Celebrating "The Voice of the Century": Kirsten Flagstad's 125th Jubilee

Jean Marie Hellner

Clad in armor and ready for battle with spear in one hand and warrior shield in the other, Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) conquered the tumultuous world of opera. Critics and opera afficionados alike consider Norway's most famous singer to be one of the best dramatic sopranos of the twentieth century and the greatest interpreter of Richard Wagner's operas and music dramas. With her enormous sound, exceptional technique, and melodious warmth, it is justified that Flagstad has been dubbed "The Voice of the Century".

Kirsten Flagstad hailed from Fargo's sister city of Hamar, Norway. Born on July 12, 1895 to artistic parents (her mother, Maja, was a pianist and a central figure in Oslo's musical scene, and her father, Michael, was a conductor and violinist) who immersed their protégé into music at an early age, Flagstad studied singing and piano. For her tenth birthday, her parents even gave her a score of Wagner's Lohengrin from which she quickly learned the part of Elsa.

Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde from Richard Wagner's Die Walküre (The Valkyries). For a recording of Flagstad singing "Ho Jo To Yo" from The Big Broadcast of 1938, click here.

Flagstad's international career began in the summer of 1932, when she performed the role of Isolde in Wagner's music drama Tristan und Isolde at the National Theater in Oslo. This performance led to an invitation to audition at the Bayreuth Festival, where, in 1934, Flagstad sang the roles of Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Gutrune in

Götterdämmerung. That same summer, Flagstad successfully auditioned for a lead role at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

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Kirsten Flagstad as Elsa from

Richard Wagner's Lohengrin

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Kirsten Flagstad

in an undated photograph

Opera played a major role throughout much of Flagstad's extraordinary career. Her successful debut at the National Theater in Oslo at the age of eighteen was no exception: among the members of the packed audience were Norway's King Haakon and Queen Maud. What really helped launch Flagstad's fame in the Scandinavian countries was her work with the Stora Teatern in Gothenburg, Sweden, where she debuted singing the female lead Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. A revival at this theater of Carl Nielsen's opera Saul and David in 1930 prompted the composer to describe Flagstad's interpretation of the role Michal as "genius", a word from that point forward would become indelibly linked to her artistry.

Her debut at the Met on February 2, 1935 as Sieglinde marked the beginning of Flagstad's long and legendary engagement in Wagner's theatrical works at this world-renowned opera house. Between 1935 and 1941, she was one of the Met's most successful box office attractions, performing the role of Isolde seventy times, not to mention many of the other roles she played that characterized these most illustrious years of her career. In addition to her frequent performances at the Met, Flagstad made guest appearances at major opera houses across both Europe and the United States, along with some concert tours. As a world-famous dramatic soprano, she specialized in not only Wagnerian roles but also those in operas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Christoph Willibald Gluck, and Henry Purcell. Flagstad also promoted the music of Norwegian composers, most notably that of Norway's most famous son, Edvard Grieg.

In addition to a distinguished stage and concert career, Flagstad also enjoyed a successful recording career of 46 years (1913-1959). Although the exact number is unknown, commercial and pirated recordings likely total close to 1,000. For Flagstad's discography, click here.