Best known for her Wagnerian roles, opera singer Kirsten Flagstad was an overnight sensation when she made her debut at the New York Met in 1935. Dr Tim Lockley provides an insight into the modest Norwegian whose husband’s connections with the Nazis would blight her US career, but whose voice continued to captivate audiences, even into her sixties.
An interview with Dr Tim Lockley, Comparative American Studies
Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad might not be a recognisable name today, but in the 1935, when she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Sieglinde in Die Walküre, she became an overnight sensation. She would go on to achieve the same levels of fame as Pavarotti or Maria Callas, until her career was suspended by the advent of World War II.
Despite the Met’s decision to give her a low-key debut in 1935, the fact that her performance was broadcast nationwide on the opera house’s weekly syndicated radio programme helped to cement her career as the foremost Wagnerian soprano of her generation. Dr Tim Lockley from the School of Comparative American Studies has an interest in Flagstad and has also been conducting research into a series of talks broadcast from the Met in the 1940-41 season, which provide a fascinating insight into pre-war America.
Flagstad had a pure yet incredibly powerful voice. “You need a big, solid voice that can sing over a Wagnerian orchestra, which is bigger than most orchestras,” explains Dr Lockley, “and you need to be able to sing so that everyone can hear you in the auditorium. You also need that longevity of career and stamina which often doesn’t occur in harmony with a Wagnerian singer – you get somebody who sounds fantastic in Wagner and after two or three years their voice has gone because it’s just so demanding to sing it. She wasn’t like that – she was a person who could come in and sing Wagner almost day in, day out”.
The Chairman of the Board of the Met, Otto Herman Kahn, first discovered Flagstad on a trip to Scandinavia in 1929, but she initially ignored his invitations to perform in America because she had just met her second husband and was considering giving up opera. However, in 1934, when a replacement was needed for German soprano Frida Leider, she agreed to audition and was employed immediately. As Dr Lockley explains, she quite deliberately didn’t sing Wagner until she was almost 40, saving her voice from the risk of early burnout – this was how she was able to sing all the major Wagnerian heroines for the next six years.
Despite the visual drama of these roles – especially Brunhilde, with her horned helmet, leather bodice and cast-iron bra – offstage, Flagstad was a “matronly woman, knitting in the corner”, says Dr Lockley. She didn’t spend a lot of time at parties and was devoted to her family. Flagstad married a prominent businessman in Norway in the 1930s, but this partnership would seriously damage her professional reputation after World War II, especially in America. Flagstad’s husband was in Norway when the Nazis invaded and occupied the country in 1940. “She was singing in New York,” explains Dr Lockley, “there was some question about whether she was going to go back to Norway at that point and she decided to remain in the States for another year, but by the April of 1941 she decided she was going to go back to Norway, even though it was under occupation, and this was a controversial decision at the time.”
She spent the war in Norway, but performed little, and certainly never in occupied Europe. Her husband - who was closely allied with Nazi collaborators the Quisling Party - was eventually imprisoned and died in 1946, before there had been an opportunity for a trial.
“Even though there is absolutely no evidence that she was a collaborator herself… there was a controversy about whether and where she would be allowed to sing again,” says Dr Lockley. Convinced of her pro-Nazi sentiments, American audiences greeted her performances with booing. Ironically, it was probably this period of enforced rest under Nazi occupation that allowed Flagstad to continue singing major Wagnerian roles, and the bright tone of her voice was still evident in her sixties.
A colleague, Hans Hotter, remembered her as kind and helpful: “She was not the greatest actress,” he said, “but compensated for that with the expression of her face - and her poise. Despite her stoutness - and it was all muscle, no fat - she had such dignity, and a marvellous face. She radiated personality: the personality of the role, by her face and her voice. Singing with her one had a constant wish just to listen to this glorious voice during a performance.”
You can listen to the whole interview with Dr Lockley in the audio podcast:
Dr Tim Lockley has an MA from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. His publications include Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009) and Welfare and Charity in the Antebellum South (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007). He is the Director of the Humanities Research Centre at the University of Warwick.
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