[This interview was originally published in the semi-annual Massenet Newsletter in July, 1987, and has been slightly re-edited for this website presentation.  The obituary at the top has been added, as have the photos and links.  BD]

Soprano  Dorothy  Kirsten
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Opera Star Dorothy Kirsten Dies; Led Alzheimer's Fight

[Text only - photos from another source]

Dorothy Kirsten, the glamorous and gifted lyric soprano considered the definitive "Madama Butterfly" of her era, died early Wednesday at UCLA Medical Center where she had been hospitalized for several days following a stroke.

The radiant singer, who brought sophisticated American charm and glamour to the musical world when many opera stars of the day were more pleasing to the ear than they were to the eye, was 82.

Although she was the first opera star to appear on the cover of Life magazine and the first singer in the history of the Metropolitan Opera to sing on that stage for 30 consecutive years, she became even better known in her final years for her dedication to finding a cure for the illness that killed her husband.  Dr. John D. French, whom she married in 1955, died in 1989 of the complications of Alzheimer's disease. Ironically he was the neurologist who had founded the UCLA Brain Research Institute.

Shortly after he was stricken in 1982 and retreated into whatever faraway places the crippled mind dwells, Miss Kirsten told The Times, "I pray God will take him from me before it becomes necessary to put him in a home."  She finally had to put him in one, but it was a home and center she herself had founded in 1983 and which has since raised more than $3.5 million to support Alzheimer's research.

Since 1988 the center has underwritten the Bulletin of Clinical Neurosciences and sponsored more than 30 seminars in the United States and Europe where Alzheimer's researchers have shared their knowledge. In 1987 the John Douglas French Center for Alzheimer's disease opened in Los Alamitos and it was there that Dorothy Kirsten French's husband spent his final days.

Even after his death the center had remained a preeminent part of her life. A spokesman for the center recalled shortly after her death a trip he had taken with her to Massachusetts General Hospital in Cambridge where she made one of many presentations on behalf of the facility named for her husband.  Adding a personal note to the proceedings, a couple of the doctors there told her of the days when they were young medical students and had journeyed to New York where they stood to hear her sing at the Met because they lacked the funds for opera seats.

"Gentlemen," she said, "thank you, but we're here to discuss Alzheimer's."

French Foundation Chairman Art Linkletter said at her death, "Dorothy's dynamic spirit has been an inspiration to all of us. Her memory will continue to motivate us in our gallant fight against Alzheimer's disease."


Dorothy Kirsten, who attributed her vocal longevity to recognizing early on that she had a pleasingly clear but not overwhelming lyric soprano voice, was born in Montclair, N.J. She studied piano as a child but didn't take up voice until she was in her teens. And even then she did not consider opera as a career. It was Broadway musicals she had an eye on.  She said over the years that she always considered herself "a singing actor rather than an opera singer."

She was paying for her vocal lessons and Juilliard studies by appearing on radio and in choral groups backing up such radio stars as Kate Smith. Her silvery voice came to the attention of opera soprano Grace Moore, who became her mentor. Miss Moore sent her to study with Astolio Pescia in Rome and when she was forced to return in 1940 with World War II on the horizon, she had developed professionally to a point where she could make her debut as Pousette in "Manon" with the Chicago Opera.

Two years later she made her New York debut with the San Carlo Opera Co. as Mimì in "La Bohème." In 1945 came her Metropolitan debut, again as the frail girl with the cold hands but cheerful spirit.  That began a string of 170 Met performances in 12 roles over the next three decades. It was an unprecedented run, one she attributed to her new teacher, Ludwig Fabri, who only allowed her to sing exercises and never arias in his class, thus saving her voice for performances. She remained with him until his death in 1963.

When she gave her final Met performance on New Year's Eve in 1975 in the role of Floria Tosca, she had also accumulated 25 seasons with the San Francisco Opera that involved dozens of appearances at the Shrine and Philharmonic auditoriums in Los Angeles.

The voice that the late Times critic Albert Goldberg once described as "filled with conviction" had been heard as Manon Lescaut, as Marguerite in "Faust," as Violetta in "La Traviata," as Nedda in "Pagliacci" and in the title role of "Louise," which she learned from Gustave Charpentier, the opera's composer.

She had sung on the radio with Frank Sinatra, appeared regularly on TV variety shows and was seen in films with Mario Lanza in "The Great Caruso" and Bing Crosby in "Mr. Music."

In recital, her blond hair and stunning, usually white gowns gave her a radiant, angelic look.



kirstenBelieve it or not, on July 6 of this year (1987), Dorothy Kirsten will be 70!  [The Oxford Dictionary of Opera listed her birth year as 1917; Baker
’s Biographical Dictionary (8th Edition) lists it as 1915; the obituary in The New York Times lists those as years which had been given by her, but the accurate year was 1910.]  Her career in opera, operetta, radio, and film was long and distinguished, and she continues to give her knowledge and enthusiasm to the younger generation.  Her views on the current state of the art, however, are a bit critical.  She feels there will continue to be opera, but it won’t be like it was in her day.  “It’s the responsibility of anyone having a great gift of God that is developed into being an opera singer,” she says.  She herself lived by this creed, and sacrificed her own family life in order to further and maintain her brilliant career.  “I hesitated until I had the right man, and by then it was too late to have a family.  But if I’d had a family, I would not have had the rest of my career.  It must be a complete dedication, and without that it can never be the greatest.  And believe me, when you make it to the top, you have to keep working in order to stay there!”

