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How Kirsten Flagstad Saved Opera

In the early 1930s, the future of opera in America was in serious doubt. The threat then was not a global pandemic, but it was very real, endangering two fundamental ingredients for the art form: audience interest and money.

The Great Depression had already forced cuts at the Metropolitan Opera, the canary in the operatic coalmine. Artist salaries were slashed, and weeks of performances were trimmed from the opera’s upcoming seasons. These measures bought time, but tightening the belt was no substitute for increased income and new audiences. Technology, namely radio and cinema, posed another threat to the bottom line by offering new, inexpensive alternatives to live theater. 

This dire outlook changed quite suddenly on February 2, 1935 when, unheralded and all but unknown outside her native Norway, soprano Kirsten Flagstad made her American debut as Sieglinde in a Saturday matinee of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The performance was broadcast live. Audiences around the country heard the ovation Flagstad received following her Act III exit. (Applause interrupting the action of a Wagner performance was as unusual then as it is now.)

Flagstad galvanized music lovers and new listeners alike. Portions of her historic debut were recorded and are available online, where you can hear the gleaming, powerful and absolutely secure sound of her upper register in “Du bist der Lenz,” about 45 minutes into the performance. 

That season, the Met also presented her in Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Parsifal, and box office sales went through the roof. By the end of 1935 she was on the cover of Time Magazine and later she had a cameo in a Hollywood film. Flagstad’s rising popularity buoyed the careers of other great singers like Lily Pons, Ezio Pinza and Lawrence Tibbett. Suddenly opera was big business and reaching multitudes through radio, film and the stage. The hottest tickets were for the long Wagnerian music dramas, especially when Flagstad and Danish heldentenor Lauritz Melchior were at the top of the bill.

Always on the hunt for new talent, San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola visited Flagstad backstage at the Met during her triumphant first season and made her an irresistible offer. He would stage the Company’s first-ever production of Wagner’s four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelungen if she would be his Brünnhilde. The Company hastily hired a designer, constructed sets and costumes and cast all four operas. The 1935 season opened with Das Rheingold, part one of the Ring cycle, followed three nights later by part two, Die Walküre, featuring the new superstar. “Flagstad is as advertised,” commented the San Francisco Examiner. “She has the rare and real dramatic soprano voice, the kind that need not be pushed and squeezed to make up its volume, but that in its own free utterance is powerful and noble.”

Merola featured Flagstad mostly in Wagnerian works for San Francisco audiences over the next few seasons, but she was also the Company’s first Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio. A few airchecks survive from the Flagstad seasons and serve as testaments to San Francisco Opera’s role in this now legendary era of great Wagner singing in America.

Overloaded with opera and concert commitments, Flagstad left San Francisco Opera’s roster in 1938, only to return the following year to appear with Melchior and help the Company bounce back from financial losses sustained during her absence. The San Francisco Chronicle observed the calculus: “Flagstad plus Wagner equals good business. Melchior plus Wagner equals fair business. Flagstad plus Melchior plus anything — boy, go out buy a bottle of black ink.”

Flagstad returned to occupied Norway in 1941 to be with her husband, a move that brought her untold misery in the post-war years. An organized campaign to paint her as a Nazi collaborator dogged her reentry into American musical life with protests. Among the first institutions to stand by her was San Francisco Opera which, in solidarity with the city’s mayor, Angelo Rossi, brought her back to the War Memorial Opera House stage as Brünnhilde and Isolde in 1949. The following year, she reprised her unrivaled Isolde and was Kundry in the Company premiere of Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal.

San Francisco Opera has survived dark times: the Great Depression, World War II, the Loma Prieta earthquake, 9/11 and the financial crisis of the late 2000s. We are all living through an altogether different crisis now. As theaters have gone dark to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, a domino effect threatens all quarters of the arts. Opera is in an especially precarious position as it depends on the artistic concrescence of so many — orchestra players, singers, make-up artists, dressers, stagehands, technicians, crafts workers, administrators, ushers and, above all, audiences. How will it survive? Will another once-in-a-century artist like Kirsten Flagstad help?

The challenge is great, but it can be met. Ironically, sheltering in place has already led to some pretty remarkable examples of the music community banding together, whether virtually or by singing from windows and balconies.

If you feel alive when you hear great music, if you treasure the artists who enliven our daily routines with their extraordinary gifts, now is the time to celebrate the art you love most. Support organizations and artists who are hurting. Join or organize digital watch parties for streaming operas. Engage your seat mates from the opera house in a guessing game of who will be the next great artist to capture our imagination. 

We all owe Kirsten Flagstad a debt of gratitude for ushering opera through an impossible challenge and into a glorious golden age. We can get through this new crisis if we stand together (and, for the time being, at least six feet apart). Given recent San Francisco Opera appearances like Eun Sun Kim conducting Dvorak’s Rusalka or Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra performing Romeo and Juliet, there is clearly lots of thrilling and transformative opera ahead.



Jeffery McMillan is the senior communications manager at San Francisco Opera and the author of the book Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan. He has previously written for Opera News, Musical America and San Francisco Classical Voice.

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