In June of 1946, the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her era, perhaps the greatest of all time, cabled to her longtime accompanist the news that her husband had died. It was another in a string of cruel blows that had been raining down upon the embattled artist since she had been ripped from her career in 1941 upon the order of her now deceased spouse. She spent the subsequent four years watching her voice go virtually unused in silent protest against the Nazi occupation of her country only to then be accused of treason by that same nation upon the war’s end. Her husband now passed beyond its grasp, the world directed its vengeful intentions towards his entirely innocent and long-suffering wife, badgering her with legal aggression and preventing her from doing the one thing that made her life bearable.
When Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) debuted in 1935 at the Metropolitan Opera in the role of Sieglinde to tumultuous acclaim, she was already forty years old, and known hardly at all outside of her native Norway. Her talents had been recognized early – her parents gave her a copy of the score to Wagner’s Lohengrin when she was ten years old and she promptly memorized the role – but until 1932 she performed primarily in light operatic roles. She debuted in 1913, married in 1919, and had a daughter named Else in 1920. Separating from her first husband, and plunging back into music as soon as she could, she took up a position in Gothenberg, Sweden in 1928 that allowed her to expand into heavier roles like Aida and Tosca which she discovered were not only more suited to her talents, but to her liking.
In 1929 she met the lumber tycoon Henry Johansen whom she married in 1930. He was unspeakably wealthy, and whether because of his influence or her own realization that she didn’t actually need to sing to support herself anymore, she retired from the stage to give more time to her husband and his children from a previous marriage. With all of the local opera houses bombarding her with requests to perform, however, it was only so long until the prima donna in her won out and she made her way back to the stage. After some interesting parts she at last played the role that she was to define for all time in 1932: Isolde from Richard Wagner’s revolutionary Tristan und Isolde.
The Metropolitan had scouted her during her time in Oslo but characteristically she blew off the scout’s inquiry letter for unknown reasons and it was not until 1934, when the Met was truly desperate for a Wagnerian soprano to bring power to their Ring cycle, that serious negotiations began. Her debut at the Met was one of modern opera’s true milestones, an overnight sensation that proved that beauty need not come at the sacrifice of power.
A pianist by the name of Edwin McArthur heard the performance and immediately offered his services to Flagstad as her accompanist, a role he would faithfully fulfill for the rest of her life. In a letter remarkable to modern eyes for its patronizing tone, he advised her about How Things Are Done in the United States and she, unsure in this new musical landscape, took his advice to devote herself to a rigorous tour schedule in addition to continuing her work with the Metropolitan Opera. The next five years saw Flagstad and McArthur conquer nearly wherever they chose to tread. Flagstad proved herself not only the world’s pre-eminent interpreter of Wagnerian opera, but in concert also did her best to promote the songs of her native Norway and those of her adopted America.
Years of Warner Bros cartoons and viking helmeted parodies have gifted us an exaggerated picture of what a Wagnerian soprano is. By this caricature, the Wagnerian soprano is a massive armored tank of a being who sings AS LOUD AS SHE CAN ALL THE TIME, transitions between notes in a phrase being managed with all the subtlety and grace of a battleship attempting to seduce a concrete factory. Flagstad proved that this does not need to be the case, that Wagnerian lines could be graceful and heartbreaking, that the big moments of power didn’t need to sound like blaring airhorn blasts arriving from nowhere and returning thence after long undifferentiated seconds of volume. Even that most Kill Da Wabbitt of solos, the Hojotoho, while still pulsing with the rightful power of a Valkyrie war cry, in Flagstad’s hands becomes something more, the song of a war maiden thrilling in the freedom of flight. Flagstad presented a Wagner that even non-Wagnerians could appreciate and the box office receipts showed it.
All was going well when, in 1940, her homeland was invaded by the Nazi juggernaut. Her husband, who had been in the country during the invasion, continued operating his business during the war years, and in an act of almost unfathomable selfishness first requested, then demanded, that Flagstad return from America to join him. At first, she chose not to believe what she was reading. Surely this was some trick of the Nazis attempting to lure her back home to make use of her in their massive cult to Wagner. When the demand was repeated through intermediaries and more letters, however, Flagstad realized that he was in earnest. She was at the top of her career and demand in America, and she was being asked to return to an invaded country where she could not possibly perform, perhaps ever, in order to provide company for a man who, upon even a generous interpretation, appeared to be collaborating with the imposed Nazi government for profit.
Independent in so many things connected to her art, however, Flagstad was incapable of resistance in what she perceived as her duties as wife. She left behind everything and joined her husband in Norway. She was repeatedly asked by the German authorities to perform, and repeatedly refused. She would not sing for the invaders, and in fact only managed a few performances in neutral Sweden and Switzerland as the total artistic output of the next four years.
Things would get worse. The end of the war saw her husband arrested as a suspected collaborator, his case being prosecuted by a man possessed of a prior and long-standing hatred of Johansen. After Johansen’s death, that prosecutor turned his attention onto an intense harassment of Flagstad that exceeded all bounds of reason. He insisted that she had earned no money that could be rightly called hers, and therefore ought to be stripped of all her financial resources. He put the responsibility entirely on her shoulders to prove that she had an independent and significant income, compelling her to get statements of income from everywhere she had ever worked, receipts of every expense she had ever incurred, and lists of the programs she had performed. Whenever she satisfied one request, another would surface in a case that seemed without end.
