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The Champions

IRA SIFF looks at four great Scandinavian singers who were pillars of the Met's glorious Wagner wing in the 1930s.

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<font size=2>Melchior, as Tannhäuser, the role of his 1926 Met debut</font><BR>Mishkin photo/<I>OPERA NEWS</I> Archives
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<font size=2>Branzell as <I>Lohengrin</I>'s Ortrud, which she sang with the Met forty-one times in New York and on tour</font><BR><I>OPERA NEWS</I> Archives
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<font size=2>Thorborg as Brangäne, her most frequent Met role</font><BR><I>OPERA NEWS</I> Archives
Certain periods in Met history carry with them an aura. One of these began in the 1930s - an astonishing Wagner era, perhaps unparalleled in the annals of the Met, enhanced by two giants and two supporting artists of great stature, all four Scandinavians. During the regime of general manager Edward Johnson, Wagner's operas were played at the Met with greater frequency, and with more consistently sumptuous vocalism, than at any time before or since. In the years immediately preceding U.S. entry into World War II, the first third of Johnson's tenure (1935-41), the popularity of Wagner's music skyrocketed due to the pairing of Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior and Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. Melchior arrived in 1926, almost a full decade before Flagstad, but valuable as he was before her debut, it was the combination of the two that captured the imagination of the public and made the tenor a superstar.

Two Swedish mezzo-sopranos were most often featured as Brangäne to Flagstad's Isolde, or Venus to Melchior's Tannhäuser, and both were versatile, also gracing the Met stage in a variety of Italian and French roles. Karin Branzell came first, in 1924, and Kerstin Thorborg arrived in 1936. Looking at dates it becomes clear that the "Johnson Wagner era" was actually launched by his predecessor, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who ruled the house with a firm hand and European flair from 1908 to 1935. Only Thorborg was actually brought in by Johnson, and archive-digging reveals correspondence that places interest in her as far back as 1928. An examination of Johnson's tenure would include a number of important initiatives, but he didn't exactly create the Wagner-as-hottest-ticket phenomenon of his regime, and his relationship with his two most valuable artists was sometimes very rocky.

Kirsten Flagstad may have saved the Met after the Great Depression; her sensational unheralded debut as Sieglinde on a Saturday-matinée broadcast of Die Walküre in 1935 is a piece of opera history. But it was her frequent colleague, Karin Branzell, already a star at the Berlin State Opera, who was the first of the Scandinavians to arrive. Summoned by Gatti and his trusted friend and conductor Artur Bodanzky, Branzell went to Vienna and auditioned for the Met in 1923. A telegram in Italian (the language of Gatti's regime) sums up the appraisal - her appearance and voice were, respectively, buonissima and bella - and a subsequent letter states terms of her five-year contract. Branzell's debut as the Walküre Fricka was greeted ecstatically. Her imposing presence and powerful voice won plaudits from Olin Downes in The New York Times, who concluded, "She made the shrewish Fricka a character eloquent and human, and sang her music in the grand manner." Two days later, Gatti had her sing Ortrud in Lohengrin. She had begged not to face such a daunting challenge right after her debut, but Gatti was famous for taking artists' contracts, tearing a hole in them where his signature had been, and returning them on the spot. When he told Branzell, "Then there is nothing more I can do for you," she knew she had to do it. She went on to sing a total of 412 performances of twenty-one roles with the company in the house and on tour.

During one performance of Walküre, Julia Claussen, the Brünnhilde, became indisposed before Act III. Branzell, having just finished the role of Fricka, returned to the stage as Brünnhilde and finished the opera. She also got a performance of her own in the role and was praised to the skies by Lawrence Gilman in the Herald-Tribune for her beauty, intelligence and insightful interpretation, but he had to admit that her instrument was not truly up to the vocal demands. Branzell was referred to in the press as a contralto, and her vocal production matches the description. Unlike the more beefed-up mezzo sound that prevailed in the Italian school, she produced a full, rich low and middle register, well integrated, rising to a slender top voice. This afforded her a certain amount of agility, and her recording of Azucena's "Stride la vampa" (in German) features the best trill I've heard from anyone in this aria.

