Opera in Norway

"The history of opera in Norway is the story of an art form that never came into its own." The quotation is from 1952 but in many ways it still holds true today. Although Norway has always had plenty of opera singers, especially for export, opera remains a poor relation and we still don’t have a proper opera house.

It’s not easy to explain why this provincial far-off corner of the globe has provided, and continues to provide, so many great singers for the famous opera houses of the world, except by pointing out that Norway was in union with Denmark and Sweden for many centuries. We had neither a royal family, a nobility, nor even a proper upper class of our own, and certainly no major patrons.

In addition to our country’s brief traditions in the field of classical music and culture, the lack of an opera house is probably one of the main reasons why this art form “never came into its own”. Today, The Norwegian National Opera (NNO) is located in a formerly abandoned cinema converted into a formerly abandoned theatre.

The lack of a proper national opera house is certainly also the reason why the Norwegian opera repertoire is limited, and there is still a long way to go before this art form is fully accepted by the general public - apart from vulgar infatuations with certain tenors and highlight concerts.

The potential for a national musical work in monumental 19th century style was wrecked when seaworthy cooperation between composer Edvard Grieg and national poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson foundered in 1873. Grieg became involved in writing the music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, a fact that Bjørnson found difficult to forgive. On the other hand, he didn't produce the libretto for Olav Trygvason by the agreed date either, in spite of several reminders by Grieg, who was in self-inflicted exile in Italy. The fragments of Olav Trygvason, dedicated to Bjørnson for hatchet-burying purposes and first performed in Christiania in 1889, clearly demonstrate that Norway lost a great opera potential.

Sad saga:
Touring Italian opera companies brought the new art of opera to the rest of Europe from the 1600s onwards. The Danes got their Royal Theatre, with a stage designed for opera, ballet and the legitimate theatre, in 1748; the Swedes got their Royal Opera in 1773; the Norwegians, who were under Danish rule from 1380 to 1814 and thereafter in reluctant union with Sweden until 1905, got nothing.

When the National Theatre was built in Christiania (now Oslo) in 1899, the battle raged for years in advance about the extent to which opera should have its rightful place there. The newspaper debates went on for months and even pushed the Dreyfus case from the front pages, with dramatists like Henrik Ibsen and Gunnar Heiberg as proponents for the legitimate theatre while Bjørnson and Grieg fought for opera's cause.

In 1917, when World War I profiteering had generated a class of nouveau riche, the capital's prominent opera lovers tried to find sponsors for an opera, but to no avail. The “Hannevig Opera” is today relegated to the ranks of anecdote, but was serious enough as long as it lasted. Having made his fortune from the insatiable demand for ships during World War 1, shipowner Christoffer Hannevig played the role of fairy godfather, but when the USA entered the war the following year, the Americans also took control of Hannevig's shipyard and the godfather went bust. In spite of years fighting the USA, right up to the second world war, and the exchange of highly unmusical notes between the two countries, Hannevig never got any of his millions back and the opera house case was buried.

Today the saga of Norwegian opera is bogged down in local government bickering. The battle about whether the new opera house is to be located on the western or the eastern side of Oslo rolls on, but there is still a possibility that the foundation stone might be laid before the end of the millennium.

Famous names:
The first opera to be performed in Norway was conducted by no lesser a personage than Christoph Willibald Gluck. When the Danish King Frederik V visited Christiania in 1749, he brought an Italian opera company to the northern wastes to provide diversion for his retinue. Opera gradually acquired a certain standing in upper class society, though only on an amateur basis, and in 1836 Mozart's Don Giovanni was performed for the first time in Norway, with a professional cast. Between 1836 and 1850, thirteen operas were produced with Norwegian casts, in addition to visiting Italian companies.

Danish and, later, Swedish singers were imported, usurping the untrained Norwegians. However, ordinary people, with craftsmen in the lead, created their own musical theatre, where the Singspiel found its natural place. Towards the end of the century, Norwegian drama aroused international attention. But, alas, the opera had no Ibsen and the legitimate theatre won the battle.

