Opera star honoured all year long

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Kirsten Flagstad was arguably Norway’s greatest opera star ever, and after international success at the Metropolitan Opera in New York she went on to become Norway’s first opera chief. This year marks 100 years since Flagstad’s debut, and special events have been hailing her all year long.

Kirsten Flagstad was Norway's pioneering opera star, but the state won't fund a new prize in her name. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Kirsten Flagstad was Norway’s pioneering opera star, but met resistance along the way. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Queen Sonja did the honours when the official “Kirsten Flagstad Year” opened last winter. It will culminate on December 12, 100 years to the day since an 18-year-old Flagstad first sang on the stage of the National Theater in Oslo, in the opera Lavland by Eugen d’Albert. That was the start of a brilliant career that’s hard to match in Norwegian history.

Now, midway through all the “Flagstad 2013” festivities (external link, in Norwegian), Flagstad fans still have a summer of special events looming ahead, right after a weeklong “Flagstad Festival” and international research seminar ended in Hamar.

In July there will a speech in Melbo, three days of jubileum concerts and allsong in Kristiansand, gatherings at the Kirsten Flagstad Museum in Hamar, and another festival in Elverum in August.

“There are many Norwegians who don’t realize just how great  Kirsten Flagstad was,” Inger Johanne Christiansen, curator at the National Library in Oslo, told news bureau NTB.  “She was probably bigger in the US than here at home.”

The library mounted an exhibit with the Flagstad museum marking the singer’s 100-year jubilee that moved on to the City Hall (Rådhuset) in Hamar, where Flagstad was born in 1895. Her parents were both musicians and Flagstad grew up knowing what a hard life it could be, how much absence and discipline it entailed.

Kirsten Flagstad was known as "the voice of the century" for her powerful, dramatic soprano. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Kirsten Flagstad was known as “the voice of the century” for her powerful, dramatic soprano. PHOTO: Wikipedia

That didn’t keep her from launching a musical career herself. Her debut in Oslo (still called Kristiania at that time) in 1913 sparked great enthusiasm in Norway and she won several important roles. She eventually was picked by by Stora Teatern Göteborg in Gothenburg, Sweden and then was asked to sing at the Met.

She ‘s been called “the voice of the century” after making her international breakthrough in New York. Some claim she saved New York’s Metropolitan Opera when it was in economic crisis in the hard Depression years of the 1930s, because her singing caused a such a sensation. Flagstad became famous for her role in the Wagner opera Valkyrien, and radio carried her voice into millions of American homes.

“As a soloist she became in institution in herself, and she contributed considerably to the Metropolitan Opera’s economy,” said Trond Olave Svendsen, a music historian and author who has spent years researching Flagstad. He told newspaper Dagsavisen this spring that when Flagstad sang back home at Frogner Stadium in Oslo, around 12,000 persons heard her. She was so popular that she needed a police escort, and a later concert at Grant Park in Chicago made her Oslo concert pale in comprison. Flagstad attracted an audience of more than 200,000, according to Svendsen.

Her popularity waned during World War II because her second husband, Henry Johansen, was linked to Nazi Germany before and during the German occupation of Norway. It later turned out that Flagstad’s family actually had been engaged in resistance work, but it took a long time to restore her reputation, and some of her concerts attracted demonstrators also in the US during the war.

She continued her career after the war, helped by declarations of support from other popular Norwegian performers of the time, and was named the first head of the Norwegian Opera in 1958. She died in 1962. A statue of Flagstad stands outside the Opera House that opened in 2008 on Oslo’s waterfront.

Her dramatic soprano also led her to the great opera houses of the world, like La Scala, because of the sheer strength of her voice. A new book by Svendsen was being released this month. “Her career is simply one of the greatest the history of opera has to offer,” he told Dagsavisen.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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