The Ring in San Francisco – Remembering Kirsten Flagstad, Wagnerian Brünnhilde for the AgesBy Lois Silverstein
San Francisco Opera is in the midst of its month-long festival dedicated to Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” In the coming weeks, Lois Silverstein will explore her experience not only revisiting the 2018 opera production but several of the events and panels presented by the company.
Paul Thomasen and Anika E. Englehart gave a fine lecture on foremost Wagnerian soprano of the 2oth century, Kirsten Flagstad.
As Thomasen and Englehart detailed, Flagstad and her three siblings were discouraged by their parents from having musical careers. Lucky for us the Flagstad children didn’t listen.
Flagstad, to get through the tedium of hourly daily piano practice, accompanied herself by singing. When she received the score of “Lohengrin” from her parents for her 10th birthday, she was off and running. That is until she ran into her own desire to be a mother and wife first and foremost. Fortunately, she sang so much during that time, she began to realize how much she had to “say” through her voice. Also, she wanted to sing, “serious music,” not the light singing of operetta and other entertainments that she had found herself performing. From here on, she took serious singing as her major life’s work.
In the 1930s, Flagstad signed a contract to sing at Bayreuth, having been auditioned by Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law to Richard Wagner. From here she was hired to sing at the Metropolitan some of the major German soprano roles, Leonora in “Fidelio“, Elsa in “Lohengrin” and Sieglinde in “Die Walküre.” Gatti-Cazazza and the powers that be at the Met were dumbstruck by the beauty and power of her voice. It was this soprano who Gaetano Merola hired to open his first Ring in San Francisco on February 2, 1935. She was an overnight sensation.
Flagstad became the face of the German Soprano par excellence of the time. Blonde, robust, stalwart, with an exquisite vocal technique, rang and presence, she performed at the Royal Opera House with Lauritz Melchior, Fritz Reiner conducting, as Isolde. In addition to Brünnhilde, Isolde became one of her signature roles.
When the war came, she was in America and agreed to contracts for more operas until America joined the war. Then, her husband urged her to return to Norway, and when she did, she refused to sing in any cities which the Nazis occupied. Despite this fact, the press painted her as a German and Nazi collaborator, notably American correspondent, Walter Winchell. With American anti-German sentiment high, audiences were then in no way interested in Flagstad’s remarkable talents. It wasn’t until 1947, after the war, that the tide changed, and Winchell and cohorts were proven to be spreading lies and inflating rumors. At last, Flagstad was once again on Main Street.
Between 1949 and the early 1950s, Flagstad sang on the radio, performed with San Francisco once again, sang in Chicago, and at the Met. She made multiple recordings, solo, and in duet with Lauritz Melchior, renowned Danish Heldentenor. She sang Wagner, of course, and Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” and gained a reputation as the most sublime soprano whom no one could eclipse.
On a personal note, she would not sing her beloved “Fidelio” because her own husband had been imprisoned for questionable wartime activities, and died in prison before she could do anything to save him. Contrary to the lies and slander spread about her during the war, Flagstad showed herself as a singer who took what she sang close to her heart. Until she was convinced by others, that the way past was through, “Fidelio” remained a closed door in her repertoire.