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Kirsten Flagstad was born into a musical family: her father Michael was a conductor and her mother Marie a pianist. She initially studied singing in Oslo with Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen and made her operatic stage debut in the small part of Nuri / Tiefland at the National Theatre, Oslo in 1913 while continuing her vocal studies with Albert Westwang in Oslo and Gillis Bratt in Stockholm. After a successful concert debut in the Aula of Oslo University during 1918, Flagstad married during the following year and joined the itinerant Opera Comique, recently established in Oslo. She proved to be a quick learner of scores and her parts included Desdemona / Otello (opposite Leo Slezak), Minnie / La fanciulla del West and Amelia / Un ballo in maschera as well as other roles in operettas and musical comedies. In 1928, the year in which her marriage was dissolved, Flagstad moved to the Stora Theatre in Gothenburg, where her debut was as Agathe / Der Freischütz. Two years later she sang Michal in Saul and David by Carl Nielsen, who described her interpretation as possessing ‘genius’.

Having also remarried in 1930, to a successful businessman, Flagstad envisaged retiring from the stage. However her husband helped her to develop her career and she now took on heavier roles such as the title parts in Tosca and Aida, thus strengthening her dramatic capability. In 1932 she sang Isolde / Tristan und Isolde at the National Theatre in Oslo and was immediately noted as a future Wagnerian star. The Swedish soprano Ellen Gulbranson, then living in Oslo, recommended Flagstad to Winifred Wagner for the Bayreuth Festival, where in 1933 she sang minor roles, followed by Sieglinde / Die Walküre and Gutrune / Götterdämmerung in 1934.

During August 1934 Flagstad auditioned at St Moritz in Switzerland for Artur Bodanzky and Giulio Gatti-Casazza of the Metropolitan Opera and was immediately engaged for the following season in New York. She made her debut at the Met at the beginning of February 1935 as Sieglinde and caused an immediate sensation, partly because the performance was broadcast nationwide as part of the company’s Saturday matinée series. A few weeks later at the beginning of March she sang Isolde, followed by Brünnhilde / Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung for the first time. By the end of that season she had appeared as Elsa / Lohengrin, Elisabeth / Tannhäuser and Kundry / Parsifal; and had also sung Brunnhilde in The Ring at San Francisco. During the following season Flagstad sang Leonore / Fidelio for the first time at the Met (her only non-Wagnerian role there before World War II) and in 1937 made her debut in Chicago. So great was her appeal that her performances consistently sold out, greatly helping the Met’s then-precarious financial position.

In Europe Flagstad sang the roles of Isolde, Brünnhilde and Senta at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, during the summer seasons of 1936 and 1937 with Beecham, Furtwängler and Reiner conducting. She toured Australia in 1938 and appeared in the Hollywood musical The Big Broadcast of 1938, singing Brünnhilde’s ‘Hojo-to-ho’ with admirable abandon.

During 1941 Flagstad decided to return to Norway to join her husband, who had returned there himself in 1939; but the public perception of her move from the United States to German-occupied Norway was largely negative. Although Flagstad only performed during the war in neutral Sweden and Switzerland, her presence in Europe and the arrest after the war of her husband for profiteering in occupied Norway made her unpopular. However she gradually rebuilt her international position, taking part in the first season of the young Covent Garden Opera in 1947, singing all her Wagnerian roles there and appearing annually between 1948 and 1952.

Flagstad toured South America in 1948 and returned to San Francisco in 1949, the year in which she also made her debut at the Salzburg Festival, as Leonore. During 1950 she took part in the legendary performances of the Ring given at La Scala, Milan, conducted by Furtwängler, and gave the first performance of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder in London, also conducted by Furtwängler. She returned to the Met in 1951 as Isolde, Brünnhilde and Leonore, but soon decided to cease singing Wagner on-stage. Her farewell appearance at the Met was in April 1952 in the title role of Gluck’s Alceste. Having sung Dido / Dido and Aeneas in London as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, Flagstad made her final operatic appearance in this role in Oslo in 1953.

In the last ten years of her life, during which her health gradually declined, Flagstad recorded for EMI and more extensively for Decca, to the point of singing Fricka / Das Rheingold in the first instalment of the Solti / Culshaw production of the Ring. She served as the first director of the Norwegian National Opera between 1958 and 1960, the year in which she was diagnosed as suffering from bone cancer. Flagstad’s singing was always extremely musical and absolutely secure technically; it has been aptly described as ‘enveloping the listener in a cushion of sound’. This statuesque quality may be heard in her numerous recordings, both commercial and of live performances.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

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