And as the case went on, so did it seem to lend credence to the idea that there was something sinister about Flagstad. Why else would this case have continued for so long if she weren’t at least a little guilty? In America, commentators like the radio personality and newspaper columnist Walter Winchell invented and promulgated out and out lies about Flagstad’s having performed for Germans during the war, laying the groundwork for years of hardship in rebuilding her American career later. The man prosecuting Flagstad refused to allow her to obtain a passport to leave the country, and so she couldn’t accept the offers from the few brave houses willing to take her in amongst all the scandal. Her husband’s fortune reclaimed by the state, her own resources frozen, and her ability to make money through her art entirely hampered by her inability to leave the country, Flagstad knew real financial desperation for the first time in her life.
It would take years of hard work and the support of a small group of dedicated friends to allow Flagstad to claw her way back to something like real security. Even when her passport was restored to her at last, her return to America was anything but pleasant. The Met wouldn’t consider having her back, nor the San Francisco Opera where she had been such a fixture in the 1930s. A tour through the Midwest featured almost empty seats, and concerts in Boston and the West Coast were heavily picketed by Americans who had been convinced by the Winchell articles that Flagstad was essentially the Naziest Nazi in Nazitown.
Those who knew the facts of Flagstad’s years of silence and isolation felt it would be dignifying the absurd to respond to the accusations against her, and so instead of the facts getting quickly and clearly stated in a public forum, it took years of slow movement to push public opinion back in her corner again. She did ultimately return to the San Francisco Opera in the early 1950s, but by that point she was in her mid fifties and towards the end of her radiant on-stage career. She managed only one full season of Wagnerian repertoire at the Met, and only came back for part of a second when a role in Gluck’s opera Alceste was dangled before her. It was a part that intrigued her, but as a farewell to the public that had adored her Wagnerian interpretations for the last four decades, it was a somehow dissatisfying experience capped by a ceremony in which everybody spoke except Flagstad.
After a decade of war, isolation, and almost constant harassment, Flagstad no longer had the will or energy to tour, but her voice was still a glorious instrument, and she took every opportunity she could grab to record her greatest roles and favorite songs for posterity, including a 1953 Tristan und Isolde with Wilhelm Furtwangler that ranks as among the greatest ever put to wax. She also took a step out of retirement for the special occasion of premiering (again with Furtwangler) Richard Strauss’s unearthly, autumnal Four Last Songs. These songs, with their wistful glance backwards at a long life nearing its end, could not have found a more fitting voice to welcome them into the world. Flagstad, in ill health herself and with not more than a decade to live, captured the fragile beauty of Strauss’s late genius and the experience of listening to those recordings has transfixed generations of listeners ever since.
From 1958 to 1960 Flagstad, suffering pains already from the cancer that would ultimately cause her death in 1962, assumed the directorship of the Norwegian National Opera and took particular pride in introducing some of the works of American composers to the European continent. Respected and financially independent at age sixty five in a way that seemed impossible to her during the dark times of the 1940s, she might have had a promising second career as a director and mentor to the next generation of performers, but her body would not allow it. Her passing in 1962 was grounds for a wellspring of sorrow in which all the misunderstandings of the past were forgotten and all of the decades of otherworldly artistic achievement were remembered, and revered. There have been great Wagnerian sopranos since, but none have changed what those words mean as Flagstad did. Those brilliant successors live in the aural world crafted by Flagstad, as do we, and our world is all the more beautiful for her having done so.
Lead image via Wikipedia, creative commons.
FURTHER READING: Edwin McArthur wrote a memoir of his time with Flagstad back in 1965 which is almost unbearably patronizing at times, but which is also a truly indispensable resource for how Flagstad survived during the long, lean years, and how she approached her craft during the glorious ones. Flagstad herself wrote a memoir of her life with Louis Biancolli in 1952 called The Flagstad Manuscript which is also an interesting document that landed her in some more hot water for its accusations against the motivations of the people who had organized the case against her in Norway.
FURTHER LISTENING: Of course, the Furtwangler Tristan is a must, as are the Four Last Songs of Strauss and her 1930s recordings with the legendary tenor Lauritz Melchior (whose behavior towards her during her dark times was appalling), but I’d also recommend tracking down her recordings of Grieg’s Haugtussa song cycle, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, and, just for the fun of it as well as a sign of her attempts to popularize American song composers, those of Oley Speaks’s “Morning.” In the meantime, here are some great things to tide you over:
The Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Quintessential Flagstad – I love this piece of music almost too much to say anything sensible about it, so I won’t. Here it is, Flagstad in 1952 with Furtwangler on the baton:
The Valkyrie Battle Cry from Die Walkure. Flagstad actually recorded this for Hollywood’s Big Broadcast of 1938, introduced by Bob Hope of all people. It’s actually a pretty great example of how she took this cannon of a piece and makes it somehow joyful, youthful, and freeing. I adore it.
Solveig’s Song by Edvard Grieg. Hearing Norway’s greatest soprano performing the songs of its most well-known composer in the original is a wonderful treat. Here is Flagstad recording that piece in 1929, six years before her big breakthrough:
Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. My favorite is September but I can’t find a good clip of that, so here’s Im Abendrot, which is also pretty damn great:
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