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A short biography of Kirsten Flagstad

Kirsten Flagstad’s parents, Marie - known as Maja - (1871-1958) and Michael Flagstad (1869-1930), were both professional musicians, and worked at various theatres in the Norwegian capital Kristiania (which reverted to its original name of “Oslo” in 1925). Michael was an accomplished violinist and later an orchestra conductor. With his self-taught language skills he took upon himself to translate opera librettos into Norwegian. In order to safeguard his financial situation he had trained as a shorthand-typist and gained employment as a stenographer in the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) in addition to his career in music, which was his true passion in life.

Maja, pianist and repétiteur, energetic and strong-willed, has gone down in history as Norway’s “opera mamma”, and many are the singers, both the good and the poor note-readers, who can thank her for helping them to learn their roles and their repertoires when it mattered. It is clear that Kirsten Flagstad was surrounded by music from a very early age. The fact that she was born in Strandstuen, just a stone’s throw from Hamar Diocesan Church, is also indirectly a result of music, or more correctly, the difficulty conditions that musicians had to cope with in Kristiania in the late 1800s.

Through a short period, Michael and Maja had to give up any thought of making a living as musicians and moved back home to live with Michael’s parents. Maja was pregnant with her second child. Her first child, a boy, died when he was only fourteen months old. Kirsten, born July 12th 1895, was the eldest child of four - two girls and two boys. Eventually the family settled in Vinderen, at the time a suburb on the outskirts of Oslo. As professional musicians, the parents were often away from home, which meant that from an early age Kirsten both felt and had to take on the responsibility for her brothers and sister far beyond that which you would expect of a girl of that age. And this may have contributed to the impression that people who knew her regarded as being traits of her personality – strict, stubborn, serious, and responsible.

Her mother’s ambitious energy and observant eye, which Kirsten and her siblings no doubt noticed in many areas of their daily life, also played a part when Kirsten started having piano lessons at the age of six. But Kirsten herself had an innate drive where music was concerned. Without needing to be asked, from the very outset she began to play her way through the heaps of music notes that were piled on the piano in the Flagstad family home. It wasn’t long before she was accompanying herself to songs she liked, including the treasures of the composer Franz Schubert. Towards the end of her career she confessed that it was Schubert’s lieder (songs and romances) that had helped her to sing through difficult periods in her life. It has quite rightly been pointed out that it is rather revealing, and perhaps a sign of destiny, that Kirsten Flagstad, by many regarded as the greatest-ever interpreter of Richard Wagner’s dramatic soprano roles, was given the notes to his romantic opera Lohengrin by her parents on her 10th birthday. Could it be just be the case that they had simply forgotten her birthday, that the new and unused piano extracts just happened to be there, and that when they realised what day it was, they quickly wrapped the note music in gift paper and said “Here’s your birthday present, Kirsten”!

Whatever the case, she straightway devoted herself to the music, immersing herself into a dramatic world of noble knights, of good and evil figures, and learned the part of the tragic heroine, Elsa. Appropriately enough, she may have felt, she was to give a tantalising taste of Lohengrin a few years later when, on the occasion of her confirmation , she sang the part of Elsa to her guests. Her singing teacher, Ellen Schytte Jacobsen (1876-1959) was of a rather different opinion. She was herself a guest at Kirsten’s confirmation party, ands offered to give Kirsten free singing lessons so that she wouldn’t spoil her budding little voice on overambitious ventures. That’s the way the story has come down to us, but it may well be that “Auntie Ellen”, as she was known, realised from an early stage that there was a huge talent behind this somewhat unsophisticated performance. In any case, it wasn’t long before she was predicting that Kirsten would be singing professionally within the foreseeable future. Kirsten merely laughed it off, but that of course was the way it turned out to be.

The opera Lohengrin was to be a thread of destiny in the web of Kirsten’s career when, almost twenty years later in 1929, she sang Elsa for the first time at a production at the National Theatre in Oslo. In the audience sat Henry Johansen (1889-1946). From then on their lives were to be intimately connected, for better or for worse. It was on the stage at the National Theatre on December 12th 1913, at the age of eighteen and a half, made her debut as an opera singer in a minor rôle in Eugen d’Albert’s opera Tiefland in front of a capacity audience which included King Haakon and Queen Maud.

