Distant Voices : Kirsten Flagstad: The Formative Years

Distant Voices : Kirsten Flagstad: The Formative Years

Kirsten Flagstad’s reputation as one of the greatest voices of the 20th century is perhaps matched only by that of Enrico Caruso. In particular, it was the overwhelming size and majestic beauty of her tone, unerring pitch, and communicative warmth that defined her art, particularly as an exemplar of the Wagnerian repertoire. But how did she become this revered, legendary singer? A look into the early years of her career can be both informative and inspiring.

Flagstad was born on July 12, 1895, in Hamar, Norway, to musical parents. Her father was a conductor, her mother was a pianist and vocal coach, and the entire Flagstad family was as fluent in the language of music as they were in Norwegian. The young Kirsten began piano lessons at the age of six and eventually started to sing, accompanying herself in Schubert Lieder. Her mother began asking her to sing parts with some of the singers who came to coach with her.

At the age of 16, she sang “Elsa’s Dream” from Lohengrin at her confirmation party. In attendance was a voice teacher, Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen, who took Flagstad under her wing, teaching her new pupil for free. In The Flagstad Manuscript, Flagstad states: “Mme. Jacobsen was especially good in breathing at relaxing the throat.”1 Flagstad recalls that she sang only exercises with Jacobsen, but that by the time she was 20, Jacobsen had studied 30 roles—including Elsa, Aïda, Senta, Marguerite, Mimi, and Tosca—on her own.

After two years of study with Jacobsen, Flagstad made her operatic debut at the age of 18 as Nuri in Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland at the Oslo National Theater. Flagstad studied for another year with Jacobsen, after which she switched to the Norwegian bass Albert Westwang, who “laid emphasis on breathing.”2 Because of World War I, Flagstad was unable to go to Germany to study, as was her desire. Instead, Westwang encouraged her to go to Stockholm, where she studied with Dr. Gillis Bratt, a voice specialist who also taught voice.

Flagstad recalled the severity of Bratt’s approach. When Flagstad told her new teacher that she had already sung publicly, Bratt replied: “No, you haven’t! Because if you had, nobody could have heard you!” When she argued to the contrary, he continued: “Well . . . that was only a child’s voice they heard. Your voice, young lady, is much too small, and I know why. I think we can fix it, however.”3

Flagstad’s seemingly small tone was the result of an incomplete glottal closure and, as a result, too much air escaped through the vocal folds. Bratt helped Flagstad learn to close the vocal folds and, according to Flagstad, her “voice grew in three months to three times its size.”4

She then joined the newly formed Opera Comique in Oslo, where she sang Nedda (Pagliacci) and roles in Johann Strauss’s Zigeunerbaron and Wilhelm Kienzl’s Der Evangelimann in 1919.

After the birth of her first child, a daughter, in May 1920, Flagstad had little interest in anything other than motherhood and took a hiatus from singing for four months. When her mother encouraged her to consider a role in Lehár’s Zigeunerliebe, she tried singing again, at which time she discovered that her voice had doubled in size.5

What followed would become emblematic of Flagstad: vast vocal resources driven by remarkable musical intelligence and the ability to learn music quickly. Having been asked to originally study Pamina (Die Zauberflöte), she learned and performed the First Lady in less than 24 hours. This so impressed Alexander Varnay, director of the Opera Comique, that he subsequently offered her Desdemona (Otello), which she learned in eight days. She also learned and performed Amelia (Un ballo in maschera) with only eight days’ notice!

The Opera Comique closed in its third year, but a company opened at the Casino a short time later. Light works were the bill of fare at the Casino, and Flagstad performed in operettas and musical comedies with the promise that operas would return to the stage. Operas were soon mounted once more at the Casino, where Flagstad performed Marguerite (Faust) in 1925, followed by Rosalinde (Die Fledermaus) and 53 performances as Micaela (Carmen) in 1926.

After an operetta tour of Norway with the Casino company in 1927-28, Flagstad accepted a contract in Göteborg, Sweden. The first of four roles she performed there was Agathe (Der Freischütz), which she performed 28 times in succession, followed by Mikal in Carl Nielsen’s Saul og David and Aïda, the latter of which unleashed Flagstad’s dramatic instincts. Flagstad’s first season in Göteborg concluded with Mimì in La bohème, which she performed with only one rehearsal. That year she also performed on tour her first Tosca—again with one rehearsal.

In June 1929, Flagstad, age 33, sang her first Wagnerian role—Elsa in Tannhäuser—in Oslo. In Göteborg, she continued to add roles to her repertoire, including Magda (La rondine), Lia (L’enfant prodigue), and her second Wagnerian role, Eva in Die Meistersinger, in the 1929-30 season. These were followed by Handel’s Rodelinda and the role which would become one of her signature roles, Wagner’s Isolde, in 1932.