The first Norwegian Singspiel was Waldemar Thrane's popular Fjeldeventyret (A Mountain Fairytale), first performed in 1825. When the Christiania Public Theatre burned down in 1835, it was believed that the score and the parts had gone up in flames, but by chance a copy was found twelve years later. A new theatre, where there was also room for opera, burned down in 1877 and, in an effort to quench the financial fires, the whole opera staff was fired as well. Fredkulla, composed by Martin Andreas Udbye in 1857 and the first real Norwegian opera, was to have its first performance. The composer, who was on his way from Trondheim in a horse and sleigh, had to turn back in frustrated disappointment. This opera has now been dusted off and will be performed at Trondheim's 1000th anniversary celebrations in 1997, 140 years after it was written!

From 1887, opera experienced an upswing at the Christiania Theatre, now with famous Norwegian names on the posters. One of them, a mezzo-soprano whose stage name was Gina Oselio (1858-1937), gained an international reputation in the 1880s and became the first Norwegian Carmen in 1891. She married Bjørn Bjørnson, the poet's son, and became one of the main attractions during his years as Director of the National Theatre.

In 1896, a Norwegian soprano of world stature made her first guest appearance at the Christiania Theatre. Elisa Wiborg (1862-1938) was the first to sing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at Bayreuth. In the same year, Ellen Gulbranson (1863-1947) made her breakthrough at Bayreuth, where she sang until 1914. She was an internationally acclaimed Wagner singer, particularly in the role of Briinnhilde.

Gulbranson in turn taught Kaja Eide Norena (1884-1968), who was to became one of the major Norwegian stars. Her opera début was at the National Theatre in 1907, her international breakthrough in 1924 at La Scala under Toscanini, and she was for many years a permanent guest at both the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Paris Opera.

Borghild Langaard (1883-1939) also made her operatic debut in 1907 and sang all over Europe and the USA, including Chicago in 1919.

On the male side, baritone Erik Bye (1883-1953) and tenors Karl Aagaard Østvig (1889-1968) and Bjørn Talén (1890-1945) had impressive operatic careers, both at home and abroad.

Opera benefited from good artistic, though neither spatial nor financial, conditions at the National Theatre up to 1919 due to the indefatigable efforts of conductor Johan Halvorsen. He was a fine artist who also encouraged Norwegian composers, and of course he conducted D'Albert's Tiefland when Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) made her debut as Nuri in 1913. When "Die Flagstad" became the first Director of the Norwegian National Opera in 1957 and chose Tiefland for the grand opening, people said that it was because she had kept the plait from her own debut. It was worn by the young artist Kari Løvaas (1939), who went on to make a name for herself on European stages.

Over the years, 26 operas were performed at the National Theatre, seven of which were Norwegian and of highly varied quality. The Italian masters, with Verdi in the lead, were most often on the repertoire, with the French and Germans sharing second place. Wagner was presented only twice, while Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow saved the theatre from ruin time and time again.

At the new Central Theatre, Erica Darbow (1891-1972), another Gulbranson pupil who had a successful career in Germany, the USA and Scandinavia, made her name in Massenet's Manon. The tours arranged by this theatre and visiting companies increased popular interest in opera outside the capital. Both Bergen and Trondheim were responsible for a respectable number of operatic productions during the period up to the first world war. Kristiansund has been called “Norway's opera town” ever since the 1920s thanks to organist, composer and conductor Edvard Bræin, whose son became a respected opera composer.

The lean years:
The first time Norwegian audiences were able to hear opera on a continuous basis was when the new Opéra Comique, which mainly employed Norwegian artists, opened its door towards the end of 1918. The major effort in the first season was Tannhäusen, with world-class tenor, Erling Krogh (1888-1968) in the title role.

The Opéra Comique survived for three short, glorious years and staged 26 operas during that period, including a Norwegian one – Gerhard Schjelderup’s Bruderovet. But opera has always been the most expensive of all art forms and it was to take almost forty years before the question of government funding was taken seriously. The Opéra Comique sank like a stone in 1921.

Norwegian singers and musicians were once again out on the street. The big opera houses in Europe and the USA welcomed many of them with open arms; at home they could not make a living.

Bass singer Ivar Andrésen (1896-1940), spent almost his entire working career abroad. The first Norwegian to sing at the Metropolitan (1930), he sang all over Europe and South America and was for many years permanently associated with the Berlin State Opera. His greatest triumph were in Wagner, not least in Bayreuth, where his most resounding success was as Gurnemanz in Parsifal with Toscanini conducting.

Norwegian opera suffered lean years from 1921 onwards. The singers formed a union in 1926, and thanks to cooperation with other institutions which also supported the idea of a permanent Norwegian opera, the foundations were laid for a few productions at the National Theatre in the 1930s.

