The Voice of the Century
Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962), to whom there's a museum of memorabilia dedicated in Hamar, remains one of the all-time legends of opera. Interpreting the operas of Henry Purcell or Richard Wagner, among other composers, Flagstad had no equal in her day. At the age of 40, she was planning to retire but was invited to perform at New York's Metropolitan Opera on February 2, 1935. The rest is history. Her performance was broadcast across Canada and the United States, and it created a sensation, with music critics labeling her "the Voice of the Century." Her Brunhild in San Francisco ensured her lasting fame in America. Along with Lauritz Melchior, Flagstad is credited with keeping the Metropolitan Opera alive in New York during its difficult days of the Depression on the eve of World War II.
Her popularity waned when she returned to Nazi-occupied Norway to be with her husband, Henry Johansen. It was a naive decision that would harm her incredible popularity in the United States for the rest of her life. During the war she never sang for the Germans. But her husband, Johansen, in ill health, was arrested by the Norwegians at the end of the war and labeled a war profiteer, even though he'd aided the Allied resistance. He died a year later.
On Flagstad's return to postwar America, a political campaign, labeled in the press as one of "extreme vituperation," was waged against her. Demonstrations marred each one of her performances in New York and San Francisco. Nevertheless, her devoted fans still clung to her. At age 54, when most divas are in retirement, Flagstad continued to perform with the San Francisco Opera, scoring some of her greatest successes with Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre. During the tragic years of the war, her voice had "darkened" and lost some of its brilliant upper register. But all of her concerts were still sold out by die-hard fans.
Fortunately, her recorded voice remains to win new generations of fans among opera lovers. Many music critics now hail her as "the diva of the 20th century." Flagstad's recorded voice has become "immortal," glowing with richness, power, and an expressiveness that is not only beautiful, but also intensely dramatic.