Only a handful Norwegians are internationally known: Explorers Thor Heyerdahl and Fridtjof Nansen, author Henrik Ibsen, composer Edvard Grieg, and painter Edvard Munch. During the first half of the 1900’s, a Norwegian woman achieved great worldwide attention due to her amazing and powerful soprano voice: Opera singer Kirsten Flagstad.
She was born in Hamar in 1895, and raised in Oslo. Her whole family was regarded as very talented musicians.
Kirsten got piano lessons from her mother, and on her 10th birthday she got the vocal score of Wagner’s Lohengrin. On December 12th 1913, she had her stage debut at the National Theatre in Kristiania (Oslo) as Nuri in Tiefland by Eugen d’Albert. One of the most acclaimed contemporary music critics, Hjalmar Borgstrøm wrote in his review that Flagstad had “a very melodious voice”. Five years later, in March 1918, she held her debut concert in the Oslo University Aula together with the Swedish baritone Carl Richter and pianist Piero Coppola.
Throughout the 1920’s she performed all around Europe. She became a very popular opera singer, and recordings from 1929 shows that her voice had matured into a characteristic sonorous soprano.
The period between 1928 and 1932, Flagstad made some important decisions towards an international career. She performed at Stora Teatern in Gothenburg where she sang Agathe in Weber’s The Marksman, Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Tosca. In 1929, she performed her first Wagner opera at the National Theatre in Kristiania as Elsa of Brabant in Lohengrin.
In 1932, Flagstad debuted in her most important role: Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at the National Theatre. This led to an engagement at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth (Germany) in 1933-1934 where she sang Sieglinde in The Valkyrie and soprano in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony under Richard Strauss.
America had been longing for her for several years. In 1934, she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in 1935 she finally had her stage debut as Sieglinde in The Valkyrie. This became one of the major celebrations in the Metropolitan’s history. The opera enthusiasts in New York were hit by “Flagstad fever” and the spring program was changed so that she could sing even more of Wagner’s operas.
This was the beginning of her extensive international career, with works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Mahler, as well as the Norwegian composers and a variety of English composers.
Nevertheless, the Americans were somewhat disappointed by Flagstad’s lack of interest in social life. She preferred to spend time with her family, or to be alone with her embroideries, knitting works and solitaire card games. She used to take long, deep yawns before her performances to highlight her need for peace and tranquility, in addition to rest her vocal cords.
In 1953 she gave her farewell concert as Dido in Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas at Det Nye Teater in Oslo. On December 12 the same year, she resigned at the National Theatre, 40 years after her stage debut. The very last time she sang in public was at Lennart Hyland’s television program Morokulien on November 21st 1959.
She was head of the Norwegian National Opera in the period 1958-1960, and today she is honored with her own square on the location of the Oslo Opera House. She is also depicted on the Norwegian 100 kroner note.
Kirsten Flagstad died in 1962 in Oslo. At her own request, her final resting place is kept only to her immediate family.
Anniversary Year 2013
In 2013, Norway celebrates Kirsten Flagstad’s 100th anniversary since her stage debut. A number of national and international institutions are responsible for the festivities. The anniversary will be celebrated in different arenas throughout the year, with book releases, exhibitions, seminars, musical theater and concerts. The organizers hope to highlight Flagstad’s unique position as a singer and national icon, in addition to her significant position as the first head of the Norwegian National Opera. Read more on the Kirsten Flagstad Museum.
Hear Kirsten Flagstad sing «Elsa’s Dream» from Lohengrin from 1949.
Learn even more about Kirsten Flagstad in this fascinating documentary (English subtitles).
Text by: Anette Broteng Christiansen, ThorNews
Source: Store Norske Leksikon
Photos: Kirsten Flagstadmuseet