The mezzo with baritone John Charles Thomas and tenor Frederick Jagel, at the Metropolitan Opera Guild's first annual membership luncheon, 1943

Branzell is not remembered as well as she should be, but when she is recalled it is principally as part of the remarkable Wagner team. A 1935 Tristan und Isolde broadcast features her dramatically alert, vocally sterling Brangäne. This is an artist who makes a huge impact through the use of her impressive voice and connection with the text. In Paul Jackson's invaluable chronicle, Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met, mouthwatering Wagner broadcasts are described in detail, and Branzell's contribution is frequently mentioned as a high point - particularly her Ortrud, the role she initially feared. One notices that Branzell's broadcasts tapered off once Thorborg arrived. This was a sore point with the contralto; broadcasts were coveted for the concert, recording and recital possibilities that resulted. Ultimately, Branzell announced that she was leaving the Met stage at the end of the 1943-44 season. Her public statement to The New York Times was "no comment," but in a private letter to a friend she expressed her dismay that all her "honest and sincere work at the Met had just been for nothing." A recital career followed, as did teaching: three of her students, Nell Rankin, Jean Madeira and Mignon Dunn, distinguished themselves at the Met. As a sort of graceful coda, Rudolf Bing invited her to sing both Erdas in his first Met Ring in 1951.

Thorborg in Salzburg with (from left) tenor Charles Kullman, unidentified, stage director Herbert Graf and bass Richard Mayr
Photo Ellinger/OPERA NEWS Archives

Like Branzell, Thorborg sang Italian and French repertoire at the Met but is remembered best as part of this golden age of Wagner. The story goes that her voice was discovered in 1898, when she was two, and she was encouraged by musical parents to pursue singing. Being selected as one of three applicants out of 1,200, she gained admission to the Opera School of the Royal Opera, Stockholm. After essaying several smaller roles, she made her official debut in 1924 in Stockholm as Ortrud, following this with Amneris - a role she subsequently sang opposite Flagstad's Aida in Göteborg. In 1932, Bruno Walter engaged her to come to Berlin, and he became her great mentor and champion. In 1936, Thorborg and Walter made the first recording ever of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, which is still a classic today. Thorborg's loathing for the Nazis led her to leave Berlin for Vienna in 1935. When Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, she left for New York, where she had already made a sensational debut on opening night two years earlier as the Walküre Fricka. Thorborg remained at the Met until 1950, singing more than 300 performances of nineteen roles. She boasted a voice of size and richness and an unusual gift for communication. In The New York Sun of February 1, 1939, critic William C. King devoted a sizeable column to Thorborg, nominating her as "the Metropolitan's most versatile singing actress." Esteemed British music critic Ernest Newman called her simply "the greatest singing-actress I ever heard." Thorborg always credited her husband, Gustav Bergman, with helping to develop her artistic potential. Bergman was a stage and film director and an operatic tenor. Thorborg's voice had a clarity and slimness that balanced its rich color. Compared with Branzell's, Thorborg's instrument could be short on top. But there were more shared virtues than marked differences. Both possessed what sounds to me to be a classic Scandinavian sound - silvery, extremely clear, with a rapid but not overly pronounced vibrato and the quality Birgit Nilsson herself always termed "slender." This was shared by their soprano counterpart Flagstad as well.

After considerable searching, I found someone who had actually worked with Thorborg - Peggy Smithers Smith, a young ballerina at the Met in the '40s and early '50s. "She was heroic, to me - a goddess," Smith recalls. What grabbed her first was Thorborg's Brangäne, particularly the Act II Watch. "It knocked me out. [Her sound] was like some great bells in the distance, great huge bells - but far away, because she was supposed to be crouching behind a couch or a rock or something. It was extremely rich but not gooey." Thorborg's acting struck Smith as "subdued, but with an intensity." This restrained intensity marked all her portrayals and suited best her favorite role, Gluck's Orfeo, which she essayed at the Met thirteen times. It is interesting to note that, even with her fame as Wagner's Brangäne (fifty-two performances), Fricka (fifty-one), Venus (thirty), Kundry (seventeen), Ortrud (twenty-seven), as well as Strauss's Klytämnestra and Herodias, she considered Gluck's masterpiece to be the greatest of all music dramas. Although Thorborg seemed to have had a smooth ride until her retirement from the Met in 1950, it's disconcerting to note a shabby finish to such a distinguished career in the form of performance starvation by Johnson. In Martin Mayer's book The Met, conductor Max Rudolf recalls visiting Johnson in his office to inquire as to Thorborg's absence from the roster. Johnson, in a fit of pique, shouted, "Who would have thought it! I sent her a contract with only three performances in six weeks, and she's accepted!"