This brought some of the leading Norwegian singers back home. Kirsten Flagstad caused a furore in her first Wagner role in 1929, as Elsa in Lohengrin, and soon audiences were able to hear Ivar Andrésen, Signe Amundesen (1899-1987, known in Europe as Sinia Garini and Silvia Garetti), and Fanny Elstad (1899-1978, later called “the mother of the Bergen International Music Festival”). The rehearsal pianist for Figaro in 1983 was a talented Hungarian – Georg Solti!

Bjarne Buntz (1901-1982) arrived on the scene early in 1930s. He won great acclaim as Alfredo in La Traviata at the National Theatre in 1934, rapidly became Norway’s leading dramatic tenor, and was much appreciated as a guest artist in Europe and the USA. He did a great deal for opera's cause and became a leading soloist when the Norwegian National Opera was established.

During the German occupation of Norway (1940-45), only one opera was performed at the National Theatre (under Norwegian leadership), namely Ame Eggen's Olav Liljekrans, with a libretto based on Henrik Ibsen's text. Arne Hendriksen (1911), who later became a leading tenor at the Stockholm opera, made his début here.

Opera lay fallow during the war, and during the post-war period Norwegian opera was still dependent upon the goodwill of the theatres. Det Nye Teater became a venue for modem musical drama, such as Britten and Martinu. The American opera singer Anne Brown (1912), Gershwin's first Bess in Porgy and Bess, was now living in Norway and attracted large audiences to several Menotti operas, white Kirsten Flagstad's swansong was in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in 1953.

In 1950, the brothers Gunnar and Jonas Brunvoll started Norsk Operaselskap AS (the Norwegian Opera Company Ltd.), which proved to be an enormously important venue for Norwegian singers and which, through eight seasons and fifteen productions, laid the foundations for the Norwegian National Opera. The NNO opened its doors in 1959, with Kirsten Flagstad as Director and Øivin Fjeldstad as Musical Director. Many famous Norwegian singers have performed on the NNO’s stage over the years, but many have still been forced to go abroad.

The big stars:
When Aase Nordmo Løvberg (1923) made her début at the National Theatre in 1951 a new world-famous Norwegian star was born. During the next twenty years, she was the leading soprano soloist at the Royal Swedish Opera. Her international breakthrough was in Vienna in 1957 and two years later she made début at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan. She often sang at the Salzburg, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh and Bayreuth festivals as a singer of oratorios and Lieder. She was later to become Director of the NNO and a professor at the Norwegian State Academy of Music.

One of the greatest Wagner interpreters the world has ever known, on a par with Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, is Ingrid Bjoner (1927). German opera houses in particular have monopolised her and she was permanently associated with the Munich Opera for over 25 years. She has also been a welcome guest at La Scala, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan, the Paris Opera, the Vienna Opera and many others. “Die Bjoner” has particularly made her mark as an interpreter of Wagner and Strauss. The applause after her magnificent Isolde at Bayreuth lasted for three quarters of an hour. She broke her leg the day before she was due to make her debut as Elektra at Stuttgart. In the madness scene, she nevertheless danced herself to death in a black-painted plaster cast! A real trouper, adored for a generation, Ingrid Bjoner is now an extremely sought after teacher, both in Norway and abroad. She is currently a professor at the Norwegian State Academy of Music.

Egil Frostman (1922) was another Norwegian tenor to make a career abroad and be relatively seldom heard at home, just like mezzo soprano Eva Gustavson (1917) and soprano Eva Prytz (1917-87). Sweden welcomed them all with open arms and gave them opportunities they lacked in Norway. They all had important international careers.

Veteran tenor Ragnar Ulfung (1927) is still going strong. His role interpretations are famous, characterised by strong psychological analysis and dramatic temperament. When he made his debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, as Canio in Pagliacci in 1958 (a part he is still singing), Jussi Björling came backstage, lifted him up and shouted “Dammit, you’re good!”

After fifty years singing all the major tenor parts all over the world, and with Herod (playing to over 30 different Salomes!) and Mime as his current star roles, he looks back particularly fondly on Ingmar Bergman's production of The Rake's Progress, Göran Gentele's Masked Ball, Zefirelli's Don Carlos, Sir Peter Hall's Salome and Mime in Siegfried under von Karajan, as well as the years at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, where he also directs.

