Opera For Beginners

Artist Profile: Kirsten Flagstad, The ‘Greatest Singer of the 20th Century’

What hasn’t been said about Kirsten Flagstad? She was once famously called the greatest voice of the 20th century and her legacy certainly bears this out. There is a museum in her honor in her homeland of Norway and her picture appears on Norwegian Air Shuttle planes.

Born on July 12, 1895, in Norway, she received early musical training in Oslo and made her first recordings between 1913 and 1915. Slowly but surely she became a major singer in her native land and started finding success across Europe.

She actually started out singing lighter repertoire and operetta, but after a decade of singing this kind of music, she started to take on heavier roles. Her first Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” came in 1932. She then appeared at the Bayreuth Festival and her legend became a reality.

The Metropolitan Opera quickly signed her on and many have even noted that her massive success there saved the company from looming bankruptcy. She would go on to perform all around the world, though she did prove a controversial figure during World War II as she decided to return to Europe to perform. This would hinder her chances of singing in American companies, but she eventually made her way back.

She famously gave the world premiere of Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” in her later years at the composer’s request.

She died in 1962 after losing her battle with bone marrow cancer. But her legacy lives on.

Major Roles

Flagstad might be considered the greatest Wagnerian in history. Her interpretations of Isolde and Brünnhilde are legendary and remain the benchmark that most aspire to.

“Isolde is a severe test for the voice,” Flagstad once stated about the role. “Either it can be completely destroyed, or it can grow, as mine did.” And she certainly did, becoming arguably the most famous exponent of the role in the most renowned recording of “Tristan und Isolde.”

She sang the role 70 times at the Met over an eight-year span, making Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” one of the greatest box office hits of the company’s history. Her interpretation was such a massive success that nine of her performances were broadcast on the radio on Saturday afternoons.

As for her Brünnhilde, she pretty much dominated the role in her time, taking away opportunities from other great sopranos of the time. It wasn’t until Birgit Nilsson showed up that anyone even questioned Flagstad’s status as the greatest exponent of the role.

Read More on Flagstad 

3 Essential Recordings

Watch and Listen

Learn more about the iconic soprano by watching this documentary.

And here she provides a lesson on singing Wagner.

But what you really want is to hear her sing. So here is perhaps the greatest recording of “Tristan und Isolde.” This recording has never been out of print.

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