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Richard Wagner

Flagstad’s Wagner in London

1949 · 1950. BBC Maida Vale Studios, London · Royal Opera House, London
Returning to London after the war, Kirsten Flagstad appeared in Wagner with the Covent Garden Opera and undertook several concerts.
Composer Richard Wagner
Conductors Sir Adrian Boult, Karl Rankl
Singer Kirsten Flagstad
Ensembles BBC Symphony Orchestra, Covent Garden Opera
Genres Opera, Symphonic concert

Kirsten Flagstad
by Mike Ashman

Kirsten Flagstad’s career encompassed three periods of frenetic activity, at least two
retirements and the waiting period of the last part of the Second World War.  After a
local (Oslo) based start in operetta and verismo (her stage debut in 1913 was as
Nuri in d’Albert’s Tiefland) the first period of intense activity in the 1920s saw her
take on Marguérite, Micaëla, Amelia, Desdemona, Nedda, Puccini’s Minnie, Aida,
Tosca, and Nielsen’s Saul og David Michal (in the approving presence of the
composer), not to mention Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and continued
appearances in cabaret and musicals.  The sheer range of styles Flagstad took on in
these first decades of her career certainly helped her make text work for an already
sizeable voice. It brought her to her first Wagner – Elsa, Eva and, in 1932, Isolde in
a cast including Alexander Kipnis, Bayreuth’s current König Marke.

In Wagner the voice seemed to have found its natural home.  Kipnis and veteran
Brünnhilde Ellen Gulbranson persuaded Winifred Wagner to hear Flagstad for
Bayreuth. Coming to Bayreuth as a complete unknown outside Scandinavia,
Flagstad – in just four years between her Festival debut as Ortlinde and her first
London Senta – became the new world frontrunner in the leadingWagner soprano

In successive Bayreuth Festivals (1933 and 1934) she graduated from Ortlinde and
The Third Norn to Sieglinde and Gutrune and sang in the solo quartet for Richard
Strauss’s commemorative concert of Beethoven’s Ninth – a performance recorded
but apparently lost in the 1940s. (Strauss, as Furtwängler, Beecham and other
leading colleagues were to do, praised Flagstad’s work ethic as much as her
accuracy and the size and weight of her voice. Fifteen years later the memory of
this Ninth was sufficient for the composer to invite her to premiere his Four Last
Songs).  Now New York’s Metropolitan Opera came calling. In a heavily curtained,
acoustically dead hotel room in St Moritz they auditioned Flagstad in a mano a mano
stand-off with soprano Elizabeth Delius for the company’s prime Wagner slot
vacated by Frida Leider. Flagstad had little of her big repertoire off-book but was
chosen – and told to stay thin and to report to New York when she had learnt the
three Brünnhildes, Isolde uncut, Elsa, the Marschallin and Beethoven’s Leonore.
She achieved that with the help of coaching in Prague from the young, but already
martinet-like, George Szell.

Altogether between May 1934 and November 1935 Flagstad learned and made her
debuts in the roles of Sieglinde, Elisabeth, Leonore, the Brünnhildes and Kundry.
The Met played their new trump card with care: Flagstad debuted as Sieglinde in
February 1935 – a broadcast matinee performance that made guest announcer
Geraldine Ferrar depart from her script after Act I to rave about the new soprano
(this can be heard on recordings of the performance). Subsequently Flagstad sang
her first Walküre Brünnhilde without benefit of orchestral rehearsal and learnt
Kundry from scratch in eleven days.  With Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior her
regular, if sometimes quarrelsome, partner and the underrated Mahler disciple
Artur Bodanzky in the pit, Flagstad’s Wagner became a new selling point at the
Met. She also sang Wagner in San Francisco (a complete Walküre Act II and several
Magic Key radio broadcasts survive) and Chicago and put her light entertainment
skills to use working with both Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (he introduced her
singing ‘Hojoto-ho’ for the compilation film The Big Broadcast of 1938).