Little could she know that 40 years later to the day, nearing the end of an incredible career which included pinnacles of glory and depths of degradation, she would be standing on the selfsame stage celebrating that debut with a sensational jubilee performance of undiminished strength. After that 1913 debut, she had a number of both major and minor roles which served to show that she had obvious talent, but also showed that she had a long hard road ahead if she was to be a singer and operatic actress. These youthful years, like for many other budding artists at the time, were years of probing and uncertainty. Some years earlier, she had ambitions to become a doctor, which her mother Maja urged her to be.

Maja, based on her own experiences, was strongly opposed to her children choosing a career as professional musicians. In the event, they all chose that path! The single-mindedness and hard swotting that her medical studies required caused health problems for Kirsten, and she gave it up. There was also talk of her becoming a piano teacher, but nothing came of it. As a diversion from various career plans, at the age of 20 she was introduced to and effectively engaged to well-heeled businessman from Vesterålen in northern Norway. After a “trial period” with her in-laws-to-be, they all came to the realisation that her future lay in the world of music. Her presumptive mother-in-law wisely gave her a grant of money which would enable her to pursue her music career for a year ahead.

After her first singing teacher, Kirsten progressed to the bass singer and pedagogue Albert Westvang (1885-1957), and after a number of enquiries it was decided that she should audition for the well-known, but controversial Dr. Gillis Waldemar Bratt in Stockholm, Sweden. As Kirsten herself was at pains to point out, she didn’t need to start from scratch or change anything with regards to her singing; what she learnt in Stockholm built logically on what she had from before. But it was obvious that it was from Dr. Bratt (1870-1925) and his Norwegian assistant Haldis Ingebjart Isene (1871-1978) that her enormous potential was released, a potential that an anonymous patron who financed her future studies must have realised.

In the spring of 1918 she had a successful debut concert in the University Aula in Oslo. The same autumn she started preparing with her teacher, Dr Bratt, for what was intended to be her opera debut in Stockholm. But then something happened which turned her plans upside down. While she was home in Oslo for the Christmas holiday she fell madly in love with Sigurd Hall (1893-1962), a widower a few years older than herself. Half a year later they were married, and on the 17th of May 1920 Else, her only child, was born.
In later years Kirsten Flagstad would say that she never had any great career ambitions, but that her surroundings and accidental circumstances drove her forward. Perhaps the marriage was an impulsive and subconscious protest against the expectations that lay ahead. Kirsten’s pregnancy necessitated a welcome break from her appointment at the recently established Opera Comique in Oslo, where several of her family were employed.

She imagined that her new family situation would involve a natural end of the singing career she had only just embarked upon, but the family’s unstable financial situation meant that she had to do her part to make ends meet, and a few months later she reluctantly had to start working again. It was an exhausting year working at different venues in Oslo, switching between operas, operettas, light-hearted glamorous reviews and, between all of these, concert performances. The happiness she had envisaged her marriage would bring slowly changed into alienation and facing up to the hardness of reality in the 10 years the marriage was to last, but for Kirsten these were also important years her maturation, both as a person and as a singer. Not unusually, after her pregnancy her voice grew and developed further, so much so that her god-given talents required greater challenges and opportunities than Oslo could provide, something that her colleagues possibly understood more clearly than she herself did.

Through recommendations and auditions it was the Stora Teatern in Gothenburg, Sweden, which was to start the next crucial stage in her remarkable career. It was here that she approached the dramatic range of rôles that her voice had developed into, and it was here that she found the freedom of expression for her innate stage talents; and, not least, it was here she won the recognition that that an artist depends on. When the great Danish composer Carl Nielsen as present at a performance of his own opera Saul and David, he used the word “genius” about her interpretation, a word which was later often used about her artistry.

Meeting the wealthy businessman Henry Johansen in 1929, and marrying him a year later led to a decisive parting of the ways in her life and career. Financial security gave her a newly-acquired freedom, and after exhausting years she saw her future life as a housewife with singing as a hobby. But even now she was encouraged and influenced by those close to her to accept requests to give concerts and take on operatic roles. Apart from having a stupendous voice, Kirsten was exceptionally musical. She was able to learn quickly and on her own, skill that were unusual in those days when many singers couldn’t even read music. Many were the occasions when she saved a concert or production by stepping in at the last minute with a minimum of preparation.