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Flagstad takes a bow after Tristan und Isolde, with Thorborg in the wings
Metropolitan Opera Archives

But it was with his two great box-office attractions that Johnson collided most often - especially Flagstad. Edward Johnson had made his mark as a tenor at the Metropolitan and other important houses. At a certain point, he became interested in management, but when Gatti announced his retirement, despite some strong backing, Johnson was bypassed in favor of another singer-turned-administrator, bass Herbert Witherspoon. But Witherspoon had a heart attack in his office shortly after assuming the post, and Johnson was summoned by telegram from a singing engagement to return to New York and take over the Met in May of 1935.

Johnson inherited Gatti's great discovery, Flagstad, but he also inherited a lack of foresight concerning the diva. Flagstad had been heard in Europe some six years earlier by philanthropist and Met chairman Otto Kahn. He was so impressed, he contacted the company's European representative Eric Simon, who approached Flagstad, requesting reviews, photos and such. Incredibly, she did not respond. Flagstad was engaged to her second husband, a wealthy businessman named Henry Johansen. She was not ambitious by nature and figured the Met would not care about reviews from Norway.

But in 1934 Frida Leider, considered the leading Wagnerian dramatic soprano of the era, decided to leave the Met and return to Germany, leaving them desperate for a replacement. By now, word of Flagstad's few forays into Wagner had gotten around, and Simon approached her again. She agreed to go to St. Moritz and sing for Bodanzky and Gatti. Gifted coach and conductor Herman Weigert was to play the audition. He ran the soprano through her paces, as she sight-read part of the Walküre Brünnhilde and the immolation scene. Annoyed, he asked if she knew anything by heart - perhaps "Hojotoho"? Flagstad let loose, and, as she noted in her memoirs, "He nearly fell off his seat." When Bodanzky and Gatti heard her, she was engaged on the spot, but the room was heavily draped and they had no idea of the size of her voice. This became apparent at her first stage rehearsal at the Met the following January 15. It was so startling that Bodanzky left the pit to hear her from the house, which by now was filling with people who had heard the buzz about this new soprano.

The problem was that Gatti, unsure of his new singer, had not engaged her with the usual contract for multiple seasons. After Kirsten Flagstad was "discovered" on February 2, 1935, she became the hottest artist on the concert and recital circuit, and the Metropolitan had not contracted her for anything past that season. This mess, inherited by Johnson, began a series of bitter negotiations between soprano and house over the next years. NBC Artists Service was handling her concert appearances but not yet her Met engagements, so Flagstad and her husband battled with the Met themselves about her availability, making it all the more personal. Finally, when Johansen had to return to Norway, she inserted her new accompanist, Edwin McArthur, into the equation, drafting him as a sort of manager. McArthur finally sorted out dates with the Met, but the effect on relations with Johnson was not good and planted a seed for future difficulties.

Melchior in costume for Act III of Lohengrin at the 1946 celebration of his twentieth anniversary at the Met, with general manager Edward Johnson and sopranos Irene Jessner and Astrid Varnay

In the meantime, Flagstad was adding Wagner roles to her repertoire at an astonishing pace. She noted in The Flagstad Manuscript, coauthored by Louis Biancolli, that she was sometimes accused of being static, but early on she was forced to memorize her parts so quickly that she was actually listening to the other singers onstage, discovering the plot as they sang to her! Reviews of the time suggest no whiff of the neophyte. She is praised to the skies for each new assumption, her Kundry in Parsifal not only garnering the usual raves for her voice, musicality, phrasing and stage deportment but for her penetrating acting. With Melchior, under Bodanzky, there were performances of unimaginable beauty. The tenor, by that time, had matured from an indifferent actor with a very impressive voice, to an artist capable of sensitivity as well as superhuman stamina, his miraculous floated head tones alternating with sounds of clarion brilliance. With Flagstad, he seemed to grow even more than he had with the remarkable Leider. Johnson had a gold mine, and recorded performances of the period are revelatory. So are the statistics: the pair sang nine consecutive Tristan broadcasts in six years; in February 1937, Flagstad sang Tristan, Lohengrin and Götterdämmerung in three days, with Melchior partnering her twice. As Robert Tuggle, the current director of the Met Archives, points out, "Wagner didn't ruin those voices!"

