(12 July 1895 – 7 December 1962)
Kirsten Flagstad was a Norwegian dramatic soprano and she is regarded as one of the greatest voices of all time as well as being the greatest Wagnerian soprano ever!
Desmond Shawe-Taylor in New Grove Dictionary of Opera said "No one within living memory surpassed her in sheer beauty and consistency of line and tone." and many opera critics called her "the voice of the century."
Kirsten Flagstad was raised in Oslo into a musical family. Her father was a conductor and her mother was a pianist. She made her stage debut in 1913 at the National Theatre in Oslo in Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland. Her first recordings soon followed.
in 1919 she joined the Opera Comique in Oslo, under the direction of Alexander Varnay (father of Astrid Varney).
It was realised she had a gift for learning roles quickly (within a few days) and so the roles of Desdemona (Otello) Minnie (La Fancuilla) Amelia (Un Ballo) were quickly added to her repertoire
She made her debut in Sweden singing Agathe in Der Freischutz and in 1932 then sang Rodelinda by George Frederick Handel. It was noted that her voice was rather too large for Handel and it was suggested at that early stage she might be better suited to Wagner.
She went on singing lighter roles for ten years (e.g. Marguerite in Faust) before moving on to heavier operatic roles such as Aida and Tosca.
It was the heavier Aida that led her to finally take on the role of Isolde and for the first time she felt she had discovered "her true voice".
After an audition with Winifred Wagner at Bayreuth she sang a few minor roles but in 1934 she sang Seglinde in Die Walkure and Gutrune in Gotterdammerung.
In 1935 her first performance (Die Walkure) at the Metropolitan caused a sensation. In the same season she sang Isolde, Elsa and Kundry - with such success it was from that point that her fame and place as the pre-eminent Wagnerian soprano was realised.
To this day the recordings she made at that time earned her the recognition of being the greatest Wagnerian soprano ever and it is claimed by many her star power actually saved the Metropolitan Opera from imminent bankruptcy.
In 1936 she performed all three Brünnhildes at the San Francisco Opera's Ring Cycle and in 1937, she performed Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Senta at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden under the batons of Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner and Wilhelm Furtwängler, with a similarly wildly enthusiastic reception from the public
In 1938 she toured Australia and Hollywood beckoned but films and Hollywood contracts had no appeal to her.
She had an on again off again professional relationship with her frequent performing partner Lauritz Melchior for a number of years and in 1941 she naively returned to Norway at the height of the German occupation.
It was a fateful decision and the sentiments surrounding any percieved association with the Nazis was to hurt her career afterwards for a number of years. Arturo Toscanini did all but denounce her publically and chose Helen Traubel instead for some radio broadcasts
She underwent a public "rehabilitation" by volunteering to do some benefit concerts- but it was to take some time before the emotions surrounding her cooled somewhat and she was invited back to sing at the Metropoitan by Sir Rudolf Bing who was roundly criticised for years afterwards.
From 1948 to 1952, Kirsten Flagstad repeated all her regular Wagnerian roles at the Royal Opera House and it was during this time she sang Richard Strauss's "Vier letzte Lieder" under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler. This performance is looked back on now as being a legendary one.
In 1949 she returned to the Metropolitan to sing Isolde, Brünnhilde and Leonore despite the fact she was now over fifty.
She gave her farewell 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.
She continued to perform at concerts ocassionally after her retirment and even made some stereo records as well as mentoring young singers.
From 1958 to 1960, Kirsten Flagstad served as general manager of the Norwegian National Opera and she died in Oslo from bone marrow cancer in 1962 at the age of only 67.
There is a museum in Hamar Norway named after her and dedicated to preserving her costumes and treasures collected during her career.
She was an extraordinary artist by any measure and her name is synonymous with power, quality and grace. Little wonder on her death it was said of her- "That voice! How can one describe it?"
Although it was an enormous voice, it never did sound enormous because it was never pushed or forced out of placement. It had a rather cool silvery quality, and was handled instrumentally, almost as though a huge violin was emitting legato phrases."
Little wonder her name will never be forgotten in the world of opera!
Kirsten Flagstad is one of the featured stars on our "Legends" product range.