Kirsten Flagstad Tribute - by Culshaw
Kirsten Flagstad tribute February 1963
THOSE of us who worked with Kirsten Flagstad during her last years knew the human being rather than the prima donna. She had a speaking voice strikingly reminiscent of Kathleen Ferrier's; she was warm, kindly and tremendously dignified; she sang like no other woman before or since, and I think in the end she was lonely.
Among ourselves we used to call her, affectionately, "Mum", and I can see her now as she stood on the Sofiensaal stage in 1957, wearing an enormous picture hat, and bidding Sieglinde "Fort denn eile!" in a voice that had lost nothing in the six years since she gave the same command at Covent Garden. It is good to think that her visits to London and Vienna did much to break up the monotony of her retirement years.
If I give emphasis to those years, to the amazing re-emergence of Flagstad in full voice and full sail, it is because they were the years when I knew her personally. It was her misfortune that she retired officially at the very moment that LP made complete opera recordings a practicable venture.
Even so, EMI made their complete Tristan and the Götterdämmerung Immolation Scene under Furtwängler, and the Dido and Aeneas recording which followed her appearances at Bernard Miles's original Mermaid Theatre. Earlier still were all the RCA 78 r.p.m. discs, some of which have found their way on to LP. She herself had a fabulous collection of live transcriptions of her own performances in the 'thirties.
One day, a few years ago, she had them broken up and thrown into the sea near Kristiansand where she lived; and I know some one who spent a small fortune trying to retrieve them and piece them together. I never heard whether he was successful or not.
She was a strange woman in some ways: she said they were taking up too much room. Of all the records she made for Decca, her favourite apart from Wagner was the collection of Sibelius songs. She was always Looking for something new, and I think that is basically why she made the Rheingold Fricka for us. She loved Brünnhilde and Sieglinde because she could understand their feminine natures; she didn't like Isolde later than the love potion, simply because she could not believe in the character. I once had a huge argument with her, and a huge amount of cognac, on that topic, but it got nowhere.
In the war years she tried to learn Elektra, but gave up because she thought the words were rude. But as late as 1961, when she was sixty-six, we were actively planning Brahms's Alto Rhapsody and Sargent's orchestration of the Four Serious Songs. We wanted to get her to Vienna to record the Götterdämmerung Waltraute and the Walküre Fricka to keep in store until the completion of our Ring, and we were still in correspondence about these ideas until early in 1962.
It was quite a job to persuade her to sing Fricka in Rheingold, and it was our bad luck that just as she was making up her mind an American journalist got wind of the casting and published the news in New York. Within a week I received a letter from Flagstad which is, in itself, a charming selfportrait. She wrote: "Last week when I was in New York I read in a paper that Mr. London was going to record Rheingold as Wotan with me as Fricka. How can they make public such things before I have consented? Is it a way to force me to say "Yes"?
"The part is very small but quite good for me, I believe, but hardly worth the long journey to Vienna. But, as I like so much to work with you and your friends, I will consent to do Fricka for you. Kindest greetings to you all."
There indeed is the prima donna—and the human being. She loved her evenings out with "the boys" in Vienna and, like most Scandinavians, she had no inhibitions about alcohol. She had a definite conviction that very strong black coffee last thing at night was an excellent sedative; but if we had to impose a morning session on her, she would get up at five and begin to vocalise at seven. It is doubly difficult to accept the fact of her death because she had, seemingly, such reserves of strength. Her diaphragm muscles were like iron, and even at sixty-two she seemed less tired than people half her age at the end of a session.
She never spoke badly of her colleagues; if there was a criticism, she spoke of the character rather than the person. "I was not very happy with my Tristan that year," she said of one of the pre-war Metropolitan seasons. She liked Astrid Varnay ("The trouble is, her voice is so like mine"), and acknowledged with the greatest admiration that Birgit Nilsson was her true successor. Towards the end of her life, when she depended on the gramophone for much of her pleasure, I used to send her miscellaneous records—"surprise packages" she called them—from time to time. She developed, of all things, a strong taste for Gilbert and Sullivan; in the same letter that she enquired about future D'Oyly Carte releases, she also said that her doctors had told her to give up her daily practice: "To give up singing when the voice is still good is hard, and to write this letter to you is very, difficult for me, too."
Piano records pleased her a great deal, and she had all Clifford Curzon's records – she was present in Vienna when he made the Brahms B flat Concerto some years ago. I sent her our Fledermaus, which she liked, while rebuking me strongly for the Gala. "I do not care at all," she wrote, "for your cabaret."
Little did she know that one of the production ideas we abandoned (because she was in hospital at the time) was to get Regina Resnik as Orlovsky to telephone to Kristiansand in the middle of the Gala sequence.
There are some artists with whom, even after years of work together, one can find little essential communication. That was not the case with Kirsten Flagstad. Quite apart from records, her fame came very suddenly and very late, and she regarded her voice with a charming objectivity—something God-given, to be tended, respected and eventually lost.
Looking back over her letters, I know that her death sentence was pronounced on the day she was told not to sing. Her very last letter reads as follows:
Kristiansand, September 15th, 1962
Thank you so much for the letters and records. As you see, I still want more.
It is difficult for me to write. I am still in bed and cannot move easily. I have been in bed four months now. I have been at home three weeks and played records most of the time.
I was delighted with the surprise ones, thank you. Gueden was glorious. The hymns of mine are quite good and I am glad you put them out—if only they could get some publicity here in Norway!
I think of you often and of the boys and our nice times together. Please, send them my greetings.
I think I should say on behalf of all who ever worked with her, irrespective of company or label: our love to you, Kirsten. R.I.P.
© Gramophone, February 1963
Kirsten Flagstad Tribute