By April 1941 at the Met – when she left America to rejoin her second husband
Henry Johansen in Nazi-occupied Norway – Flagstad had sung some 70 Isoldes
alone in addition to Elisabeth, Elsa, the Brünnhildes, Kundry and Leonore.  The
Saturday matinee broadcasts recorded some of these performances (and a number
have been released on disc): seven Tristans (3), four Tannhäusers (1), two Lohengrins
(1), four of Die Walküre – two each as Brünnhilde (1) and Sieglinde, including the
1935 debut (1) – , two Siegfrieds (1), a Götterdämmerung (excerpts), a Parsifal (1)
and three Fidelios (2).

Flagstad’s return to Europe took in Vienna, Paris and London. She made her
debut at Covent Garden in May 1936 as Isolde, with a bad cold and a cut on the
head from a powder compact accidentally dropped on her while watching a
previous performance of Götterdämmerung. It was a time when the company
(in addition to occasional radio broadcasts) were making a series of experimental
‘live’ in-performance recordings of complete operas for EMI, much encouraged
by Covent Garden’s artistic director, Sir Thomas Beecham, and his casting adviser,
Walter Legge. Beecham, despite a stream of barbed bons mots about the composer,
was something of a Wagner (and especially a Tristan) fanatic; Flagstad worked
well with him and Fritz Reiner and Wilhelm Furtwängler, his regular guest
conductors in this repertoire. She can be heard in a number of these ‘live’
recordings: in three performances of Tristan und Isolde with Reiner and Beecham
(one under each conductor has been released) and in two Rings with Furtwängler
and Beecham (only excerpts from Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung have survived
and been released).

Based in Norway during the last four war years, Flagstad limited her work to
performances in the unoccupied countries of Switzerland and Sweden. After the
war she had to cope with her husband’s trial for collaboration and his premature
death.  Welcoming London was an important staging post in the resumption of her
career, its audience less likely than the Americans to believe rumours of any
supposed Nazi sympathies. She gave concerts there in 1947 and in May 1948
recorded the Wesendonck Lieder with Gerald Moore.  This led to a flood of concert
performances of the cycle in collaboration with the likes of Beecham (London),
Clemens Krauss (Havana), Bruno Walter (New York), her intimate friend and
colleague Edwin McArthur (her American farewell in 1955) and a Decca recording
with Hans Knappertsbusch in Vienna. The tessitura of the work lay well for Flagstad
and it enabled her to keep in touch with the sound world of Tristan without always
having to embark on the whole opera (the Liebestod too remained a concert
favourite). Her collaborator here, Sir Adrian Boult, was, unknown to many, a
serious Wagner lover. In an interview shortly before his death he recalled with
affection the Valkyrie he conducted in the 1920s for the British National Opera
Company and regretted the lack of further offers to lead performances of the
operas (he blamed Beecham). The four LPs of Wagner excerpts he persuaded EMI
to make with him in the 1970s were some small compensation.

Flagstad returned to Covent Garden in February 1948. Between then and June
1951 she appeared in the Ring (including her only London performance as
Sieglinde), Tristan (including her 150th Isolde) and Parsifal under music director
Karl Rankl. Broadcast and privately recorded excerpts from all these (and a 1947
Wagner concert at the Royal Albert Hall) have survived. In keeping with the new
company’s policy, their first Ring cycles had been mounted in English – Flagstad
and Hans Hotter bravely essaying their roles in that language – but sense (and
German) returned in the following years. The cast for Götterdämmerung included
Flagstad’s long-standing Swedish colleague Set Svanholm, Ludwig Weber
(returning to his pre-war roles in the house), Paul Schoeffler as Gunther and
Constance Shacklock (Brangäne to Flagstad’s London Isoldes) as Flosshilde and the
First Norn.

The bad press that Karl Rankl, the new Covent Garden company’s first music
director, continues to receive even today can hardly be justified by the
Götterdämmerung that he conducts on these records. Perhaps his Wagner was too
modern for London’s ever backward-looking critics. Indeed its fleetness and tonal
economy, not at all unlike the interpretations of Rudolf Kempe who was soon to
succeed him in this repertoire in the pit, could easily have qualified him as one of
the swift, un-Germanic ‘Latin conductors’ so ardently sought by Wieland Wagner
for his new Bayreuth.