The next major step towards her international career was in the summer of 1932 when she sang Isolde in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde at the National Theatre in Oslo. Her performance was noted far outside Norway. The Swedish soprano Ellen Gulbrandson, married to a Norwegian and living in Oslo, and one of the uncrowned queens from earlier years at Wagner’s own theatre in Bayreuth in southern Germany, watched and heard Flagstad’s Isolde. She got in touch with Winifred Wagner, the widow of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried and director of the famous Wagner festivals. Kirsten was invited to audition and accepted some minor rôles that hat had not been filled for the 1933 season. This introduction into Wagner’s music traditions in his very own theatre was to be a decisive phase in Flagstad’s development as an artist and singer. She was called back to Bayreuth the following year. And while she was down there in Germany, she received a request to pop across the border to St Moritz Switzerland to audition for the leaders of the world-famous Metropolitan Opera in New York. She won them over, and was given a contract. But it was only after her debut as Sieglinde in Wagner’s opera Die Walküre February 2nd 1935 that they realised what a sensation she was. From now on she devoted al her energies to one after the other of the great Wagnerian operatic roles.

She quickly became the darling of the opera-going public and the favourite of the critics, and she saved the opera house from closing down in the worst economic crisis in the history of the United States. When the season finally ended, completely drained but enormously happy, she set off home to Norway. The next five years were to be the height of her career, with guest appearances at the major opera houses in Europe and the USA, interspersed with long concert tours across the American continent, but also as far afield as Australia. By now a world-famous dramatic soprano, her earlier abundance of rôles in opera and operetta was now cut to the bone, to the heroines of Wagnerian opera, title rôles in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Gluck’s Alceste, and Weber’s Oberon. Towards the end of her career, there were other rôles she added, such as Dido in Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, Fricka in Das Rheingold, as well as making the first studio recordings of Wagner’s Nibelungenringen. The range of rôles may have been reduced, but she still had to learn a comprehensive concert repertoire. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she never relied on having programme notes in front of her; she knew everything by hear. Her calm and contained manner was almost a shock for her public, who were more used to the dramatic gesticulations of lead singers playing for the gallery. In her concert programmes she always included a “slot” of Norwegian composers, and more than any other she made them familiar with the works of Edvard Grieg, not least his songs from Haugtussa.

A natural result of her momentous breakthrough at the Metropolitan was that everybody wanted to hear “The Great Flagstad”, which again meant that she had to go to the recording studios to satisfy the enormous demand for “the voice of the century”. This was the continuation of a recording career that had begun very modestly in 1914 and was to end in style in 1959. Thanks to modern technology, many of the archive recordings of radio broadcasts of concerts and operas form the mid 1930s and the rest of her career have been digitally restored and issued on CD. And it is thanks to these recordings that we can get some idea of the true greatness of Kirsten Flagstad.

She had planned to return home to Norway in 1940 and gradually reduce her career, at least in America, but her plans had to be put on ice when Norway and Denmark were plunged into the Second World War. It would be another year before she was able to make the journey home, a journey she wished to make for personal, family reasons, but which was to cast long, dark shadows over her for the rest of her life.
Her husband’s business contacts with the occupying German forces and apparent sympathies with Quisling’s party, the right-wing National Assembly, very quickly led to unsubstantiated, untrue and malicious rumours about Kirsten Flagstad herself. She was widowed in 1946, before the post-war replacement courts could try her case fairly, and more than most others who had been accused of collaborating or cohorting with the Germans she was subjected to public persecution, and her name and reputation became badly, and almost permanently, tainted. It didn’t help that she was one of the greatest interpreters of Wagner’s mythical world of Germanic heroes, who, unfortunately, Hitler took a liking to. But neither Wagner nor Flagstad can be blamed for that!

After hurtful years of personal and legal retribution, Kirsten Flagstad was finally and formally cleared of any wrongdoing. Armed with a new passport and confirmation of her patriotism, she ventured out into the world again to start the painstaking process of rebuilding her reputation and her career. Little by little the protests and accusations died away, drowned by the accolades and applause of people who adored her artistry and believed in her. Kirsten Flagstad conquered mountain-top after mountain-top with her unadulterated talent, and truth prevailed. The Norwegian state appointed her as first director of The Norwegian Opera in1958, marking a fitting end to a unique and incredible career, as eventful and dramatic as the rôles she played on stage.

During the last, trying years of her life, Kirsten Flagstad said that for her part fame and honour were empty and ephemeral concepts, and that she longed for anonymity and normality. In accordance with her wishes, the urn containing her ashes was interred in an anonymous grave. But in the world of song her voice will be forever immortal.

Rolf Knapper,
Associate professor
Hedmark University Co