More Magic Key this week. This one, a broadcast from December 27, 1936 features the usual all-star cast – primarily artists for RCA Victor and covering a wide range of musical styles. This was what NBC Radio was doing in the early days of network radio and the earliest days of Shortwave broadcasting. In 1936 it was a technical marvel – NBC had the distinction of not only having a radio network, but also a record company and manufacturing, primarily of radios and phonographs. This variety show was perfect and it ran as a staple in the diet of American listeners all throughout the 1930s.
A bit about Kirsten Flagstad, if you’re not already acquainted (thanks Wikipedia):
Kirsten Malfrid Flagstad (12 July 1895 – 7 December 1962) was a Norwegian opera singer and a highly regarded Wagnerian soprano. She ranks among the greatest singers of the 20th century, and many opera critics called hers “the voice of the century.” Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote of her in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera: “No one within living memory surpassed her in sheer beauty and consistency of line and tone.”
Flagstad was first noticed by Otto Hermann Kahn, then Chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Opera, on a trip to Scandinavia in 1929, and Met management made overtures soon after. Their letters were never answered, however. At the time, Flagstad had just met her soon to be second husband and had even briefly considered giving up opera altogether. Then, in the summer of 1934, when the Met needed a replacement for Frida Leider, Flagstad agreed to audition for conductor Artur Bodanzky and Met general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza in St Moritz in August 1934, and she was engaged immediately. Upon leaving St Moritz, Bodanzky’s parting words for Flagstad were “Come to New York as soon as you know these roles (Isolde, the three Brünnhildes, Leonore in Fidelio, and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier). And above all do not go and get fat! Your slender, youthful figure is not the least reason you were engaged.”
At the Met Flagstad became a pupil of vocal coach Hermann Weigert, who prepared her for all her roles with the company. Her debut at the Met, as Sieglinde in Die Walküre on the afternoon of 2 February 1935, created a sensation, though it was not planned as a special event. By this time, after weeks of rehearsals, Met management already knew what they had, but they nonetheless decided on a low key debut. Flagstad was unknown in the United States at the time. The performance was, however, broadcast nationwide on the Met’s weekly syndicated radio program, and the first inkling of the deluge of critical praise to come was given when intermission host and former Met star Geraldine Farrar discarded her prepared notes, overwhelmed by what she had just heard, and breathlessly announced that a new star had just been born. Days later, Flagstad sang Isolde, and later that month, she performed Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung for the first time. Before the end of the season, Flagstad sang Elsa in Lohengrin, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and her first Kundry in Parsifal. Almost overnight, she had established herself as the pre-eminent Wagnerian soprano of the era. According to most critics[who?], she still remains the supreme Wagnerian dramatic soprano on disc by virtue of her unique voice. It has been said that she saved the Metropolitan Opera from looming bankruptcy. Her performances, sometimes three or four a week in her early days at the Met, quickly sold out at the box office as soon as they went on sale. Her services to the Met were not from box office receipts alone; her nationwide personal appeals to radio listeners during Saturday matinee intermissions brought thousands of dollars in donations to the Met’s coffers. Fidelio (1936 and later) was her only non-Wagnerian role at the Met before the war. In 1935, she performed all three Brünnhildes in the San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle. In 1937, she first appeared at the Chicago City Opera Company.
In 1936 and 1937, Flagstad performed the roles of Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Senta at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner and Wilhelm Furtwängler, arousing as much enthusiasm there as she had in New York. She also toured Australia in 1938. Hollywood also tried to cash in on Flagstad fever, after her sudden popularity in the US in the mid 1930s, with her many appearances on NBC Radio, The Kraft Music Hall with Bing Crosby, and regular appearances on CBS’s The Ford Sunday Evening Hour. Though Flagstad was not interested in stardom or Hollywood contracts per se, she did make trips to Hollywood during the late 1930s for publicity photo shoots, public appearances, concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and she filmed a rendition of Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry from Die Walküre for the Hollywood variety show anthology The Big Broadcast of 1938, in which she was introduced to American film audiences by Bob Hope. Flagstad and Sonja Henie are the only two Norwegians to have their own stars on Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame”.
Her career at the Met, however, was not without its ups-and-downs. Flagstad got involved in a long-running feud with tenor co-star Lauritz Melchior after Melchior took offense to some comments Flagstad made about “stupid publicity photos” during a game of bridge in Flagstad’s hotel suite while the two were on tour together in Rochester, NY. Present during the infamous bridge game were Flagstad, Melchior and his wife, and Edwin McArthur. Afterwards, Melchior fanned the flames further by insisting that there be no solo curtain calls for Flagstad when the two performed together. Audiences had no clue that, despite the marvelous and sometimes historic performances, the two never said a word to each other off stage for the next two years. It was Flagstad’s husband Henry Johansen who finally brought the two together to make peace. Flagstad also feuded with the Met’s general manager, Edward Johnson, after conductor Artur Bodanzky’s death, when she asked to be conducted for a few performances by her accompanist, Edwin McArthur, rather than by the Met’s new conductor Erich Leinsdorf. Flagstad had wanted this for McArthur, whom she had taken under her wing. Johnson refused and would not hear of it any further. Flagstad did get her way, though; she went over Johnson’s head and discussed the matter with the Met’s board of directors, particularly David Sarnoff, RCA and NBC founder and chairman. It was Sarnoff who made the arrangements for McArthur to begin conducting Met productions on a limited basis. Her relationship with Johnson improved, however; just before Flagstad left the Met in 1941, on the night of her 100th performance of Isolde , she received 100 roses, courtesy of Melchior and Johnson.”
That gives you some idea who Kirsten Flagstad was – the rest, you’re on your own, but not before you hit the Play button and enjoy the next hour.