Given the fact that the new company’s board and the new Arts Council had decided
to turn their back on existing British candidates (especially Beecham) and seek a
newcomer for the music-director post, Rankl’s CV read well.  A string player and a
composer who studied with Schoenberg for four years, he had been chorus master
and assistant conductor at the Vienna Volksoper in the early 1920s. He then became
Otto Klemperer’s assistant at Berlin’s radical Kroll Opera, conductor in
Wiesbaden, Graz and, in succession to Szell, of the German Opera House in
Prague. Fleeing the Nazis he came to Britain three weeks before war broke out, at
first to internment on the Isle of Man then to concerts with Beecham’s LPO and
the Liverpool Philharmonic, where he got to know David Webster, general
manager to be of the new Covent Garden company.

Conditions were difficult.  The ‘new broom sweeps clean’ mentality of the company
applied not just to candidates for the music directorship and to singers but also
to orchestral players. According to his widow Christine, Rankl had to work with an
orchestra of whom only 12 out of 76 players had worked in a pit before (and that for
Shakespeare at the Old Vic) and was denied the longer rehearsal periods given
automatically to ‘foreign’ guests like Erich Kleiber.  To build a repertoire of
24 operas in five years with a company whose management, technical staff and
performers were essentially new to the job was no mean achievement.

Flagstad, after these London Wagner performances, continued with an
exceptionally wide range of activities until her death from cancer in December
1962. She was eager to make up time both for herself and for her country. So she
took on new repertoire: Purcell’s Dido, Wagner’s Fricka and many songs, including
Strauss’s last set. She sang in venues new to her in South America, Cuba, London’s
Mermaid Theatre, Norwegian and European concert halls.  And she continued to
expand her work experience: recording in the long takes demanded by LPs
(including the gramophone’s first-ever complete Tristan und Isolde under
Furtwängler in 1952), accommodating Decca’s stereo experiments in Wagner,
coaching fellow Norwegian singers and becoming in 1958 the artistic director of
Norway’s first national opera company.

Although Kirsten Flagstad made records from the acoustic 78 age up to the time of
stereo LPs, it was only relatively recently that reasonable quality reproductions of
her singing in her prime have been available. By the time she started recording
regularly for LP (from the Furtwängler Tristan und Isolde onwards) the voice,
although still in good fettle, had become more matronly and there was a certain
shyness about top notes.  By way of compensation maturity of interpretation brought
a more text-conscious, dramatically aware approach. Compare, if you can, Flagstad’s
way with Brünnhilde’s cajoling of Wotan (Walküre Act III) in the American
performances of the late 1930s with her 1957 Decca recording. But the performances of
Götterdämmerung and the Wesendonck Lieder preserved here catch her voice in an interesting mid-stage
between the freshness and attack of the 1930s and those more mature-sounding
interpretations on the LPs made for EMI and Decca in London and Vienna in the 1950s.
There is still a lot of bite and freshness, alongside the purity, grandeur and size
which are Flagstad’s especial contribution to the Wagner oeuvre. The local girl
making good who once told an over-encouraging stage director that she must be
‘the least kissed girl in Norway’ and whose first recordings were of Norwegian
songs and lighter Americana (Bishop’s Home, sweet home) had come a long way.

Mike Ashman

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)


Track 1:

Act 2 Scene 3

Track 2:

Act 3 Scene 3 (Finale, Immolation Scene)

Track 3:


  1. Der Engel
  2. Stehe still
  3. Im Treibhaus
  4. Schmerzen
  5. Träume




The Götterdämmerung scenes were taken from a live relay from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on June 17 1950.

It comes from the Christopher Philip Collection at Music Preserved.

Re-mastering by Paul Baily.

The Wesendonck-Lieder were recorded at the BBC Studios on February 26 1949.

It comes from the Philip Wade Collection at Music Preserved.

  • Kirsten Flagstad
  • Set Svanholm
  • Paul Schoeffler
  • Ludwig Weber
  • Doris Dorée
  • Covent Garden Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Karl Rankl
  • Kirsten Flagstad
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra
  • Sir Adrian Boult

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