Isolde was the first role Flagstad sang publicly in German, having sung previously only in translations. Isolde was also the first she coached with her mother, and they spent two hours daily working on it since she had only six weeks to prepare it. “I sang with all my lungs and I felt my voice growing bigger every day under the new pressure,” Flagstad shares in her autobiography.6

After singing Isolde in June and July 1932, Flagstad rested her voice for a few weeks. This was an important transitional moment for Flagstad:

During that period my voice seemed to grow just by resting. When I sang Isolde again, I discovered that it had not only grown but that it responded to my wishes with much more ease. Moreover, it had deepened to a darker color. This had probably come from all that heavy work, studying Tristan und Isolde in six weeks, and so forth. There was another result which had me worried for a while. In studying and singing Isolde, my back had developed so tremendously from all the heavy breathing that my dresses actually burst apart. They had become too tight for me in the shoulders. Mind you, I had not put on additional weight. My lungs had expanded so. I could hear the difference, as well as feel it in my back muscles.7

Ellen Gulbransen, a Swedish dramatic soprano, heard Flagstad’s Isolde in Göteborg and arranged for her to audition at Bayreuth for Winifred Wagner. In her first season at Bayreuth, 1933, Flagstad’s assignments were the Third Norn (Götterdämmerung) and Ortlinde (Die Walküre), as well as to understudy Eva (Die Meistersinger) and Sieglinde (Die Walküre). Those were followed in 1934 with Gutrune (Götterdämmerung) and Sieglinde.

A cable arrived from the Metropolitan Opera asking Flagstad if she would be able to sing roles like Isolde and Brünnhilde in their forthcoming season. She was to travel to St. Moritz, Switzerland, to audition for then-Met general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza and conductor Artur Bodanzky. She was asked to bring with her the three Brünnhildes, Isolde, and Leonore (Fidelio) with only six days to prepare. She had previously started only the Siegfried Brünnhilde and had sung Fidelio only in Norwegian. Flagstad was ultimately offered a contract at the Metropolitan Opera, but she was unable to accept any performances until her contracts at Göteborg had been satisfied.

After Flagstad arrived in New York, it was decided that she would make her Met debut as Sieglinde in a Saturday afternoon broadcast of Die Walküre on February 2. Flagstad was 39 years old. Her luminous performance of “Du bist der Lenz” from that debut performance, conducted by Bodanzky, can be heard on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIo8IokM1ZE).

The host of the broadcast intermissions was retired Met star Geraldine Farrar, who told the radio audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, today we are witnessing one of the greatest events that can happen during an opera performance. A singer completely unknown to us has transported the audience to ecstasy with her marvelous voice and artistic personality. A new star is born!”8

Farrar’s assessment proved to be only too true, and the Flagstad phenomenon was launched. The day after her debut, a “Sold Out” sign was posted for her first New York Isolde on February 6. Next came her role debut in the Walküre Brünnhilde—without rehearsal—on February 15, after which she developed laryngitis and had to cancel a couple of Isoldes and the Siegfried Brünnhilde. As a result of her illness, Flagstad lost part of her hearing, a malady which stayed with her for two years. Fortunately, she had perfect pitch and was able to debut the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde on February 28. This was followed by an Elsa at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 5, a Tristan, another Walküre, and Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) on March 15. Then she learned Kundry (Parsifal) in eleven days to perform it on April 17.9

While the numerous feats Flagstad accomplished in her first two months at the Met are almost beyond belief, one can see that they were a continuation of a pattern that was established over the previous two decades in Norway and Sweden. And thus began one of the most illustrious careers in operatic history.

According to American dramatic soprano Linda Watson—one of today’s foremost interpreters of many of the same roles on which Flagstad’s fame rests—Flagstad had a “silvery, powerful tone unmatched by anyone ever again. You heard her heart in everything she sang. She brought a warmth to Wagner and a deep, true connection to each woman she portrayed. A lyricism that has gotten lost today.”

Flagstad’s legacy was especially influential for Watson:

[Flagstad’s] were the first recordings I heard—especially of Isolde—when I was a teenager. This sound stayed with me, sort of as an ideal in color and style . . . . There was something ethereal about her performances, though. I felt in her what I now feel myself when I sing Wagner and not when I sing any other composer. There is a spiritually uplifting vibration, a higher vibration that surrounds me. I don’t feel it all the time, but when I do, it is completely transporting.

Flagstad’s counsel on singing Wagner can be heard
on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6Stoi8DAqU). Hearing her speak these words in her mesmerizing voice is simply spellbinding!


1 Flagstad, Kirsten. Louis Leopold Biancolli, ed. The Flagstad Manuscript: An Autobiography (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952), 13.
2 Ibid., 20.
3 Ibid., 21.
4 Ibid., 22.
5 Ibid., 26.
6 Ibid., 51-2.
7 Ibid., 57.
8 Vogt, Howard. Flagstad: Singer of the Century (London: Secker and Warburg, 1987), 111-2.
9 Flagstad, 74-7.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.