Before there was Oprah, before there was Jackie…there was Kirsten: Kirsten Flagstad, diva opera singer, performing in San Antonio. Now six decades later comes Renée: Renée Fleming, diva opera singer, to the Alamo City. Renée is known as one of the opera world’s top sopranos. But from 1930 – 1954, it was Kirsten’s turn at the top.
These two great names will intersect on Saturday, Sept. 20, when Renée will reprise Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” in the same venue where the great Kirsten sang her American premiere in November 1950. Imagine that: the first American audiences to hear these vocal masterpieces were NOT in New York, Boston, or the like. They were here in Texas. And that’s what this story is about.
Norwegian-born Kirsten Flagstad came to San Antonio some 74 years ago, near the close of her career. Still in top form, and in the wake of composer Strauss’ death the year prior, she was singing her “final tours” for adoring audiences across the U.S. Her stops were very limited, but she chose to sing this special premiere here in San Antonio for only one reason: the close friendship of Max Reiter, founder of the San Antonio Symphony, with the greatest of 2oth century composers, Richard Strauss.
Flagstad’s triumph was not to be repeated in “younger” cities like Dallas or Houston, as it was San Antonio who had the bragging rights to possessing Texas’ oldest professional orchestra. With Max Reiter’s reputation as a first-class conductor, Kirsten Flagstad sang in the “original” Municipal Auditorium accompanied by the San Antonio Symphony, an orchestra complemented in the world’s press by no less than Arturo Toscanini for its outstanding musicianship.
In attendance and documenting the success of the premiere was American critic/composer, Virgil Thomson, writing for the New York Herald Tribune. It would only be after her San Antonio visit that other audiences would share the experience as diva Kirsten left to perform concerts in Cleveland’s Severance Hall, Boston and Philadelphia.
Ms. Flagstad might not have sung in America at all, if not for New York Metropolitan Opera’s bass / baritone star Alexander Kipnis. The Russian-born Kipnis (whose son Igor would appear with the San Antonio Symphony in the 1980s), knew the Met Opera needed a last-minute replacement soprano and opened the door for Kirsten, the sensational Norwegian whose voice was captivating European audiences. She was unknown in the U.S. But once auditioned and hired, the Met’s management was ecstatic, but issued one strange request:
“Come to New York … (but) above all, do not go and get fat! Your slender, youthful figure is not the least reason you were engaged.”
With that parting admonition the Met’s noted conductor Artur Bodanzky had just inherited his newest soprano. Kirsten was on her way to New York and the world’s largest operatic stage.
Kirsten, whose initial inclination was to live a quiet life in Europe with her husband and daughter, Else, was now on the cusp of a hugely successful international career. Her voice would set the high watermark for operatic voices in the twentieth century. Interestingly, Else was to later marry an American and settle in Montana.
After a most successful New York debut in 1934, Kirsten performed a live NBC radio operatic broadcast in Detroit. In the audience was General Motor’s CEO, who requested that she meet and spend time with his family after the broadcast. She declined initially, but, later reversed herself, warning of a narrow window to catch her train back to New York.
“Don’t worry about the train,” Knudsen said. “You’ll make the train.”
Flagstad was to learn that day about the colossus GM, elastic train schedules, and raw American corporate power. After shaking 200 ‘family’ member’s hands, she was placed in a limousine and whisked off to the station…with police motorcycle escort and only 40 minutes late to board her waiting train. She was indeed a Norwegian star in America.
Large crowds awaited her performances everywhere, so much so that the Met Opera’s General Manager, who had initially auditioned her in Switzerland with Bodanzky, bragged: “I have given America two great gifts – Caruso and Flagstad.”
Later, Kirsten gave us her Norwegian perspective of American audiences. In her own words after much U.S. travel, she admitted she was amazed at “how appreciative you all are of good music, whether you’ve heard it before or not, and how well you are trained in the schools. I felt ashamed when I thought of the way things were done at home. We in Europe had supposed we were the last word in culture. And then to discover that it wasn’t true at all, but that here in America people were really showing the way. That was a great thought to carry back with me to Norway.”
World War II interrupted her rising career in America. In 1942, and against the advice of many friends – even initially her husband – the homesick Kirsten returned to Norway. Unfortunately, Americans were not sympathetic, but suspicious of her motive to return. The general feeling around the country seemed to be: “How could anyone except a Nazi sympathizer get passage through occupied countries?”
This unfortunate sentiment fermented for five long years, lasting even until her return to New York in 1947. To demonstrate how erroneous the initial accusations and inevitable booing were, she eagerly performed several times for events benefitting the United Jewish Appeal (today known as the Jewish Federation). Such voluntary gestures of graciousness soon dispelled the ill feelings for her in the United States.
So, by the time she made her triumphal appearance in San Antonio, she was back to “rock star” status. And thus it came to pass that just 18 days before Max Reiter’s sudden fatal heart attack, this momentous concert, this great American premiere occurred in San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium.
And that brings us back to San Antonio and today. When the current San Antonio Symphony’s own “rock star,” Music Director and Conductor Sebastian Lang Lessing told Renée Fleming that she was being engaged to reprise the “Four Last Songs” on Flagstad’s former stage, he told this reporter that she was “excited” and “humbled” for her name to be mentioned in the same sentence as the great Kirsten Flagstad.
So now, two first names of opera, Renée and Kirsten, will share the same stage with the these “Four Last Songs.” As our own Maestro said, “Kirsten would be pleased to know her memory is still revered 64 years later on the same (new) stage.”
The special, one night only concert is Saturday, Sept. 20 in the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Note: the concert is being sold separately from season ticket subscriptions for the 2014-15 season. Renée will inaugurate the “new” stage built around the same façade in which Kirsten appeared.