Kirsten Flagstad: singing Wagner

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Kirsten Flagstad (1895 – 1962) was a famous Norwegian soprano, celebrated for the quality of her Wagnerian roles. She made her debut in 1913 at the National Theatre in Oslo and it was only in 1932 that she auditioned before Winifred Wagner to sing at the Bayreuth Festival, recommended by Swedish soprano Ellen Gulbranson. In 1934 she sang her first primary roles at the Festival, performing Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung. In 1935, her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House as Sieglinde caused a sensation; Geraldine Farrar, star of the theatre and responsible for presenting the performance, announced that a star had been born. In the same season she played Isolde, debuted as Brünnhilde, played Elsa in Lohengrin, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and Kundry in Parsifal. Thus she established the beginning of her great international career as one of the most eminent Wagnerian sopranos of the 20th century. We transcribed a radio broadcast she gave in 1950 in which she offered advice to young students who wanted to follow her example.


Many people write to me for advice about singing Wagner. Some of them ask me if I will give them lessons. Others want to know how they can make a start, as if it was possible to start one’s career with Wagnerian roles, instead of ending with them. Now, I’m not a teacher, and I never wanted to be, I wasn’t taught to explain, only to sing. But perhaps I can still give good advice about many matters connected with the singing of Wagner roles, and my first piece of advice to young and immature singers can be put into three words: leave Wagner alone! Because it calls for powers which can only develop after many years of singing. I was already 34 years old and had been singing regularly for about 15 years before I attempted my first Wagnerian role, Elsa in Lohengrin. That is one of Wagner’s lighter roles, but even so it calls for great vocal experience. For the real heavy parts, like Isolde and Brünnhilde, you need even more: a perfectly placed voice, absolute control of the breath and immense staying power. Many a promising beginner has come to grieve for lack of these qualities.

Many people write to me for advice about singing Wagner. Some of them ask me if I will give them lessons. Others want to know how they can make a start, as if it was possible to start one’s career with Wagnerian roles, instead of ending with them. Now, I’m not a teacher, and I never wanted to be, I wasn’t taught to explain, only to sing. But perhaps I can still give good advice about many matters connected with the singing of Wagner roles, and my first piece of advice to young and immature singers can be put into three words: leave Wagner alone! Because it calls for powers which can only develop after many years of singing. I was already 34 years old and had been singing regularly for about 15 years before I attempted my first Wagnerian role, Elsa in Lohengrin. That is one of Wagner’s lighter roles, but even so it calls for great vocal experience. For the real heavy parts, like Isolde and Brünnhilde, you need even more: a perfectly placed voice, absolute control of the breath and immense staying power. Many a promising beginner has come to grieve for lack of these qualities.

I had three teachers, the first when I was 16, the age when some of these youngsters who write to me would like to start singing Isolde. And they all taught me along the same line; by that I mean I never had to go to a new teacher because I was dissatisfied with the one before. They simply took over from one another in a process of natural development. Therefore I never had any real singing difficulties, I never had to unlearn anything, my voice simply grew. And it is this word, grow, that is most important of all. For the singer who wants to sing Wagner must be something like a weightlifter, building his muscles by slow degrees, adding gradually to the weight he lifts, until he is able to attempt the very heaviest. Isolde and Brünnhilde are the heaviest roles a singer can ever be called upon to sing, and if you ever wish to sing them you must be prepared for many years of steady growing before you make the attempt.

English and American audiences associate me almost entirely with Wagner but I sang Nedda, Mimì, Tosca, Aida, Desdemona, Marguerite, Michaela and many other roles all before I ever sang a note of Wagner. I also sang in many operettas, such as The Dollar Princess, Gypsy Love and Fledermaus and these helped me to develop my acting and gave me a thorough understanding of stage business, a very necessary preparation for the heavier and more exacting work that was to come. And it was only after all this experience that I felt ready to sing Elsa, and later Isolde, my second Wagnerian role, and finally Brünnhilde.

People sometimes ask how I memorize such long parts as Isolde and Brünnhilde. Speaking for myself, I start by singing the part over at the piano, gradually forming my own ideas of what it is all about. Perhaps because my background was a very musical one, my father and mother were both professional musicians, it is the music which first fixes itself in my memory. Next come the words, which require really hard work, especially as Wagner is nearly always sung in the original German, which is not my native language. Even now I sometimes make mistakes with the German words. Having gotten a pretty good idea of the words and music, I’m now ready to work with a coach. This time it is he who sits a the piano and plays, while I stand and try to sing from memory. I give myself entirely into his professional hands, resting upon his knowledge and experience until at last, after many months of hard work, I’m ready for stage rehearsals with the producer and conductor. And so at last the curtain rises on the Isolde or Brünnhilde I’ve been striving to create. In connection with this, I might mention that I always sing with full voice at rehearsals, finding that this builds up my endurance, which is very necessary for long and heavy performances.

But even now the work of learning does not cease. The interpretation of masterworks like those of Wagner, Goethe and Shakespeare is a process of never ending development. Always the role is beyond one’s complete grasp. It is only possible to come a little nearer to it with each performance, but never to reach it. Always there are flashes of new inspiration, fresh subtleties, deeper meanings. That is what makes the work so endlessly absorbing. That is why one can never grow weary of it.

The fact that singers have to perform the same works on different stages, in different costumes and settings, with different colleagues and under different conductors all over the world, also presents many problems. But the disadvantages involved are more than outweighed by the stimulus of meeting new audiences and of working in new surroundings.

All my three teachers taught me to relax, always to try and keep calm, and I think I must be successful in this, for even if I sometimes feel very nervous apparently I don’t show it. For my colleagues nearly always come to me for confidence and assurance. I’m usually so relaxed before I go onto the stage or concert platform that I find myself constantly yawning, and yawning is the most relaxed position of the throat and neck.

I was taught from the very beginning always to sing with words, even in my exercises; that is to say, I was taught from the very beginning that the words and their meaning must be inseparable from the music. This is especially important in Wagner which consists so much of long narrative passages where the singer is telling what has happened before in the story. When I had my audition in Bayreuth in 1932, I was told that I should have to improve my German diction. This Wagnerian diction consists in the strong explosion of the consonants, especially the end ones.

I’m very shy about practicing, especially if I think anyone is listening. Once on the way to Australia, where I was to give some concerts, I was so conscious of the passengers in the cabins on either side of me that I practiced with my head out of the porthole, hoping that the sound of the sea would drown me. I practice very little before a performance, but I do always sing a certain phrase which I find very helpful. It’s a beautiful passage from Die Walküre in which Brünnhilde warns Siegmund he is to die. I was always taught that if the low voice is rightly placed then the higher voice would be in position too. And this is a phrase I use as my own little test piece.

Kirsten Flagstad sings “Nur Todgeweihten taugt mein Anblick” from Act II of Die Walküre.


Listen to the radio broadcast: