Kirsten Flagstad

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An unending wave of vocal splendor...

So read the liner notes to one of Kirsten Flagstad's LP albums... Read on:

When we think of jenny Lind, Christine Nilsson, Adelina Patti and Amalie Materna, we can only try to imagine how they must have sounded. Aural sensation being almost impossible to convey by written commentary, we are left speculating about the impact, the characteristics of these historic singers whose names have endured despite the fact they went to their graves vocally unrecorded.

Flagstad not only sang magnificently, she also looked the part of the heroines she portrayed

Fortunately for us and for those who succeed us, Kirsten Flagstad lived in an era when vocal reproduction had achieved such a level that an accurate idea can be formed of a voice and its particular color. Even the orchestral accompaniment, which had baffled early sound-engineers, emerges as a glowing, entirely convincing background.

With due apologies to singers who are still before the public or living in retirement, Kirsten Flagstad will probably go down to posterity as the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the present century. I am speaking about Kirsten Flagstad's sheer voice and adaptability (either accidental or contrived) to this specific repertoire.

Kirsten Flagstad - a glorious accident of nature

I have often thought that Flagstad at her peak was like a glorious accident of nature-an elemental force she herself didn't altogether comprehend. During her earliest days at the Metropolitan I had cause to wonder whether this rather stolid, honest, simple woman suspected the total effect she was producing on her audiences.

Gods and goddesses (the most majestic of them) are observed in an aura of serenity. Undoubtedly it was the singer Kirsten Flagstad's unruffled surface that caused people to refer to her art as superhuman. Frances Alda writes in her book, "Men Women and Tenors":

'You can't give opera without personalities,' I told Eddy Johnson when he took over the Metropolitan.

And where are the singers?

There is but one. Kirsten Flagstad. Last winter Mary Garden and I went together to hear her.

Never in all my years at the Metropolitan have I heard anyone look, play, sing, interpret Isolde as this woman does. She is Isolde.

I looked at Mary Garden. She was motionless and enrapt, and great tears were running down her face. My own heart was in my mouth from the beauty of the performance."

When, in Tristan, Isolde describes how she could have slain the wounded Tristan but was unable to do so when he looked deeply into her eyes-"er sah mir in die Augen" Flagstad raised her arms slightly and looked upward. Suddenly, we saw the Holy Grail. I can also never forget her in the Good Friday Scene in Parsifal. Kundry just utters two words-"Dienen dienen" ("Service, service"). During the remainder of the scene she is mute. The action at this point requires the singer to stand motionless in midstage for a long period. Flagstad assumed a position with her body bent slightly forward - humility at its most selfless. She never moved or even indicated that she was breathing. Slowly you became riveted to this silent figure, completely oblivious of anything else taking place on stage. How to explain such things?

However, these quasi-psychic moments, remarkable as they were, would hardly have given Kirsten Flagstad such enduring fame.

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Kirsten Flagstad - one of the greatest voices of all time

It so happened that she possessed one of the greatest voices of all time and that she produced an unending wave of vocal splendor without a hint of strain. I heard many of her performances from a front-row seat in the orchestra, and I cannot recall ever seeing her take a breath or move the upper part of her body as she sang. It all seemed completely natural. At the end of the longest performances you came away feeling that she could have begun all over again without any effort whatsoever.

Debut as a “Radiant Siglinde”

No wonder New Yorkers went into such ecstasies over this wonderful Norwegian woman who had burst upon them unheralded at a matinee of Die Walkure on February 2, 1935. Her radiant Sieglinde took an unsuspecting audience by storm. When I first heard her, on February 6 (Isolde), I wrote as follows in my diary (I had not yet gone into professional criticism): "A singer and an artist of a rare mould. The voice is a very beautiful one, clear and strong with a fresh, bright resonance, free from any hint of vibrato and capable of clarion power which never, even in the highest notes, becomes hard. There is a feeling of truth and simplicity, of belief."

On a picnic in Maine during the summer of 1940 1 asked Walter Damrosch how Flagstad's Wagnerian heroines compared to those of Lilli Lehmann, Nordica, Ternina and Fremstad. Going into considerable detail (he had conducted performances for the first three ladies), he came to the conclusion that Flagstad sang this repertoire with more beauty of voice than any of them.

It was only natural that the country's symphony orchestras would seek out this new marvel. One of the most successful in making contact was Eugene Ormandy and his superb Philadelphia Orchestra. Flagstad made her debut with them during her third American season, on February 5, 1937. Her voice had reached the very apex of its glory. At Philadelphia's Academy of Music she was heard in the five Wesendonk songs and the Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung - one of her greatest achievements. She returned to the Academy the following October to make the recordings in this album. Ormandy was delighted. He considered Flagstad the ideal vocal soloist for his orchestra, reveling in her heroic tones and rocklike musicianship.

It came to be taken for granted that Flagstad was a Wagnerian soprano to the exclusion of everything else. People forgot that she had sung a varied repertoire before coming to America. In this album we find her proving herself in scenas of Beethoven and Weber - music that makes different demands from those of the Wagnerian idiom. The inclusion of Sieglinde's "Du bist der Lenz" will recall the unheralded debut that lit the operatic sky with a display of Northern Lights. Elsa's balcony aria gives the singer a chance to display her seamless legato. Of great value is Flagstad's Immolation Scene in conjunction with Ormandy. The Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde (see photo below) was one of the singer's greatest roles.

You can see Flagstad in her only filmclip in

The Art of Singing: Golden Voices of the Century

She was an artist - a vocal phenomenon

Kirsten Flagstad was not a worldly woman, not a versatile woman in her enthusiasms and range of interests.

She was most certainly in no sense a political figure.

She was an artist, a vocal phenomenon.

When she died in Oslo on December 7, 1962, she passed into the glory of the operatic Valhalla that was awaiting her.

She became a legend for generations to come.

- (from cover notes to an RCA album)

MAX DE SCHAUENSEE

Music Editor,
Philadelphia Evening and Sunday Bulletin

Flagstad at her best =
Prima Voce

Kirsten Flagstad in
"Tristan und Isolde"