Met wardrobe mistress Jennie Cervini
prepares Flagstad for Senta in Der Fliegende

Flagstad and Melchior became friends, but during a bridge game they began feuding. Flagstad had never needed or used a publicist. She began to notice a column turning up in various publications with the same text; this suggested the work of a press agent. It was always headed "Who's the Prima Donna of the Met?" and pitted her against Lotte Lehmann. Lehmann was a good friend of Melchior, and both artists employed Constance Hope to handle their press. Flagstad's remarks about other artists exploiting her name to get press became more and more insistent during the card game, and the evening ended in tension. While she expected the incident to be forgotten, Melchior took offense, and the friendship was terminated.

The public was unaware, as the onstage lovers remained as passionate as ever. But Flagstad requested another tenor for Fidelio at the Met and refused Melchior for her twenty-fifth anniversary as a singer, a performance of Götterdämmerung, with a party afterwards to which every employee of the Met was invited - with the exception of Melchior. Our loss, even today, was the dissolution of plans by HMV for complete Wagner opera recordings featuring the duo. While the chill eventually thawed, the friendship never fully recovered, and this came back to haunt Flagstad when she needed friends after the war.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1939, Flagstad arrived in Chicago for performances and received the news that her beloved Bodanzky had died. She was despondent, as was Melchior, but she also saw an opportunity. Bodanzky's heir apparent was the young Erich Leinsdorf, who had made his debut the previous season conducting Walküre. Flagstad had other plans - for McArthur, who had begun to conduct. And Melchior teamed up with her to protest Leinsdorf in a remarkably open manner, even to the press. Johnson retaliated in print, "There are some 'old boats' in the company who have no competition for their roles and would be dictator." In the short term, Johnson won the battle, and Leinsdorf inherited the position. But not long after that, when Johnson failed to meet a deadline for signing Flagstad for additional performances in 1940 that he'd already announced, she had him over a barrel. Edwin McArthur made his company debut in Boston with Tristan and, more significantly, his house debut on the occasion of Flagstad's one-hundredth Isolde on February 17, 1941. This time Melchior shared the occasion.

Flagstad Melchior
Flagstad and Melchior, photographed as Isolde
and Tristan at San Francisco Opera

Before Flagstad returned to occupied Norway in April 1941, at the insistence of her husband, she made a brief curtain speech at her final performance: "I am very happy to be going home, but I shall be even happier to return to you." Sadly, while the war turned out to be difficult, the years following were a nightmare for her. Her husband, Henry Johansen, accused of collaborating with the Nazis by selling lumber to them at a great profit and being a member of the Quisling party, was arrested. In prison, awaiting trial, he died. The prosecutor in his case, an old enemy of Johansen's from an unrelated legal battle, turned the case on Flagstad. She was refused a passport, preventing her from resuming her career, and her financial assets were frozen and put under investigation. Only after a lengthy legal battle was she permitted to leave Norway, only to encounter accusations of Nazi sympathies and pickets at her performances in the U.S. Flagstad loved her husband but had returned to Norway only after he sent her step-daughter with a message to come home.

Flagstad had gone out of her way to sing recitals in the Midwest for Norwegian Americans, and after the Nazi occupation, she performed Norwegian Relief concerts in the U.S., with the proceeds earmarked for Norway after the occupation would end. A portrait of the diva still hangs in the Norwegian Seamen's Church in New York City. During the war, she sang only in neutral Sweden and Switzerland. During this time of controversy, Branzell spoke out in her defense, but Melchior remained silent. In fact, much to Flagstad's disappointment, the two never spoke after her final performance with him in 1941. As for Johnson, once Flagstad was cleared and performing again in the U.S., he encountered her socially and was cordial but extended no invitation to her to return to the Met; this did not occur until Rudolf Bing took over in 1950. Johnson whittled down Melchior's appearances in his final years as manager, and as Bing had no interest in Melchior, he brushed aside the chance to pair the two again in the twilight of their greatness.

What is best remembered, however, is the staggering music-making that went on. The standard Flagstad set for singing roles such as Isolde and the Brünnhildes has not been equaled; the sheer ease, the bloom of the tone and the way she acted through the music are still unsurpassed. Melchior, likewise, is still the one against whom all are measured. His singing was not simply stentorian but sensitive; heroic passages were offset by ravishing head tones. Their voices were, to use Peggy Smithers Smith's word, "crystalline" - something like a gleaming burst of sunshine on an icy fjord.

IRA SIFF is a New York-based voice and interpretation teacher, stage director, performer and Weekly Commentator on the Saturday Afternoon Met Broadcasts. For assistance with this article, he wishes to thank Robert Tuggle, director of the Met Archives.

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