Throughout her international career, Kirsten Flagstad was a singer indispensable to the world’s musical life, the only totally acceptable Isolde and Brünnhilde. Her pre-eminence was accepted everywhere, by her colleagues, the critics and the public.
Truly great dramatic sopranos have always been rare – the world never appears to be blessed with more than one at a time – and in voice, musicianship and complete devotion to her art, Flagstad remained outstanding until after her farewell performances. To have had the pleasure of accompanying her was to appreciate her greatness both as a woman and as an artist. In such close association, it became possible to realize the rare combination of qualities a great singer must possess.
The songs of Grieg were particularly dear to her. I remember that in 1957, after her retirement, Sir Malcolm Sargent asked me if I thought that she would agree to appear at one of the coming season’s Promenade Concerts in London. As I had never known Flagstad’s mind, once it was made up, to change, I regretfully told him that I doubted whether even his persuasive powers would move her to return to the concert platform.
When, however, he explained that the programme was to honor Grieg on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, I said that his task of persuading her might not be so overwhelmingly difficult. Grieg was a composer whose mind was saturated with the melodies and rhythms of Norwegian folk music and an endless love for Norwegian scenes and the Norwegian way of life; these are things often evoked by his music. Like him, Flagstad was entirely devoted to the scenery, life, music and poetry of her native land, and therefore she loved to sing his songs.
Wearing national dress, Flagstad came, was seen, and conquered the huge ‘Prom’ audience, many of whom were too young ever to have heard her before. Everyone present at the concert must have congratulated himself on experiencing an unforgettable musical occasion.
Lesser-known aspects of her art are found in her singing of Bach’s Erbarme Dich, from the St. Matthew Passion, and of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aenas. This singing is impeccably musical and expressive.
Her performance as Dido, in Purcell’s opera, was heard only in London when, yielding to the persuasion of Bernard Miles, she opened his first, tiny Mermaid Theatre in St. John’s Wood. Those of us who were fortunate enough to hear the performances will recall her wonderful understanding of Purcell’s music. This was an opera in a style with which she had never before been associated, but her superb control of her voice in this (for her) miniature setting, the dignity of her manner and the intense poignancy of acting and singing when, after stabbing herself, she reached towards her lady-in-waiting with the anguished cry “Thy hand, Belinda”, and the pathos of her dying words, ‘Remember me, ah, forget my fate’ made the opening of the Mermaid Theatre into a supreme occasion in musical and theatrical history.
Before Flagstad became known to the world of international opera as the supreme Wagnerian soprano of the age, she had graduated from the world of Viennese operetta to oratorio and the operas of Verdi, Gounod and Puccini.
Only after these would she attempt the comparatively light role of Elsa, in Lohengrin. Her Wagnerian repertoire finally included all the leading dramatic soprano roles, but it is as Isolde and Brünnhilde she will chiefly be remembered.
This long training and variety of professional experience enabled her to develop the strength, assurance and fine vocal technique by which she seemed to take entire command of the great climax of Wagner’s immense tragedy, approaching the Immolation Scene which closes the ‘Ring’ with a voice fresh and untired by the arduous work given to Brünnhilde earlier in Götterdammerung.
However powerful the orchestration and taxing the vocal demands, Flagstad’s voice could soar over the orchestra with unfailing beauty of tone.
Her great career was the result solely of her musical gifts and her power of hard, concentrated work.
To the end of her active life on the stage she remained a disciplined and punctilious artist, approaching the study of each opera with the thoroughness of a conductor. One was touched to notice the affection in which she was held by the entire staff of any opera house. When she sang, it seemed as though her singing and her personality inspired everyone concerned in the production to regard himself or herself as a partner in an exciting, rewarding and supremely important musical venture.
Magazine Cover: Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde
She never allowed social distractions to interfere with her work and avoided the social round into which so many singers, like other celebrities, are willy-nilly drawn; she seemed to abhor publicity and to be allergic to being photographed. Except when she was singing, she liked to keep out of the public eye and was not happy to be recognized off the stage by admirers who wished to pay homage to her. It seemed that, unlike most singers, she was happiest to be alone with her reading, her embroidery and her endless interest in study at the piano.
Among Kirsten Flagstad’s many gifts were an unusual dignity and physical grace. There was a quality, which can only be called heroic about the confidence and ease of her movement about the stage, and she projected a warmth and richness of personality across the footlights of even the largest opera house.
Away from public performance, she was an intellectually stimulating companion, so fluent and well informed in conversation that her delight in solitude, sad for her friends, may have been a way of re-charging batteries which, at other times, provided her with apparently inexhaustible reserves of strength.