Voice of the Century

Voice of the Century:

“Suddenly then, like a clear northern light, Soprano Kirsten Flagstad appeared on the scene”

Time Magazine 1935 (excerpt)

Metropolitan Seat-Seller

The Metropolitan Opera Guild has contributed substantially to the increase in seat sales.

So, too, has one singer who made her debut last February. Finances had then reached their all-time low.

No agreement had been made with the Juilliard and the Metropolitan seemed doomed.

Suddenly then, like a clear northern light, Soprano Kirsten Flagstad appeared on the scene.

So far as most New Yorkers were concerned, she was completely unknown. She had been engaged only because Frida Leider had decided that, with the devalued dollar, she could make more money by remaining in Europe. That February matinee made history in Manhattan.

As Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Flagstad exhibited a voice so clear and powerful, so even throughout its range, so flawless in its phrasing that most critics went ecstatic.

Four days later came Tristan und Isolde and all hats were in the air. Flagstad could sing.

Though she indulged in no pyrotechnics, she was quietly effective as she raised the cup, offered the love potion to Tristan. Again at the end she reached rare heights when, with her voice still fresh and sure, she kneeled beside Tristan's body and sang the demanding Liebestod.

Thereafter whenever Flagstad sang, the house was crowded to the doors and Tristan und Isolde became the season's bestseller.

Question on every side was where such a singer had been keeping herself. Answer was that for 20 years she had had an uneventful career in Norway, singing at the Oslo Opera house where her talent was taken for granted.

Temperamentally she was unable to push herself. As a child she sang arias because she liked to, not because she aspired to opera. Her mother who coached singers was responsible for her debut. Someone was needed for the role of Nuri in D'Albert's Tiefland. Flagstad learned the part in two days.

After that she plodded along conscientiously, singing now in light opera, now in grand, taking what engagements she could get because she had a daughter to support by an early marriage which had proved unsuccessful.

Flagstad was 36 when she ventured beyond the Scandinavian boundaries to Bayreuth, sang small roles the first summer, Sieglinde the next. On the strength of her Bayreuth appearances, Gatti-Casazza and Conductor Artur Bodanzky asked her to come to St. Moritz and sing for them there. The room was small, her voice muffled by heavy hangings. But a new Wagnerian was badly needed and she was given a contract. When Conductor Bodanzky queried her about her acting, she answered modestly: "I don't do very much."

Even with a Metropolitan contract, Flagstad was loath to leave Norway. She had married Henry Johansen, a wealthy lumber merchant.

The Christmas holiday season was on. She liked to ski and she dreaded new audiences.

But if she was nervous before her debut, no one at the Metropolitan observed any sign of it.

She knitted placidly before she went on stage, knitted between scenes.

No high-strung person could have endured the ten weeks which followed. She had sung Elsa (Lohengrin) only in Norwegian, Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) only in Swedish.

Now she had to relearn both in German, a language which was hard for her.

Her most amazing accomplishments were the Brünnhildes in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, the Kundry in Parsifal, roles she had never sung before.

Only for these last two did she have the benefit of stage and orchestra rehearsals. But no one could have guessed it. To her colleagues she scarcely seemed human until the final Parsifal when she fell asleep on the stage, almost missed her cue.

Critics were so excited to hear a really great voice that everything Flagstad did was greeted with praise, some of it so indiscriminate that readers were led to believe that the greatest Wagnerian of all time had suddenly popped from the blue.

Yet some laymen could marvel at her voice, at her poise, at her endurance and still wish at times that she possessed more fire, a more heroic conception of Wagner's great heroines. To some she seems curiously impersonal, a cold Northern light withal her great talent.

Offstage Kirsten Flagstad is a simple, unassuming person, who keeps no maid or secretary because she hates to have anyone fussing around her.

She is shy with strangers, content to knit, play solitaire, see Greta Garbo cinemas, eat one spanking meal a day and treat herself to a half bottle of champagne when she feels that a performance has been a success.

Since she arrived in the U. S. the hearty Norse has never had reason to deny herself the champagne reward. Like every singer who has made a Metropolitan success, she has taken to the road, given concerts before audiences which have seemingly found her perfect.


On the cover of Time Magazine

This season she has already given 32 recitals in addition to four performances with the San Francisco Opera (TIME, Nov. 4). She made her concert debut in Manhattan last week and though her voice was sure and strong, it was sometimes grainy, perhaps from fatigue. Most singers who are suddenly acclaimed work themselves too hard.

Flagstad wrote from Norway last summer: "I am so busy I almost wish I never was a success."

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