In 1976, Ulfung and mezzo soprano Edith Thallaug (1929), were the first two non-Swedes to be appointed Royal Court Singers in Sweden. Like tenor Kolbjørn Høiseth (1932), they were both leading artists at the Stockholm Opera for many years and rocketed from there to the world's major opera houses. Høiseth's Metropolitan début was in 1975, in both Rheingold and Die Walkürie.

Edith Thallaug has excelled in all the major mezzo roles and is particularly well known for her Carmen and Octavian. She has been guest singer at the Bolshoi, Edinburgh and Glyndebourne, and had her La Scala début in 1982 in Luciano Berio's La Vera Storia. Thallaug is also a famed Lied singer.

Some of the Norwegian international stars have also worked permanently at the NNO, not least of them baritone Knut Skram (1937), just as at home in the Italian as the German repertoire, whose major roles include Jochanaan in Salome, Der Wanderer in Siegfried and Scarpia in Tosca. As Scarpia, he has sung at the Bolshoi and at the Arena di Verona, where he was the first Norwegian guest singer and an enthusiastic audience of 20 000 screamed “Scarpia-Scaramma!” during the ovations. He is a frequent visitor to all the major opera houses and festivals.

Bass singer Oddbjørn Tennfjord (1941) made his début in 1971 and has interpreted roles as different as Don Pasquale and Osmin, Duke Bluebeard and Boris Gudonov. He is currently a great success as Wotan in the NNO's new Ring cycle. In recent years, he has played leading roles in many countries all over the world and is also a popular teacher.

Anne Gjevang's (1948) reputation in the international opera world is steadily on the rise. She works mostly in Europe, but has sung Erda at the Metropolitan several times and has for many years been a soloist at Bayreuth. Bass Aage Haugland (1944), now a Danish citizen, is based at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen and is much in demand for Verdi and Wagner roles at the world's leading opera houses.

New blood:
A new generation of young Norwegian singers is also making a name for itself, both at home and abroad. Tenor Arild Helleland has been at the NNO since 1989 and has won great acc1aim in character parts, most recently as Mime in Rheingold and Siegfried. From the current season onwards, he is also permanent soloist at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, and is frequently invited to perform at many other major venues.

Soprano Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz has already made an international name for herself and sings at the most prominent opera houses under conductors such as Lorin Maazel, Carlos Kleiber, Sir Georg Solti and Riccardo Muti. At the Wiener Staatsoper, she starred with Pavarotti in L’Elisir d’amore with great success.

Soprano Solveig Kringelborn is also in the major league, having performed in Stockholm, Moscow and Vienna. During the current season, she is making her debut at the Metropolitan and will again be a guest performer at Salzburg. Claudio Abbado has chosen her for the opening concert at the Edinburgh Festival, and she is to sing her first Tatiana in Eugen Onegin at the Bastille Opera.

Mezzo soprano Randi Stene will be making her Covent Garden début this year, and will also be singing at Edinburgh and the BBC Proms. Her contracts in Brussels, and the Bastille and Châtelet operas in Paris stretch almost into the next century. She is also much in demand as an orchestral soloist and, in the same way as all the rest of the younger generation, has made many significant recordings and TV broadcasts. Marianne Hirsti has been heard most in Germany and England, both as a recitalist and an opera singer.

The men are doing well too. Baritone Per Vollestad combines his talents, singing both opera and recitals, and his recordings have been highly praised by the critics. One of his major new challenges will be Dido and Aeneas in Japan.

Bass singer Carsten Stabell has, among other things, made his debut at La Scala and the Bastille Opera and will be singing for the first time at Covent Garden, the Lyric Opera in Chicago and the BBC Proms this season. Bass singer Frode Olsen has sung at the Frankfurt, Lyon, Glyndebourne and Toronto operas and will soon be heard in Rouen, Brussels, Bologna and many other venues.

After his thrilling début as Leporello in Innsbruck a couple of years ago, bass baritone Ronnie Johansen will soon be performing in major roles, including the new Ring at the Frankfurt Opera, as the Dutchman in Gothenburg and in Mahagonny in Paris. He has been invited to re-visit both Brussels and the Bastille Opera for concerts and operatic performances and a bright future is forecast, both for Vim and for the others.

Meanwhile, back home on the ranch, we are still waiting for an opera house so that Norwegian audiences can have more than a sporadic chance of hearing their own most prominent singers.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.3 - 1995 No. 2
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