manager’s office asking him to come immediately and listen.
The performance, a Saturday matinee, was broadcast, and this singer from Norway became an instant celebrity. Repertoire schedules were changed to operas by Wagner and, suddenly, there were only sold-out houses. She would sing, usually three times each week. As a result, it was said that “Flagstad saved the Met.” Hers was an incredible triumph!
Moving forward to 1941, the very famous Kirsten Flagstad, essentially a homebody, returned to Nazi-occupied Norway to be with her husband and family. She was warned not to do so; it could be dangerous and it could cause people to think she had an “in” with Hitler’s Germany. She went home anyway, stubborn Norwegian that she was. During the war years, she refused to sing for the Quisling government or the German command in Norway and, in fact, sang only one program, secretly held, to benefit the resistance. Otherwise, she led a very quiet life.
Flagstad’s husband, back as early as 1933, like so many others, saw the National Socialist party as a bulwark against Communism. That, of course, would be the party of collaborator Vidkun Quisling, the war-time Nazi prime minister. Even though Flagstad’s husband, Henry Johansen, might have been risking death, he resigned in 1943. At war’s end, however, Flagstad and her husband became scapegoats and whipping boys.
Famous as she was, she was a perfect object of scorn. This was fed by a diplomat, Ambassador to the U.S. Wilhelm von Munthe av Morgenstierne, and a perversely motivated lawyer, Einar Lindfors, plus a huge public still suffering pain from the occupation, looking, it may be said, for someone to blame things on.
Justice Emil Stang of the Norwegian Supreme Court declared, after an official investigation, that Flagstad was exonerated, guilty of nothing! She was not a collaborator or traitor. Her career resumed. But the sting hung on.
In the United States, fueled unrelentingly by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, she was hounded by very-much misled protestors. Significantly, this did not occur in England, nor in Switzerland, nor Italy, but in the U.S. only. It was brutal and press-driven.
This tragedy is judiciously, sympathetically, and successfully dealt with in Kirsten Flagstad, Triumph and Tragedy, by playwright/director Einar Bjørge and actress Nina Bendiksen. They bring to the audience the great singer’s last days, suffering as she was from terminal cancer. Flagstad reflects on her life and the agony of those abusive post-war years. Much of the text is in Flagstad’s own words, taken from her writing. It is therefore powerfully insightful and persuasive. An effort is being undertaken to film this remarkable piece for public television. It’s written to be of interest to a general audience, while also being satisfying for an audience fully in the know.
In soft-spoken Flagstad fashion, the singer steps forward at the end to mention simply a significant, admiring visitor who appeared on her Kristiansand doorstep in 1956, Maria Callas. “She stayed for two days and, then, as she left, Callas took from her lapel a brooch and gave it to me. This brooch I am wearing.” A very astonishing thing to learn, something never released to the press. How is it possible to be for many years the world’s greatest opera singer, “the Voice of the Century,” and yet be so modest?
The mystery and majesty of the Flagstad character, as well as the voice, leaves us to adjust to the inspiring personage of this singer, one whose heart is integrated deep within her soul and not to be found with ease “on her sleeve.”
This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.