In spite of saying some rather harsh things about what’s going on today in the world of opera, Kirsten thinks there is a lot of raw talent out there.  It’s the general unwillingness to spend the necessary time that causes the problems.  She also criticizes impresarios who don’t understand vocal technique.  “Managers ask young singers to do things which are beyond their ability, and to get into the business they do those roles.  That way they ruin themselves before they even get started.”  She longs for the days when managers knew how to develop a career.  She told me how they used to know what each client should be doing, and how to balance concert programs.  “They really looked after the career.  Now they sit behind the desk and count the money.”

Kirsten knows whereof she speaks, for the technique and production of the voice helped to make her career last for 43 years, 30 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  She spoke of the tour, which was about to end as we did our interview.  “We really learned to know our fellow artists during that time.  The stars would mingle with the second leads and the comprimarios and the chorus and everyone!”  She did acknowledge that many of these modern shortcomings weren’t totally the fault of the opera companies, but were partly because of the speed of life these days.  Kirsten also remarked about the singers’ fees, and said it was parallel to what was happening in sports.  “It’s become a money-making business rather than an artistic life.”  So where should the emphasis be in opera?  “Opera should be both art and entertainment

While speaking about her own career and the developments today as she sees them, Kirsten did have some sound advice for the young singers.  “Singers don’t know how to say ‘No’!  It’s one of the most difficult things, but I learned it early.  It’s not difficult if you have faith in yourself and you know that you’re going somewhere.  I was positive my career was going to be a long one because I learned the foundations of singing and my technique very early.  That way you enjoy your career.  You’re not afraid to sing and hit that high C in any theater at any time because you know damn well you’ve got it!”  She then went on about a few details of her own particular voice.  “I’m a lyric-spinto, but I could have sung any type of music I wanted
even dramatic, Wagnerian roles!  However, I had sense enough to say no, and not sing things that were wrong for my voice.  The toughest man I worked for was Rudolf Bing.  One time he offered me a role, and if I’d sung it I would have lost my lighter roles.  He told me, ‘Dorothy, if you were anyone else I’d fire you on the spot, but I respect you because you’ve never let me down at any performance.’”

*     *     *     *     *

After this discussion of career and the implications of simply being a singer, we chatted about a few roles.  Naturally, since she was known as a Puccini singer who had also sung Massenet, I asked about the differences between the two settings of the Prévost novel.  “The French Manon has an act which is very florid, very coloratura, and places where the voice has to be light and have agility.  When you begin to sing roles like Tosca and Minnie (in Fanciulla del West), you lose a little bit of that agility in the voice.  The voice becomes heavier.  The Massenet opera’s Cours-la-Reine is very difficult.  I used to skip the one big aria because I didn’t feel I was up to it.  But I love the opera.  The duet between the tenor and the soprano is one of the most beautiful things.  I’m more proud of the record I made of that with Richard Tucker than I am of almost of any other thing I recorded. 


But the Puccini opera I also adored.  It was my meat.  The dramatic flair and the character is very interesting.  She’s the same Manon, but it treated in a different way.  The vocal responsibility is very different from one to the other.  The technique never changes, however.”  She then said that the table aria is very light and lyric and easy to sing, whereas in the second act of the Puccini it’s dramatic, and she’s going top speed all the way.  I then asked Miss Kirsten if that was part of the strength of the character
that she can be treated in both the French style and also the Italian verismo style, and she said that this observation was quite correct and very perceptive.  “I fell in love with the Massenet opera.  It has almost everything in it, but I can’t say that I prefer one over the other because I love the character.”

After speaking about these roles for a bit, I asked her whether she became the characters, or portrayed the characters.  “I became each character at least two or three days before I sang it, and I bored everybody to death!  I was one of those who wanted to rehearse, and I demanded rehearsals.  But when you’re in great shape
as I was for so many yearsit wasn’t that difficult.  As long as you get enough sleep, when you know your role and you get on that stage you feel something special under your feet.  You sing your first notes and you know you’ve got it.  That is exhilarating beyond anything else.”  Later in our chat she came back to this idea.  “If I hadn’t had a wonderful time I would have gotten out.  It wasn’t a business for me; it was the delight of my life.  Singing has been my life.  If I was physically well, I ate it all up like the best thing I ever tasted in my life.  If I was not feeling well, it was a little harder to work myself into it, but it was my job, and I did the best I could.”

*     *     *     *     *

kirstenSince leaving the Met, Kirsten has continued to sing, as well as direct a bit, and has even written her autobiography, entitled A Time to Sing, published by Doubleday.  She also was involved in a production of Tosca in California for which she designed the sets.  Saying she’s been frustrated by other productions, she included a 12 foot fall for her jump at the end of the opera.  “I wanted realism as much as possible.  That’s what Puccini wrote.”  During our phone conversation, Miss Kirsten was at her home in California, and I was in my home in Chicago, so I asked her about her very early days in the Windy City.  “I remember I made my debut in Chicago, and the acoustics there are wonderful.  That was in 1940, and I was Poussette in Manon.”  [She was speaking from memory, but a check of the Annals reveals her recollection to be accurate.  It was November 9, and the cast included Jepson, Crooks, and Rothier, with Abravanel in the pit.  There were two more performances of Manon that season, both with Schipa, and the last with Grace Moore in the title role.  The previous issues of this Newsletter contain interviews with both Jepson and Abravanel, as well as a few more details about those exciting Chicago seasons.  Click the links to read those interviews, and also see my extensive article Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago Opera 1910-1932.]

Continuing about Chicago, Kirsten recalled singing 17 roles in her first two years.  “Those were ‘second lead’ parts.  I learned from the beginning not to push the voice, but to project.  I was always heard.”  She then told me that some opera houses are “dead” acoustically, but that can also depend on what’s on the stage. 
If you have a decent backdrop, it can help bring the voices out into the audience.  But if the singers are surrounded by velvet, the beautiful fabric simply swallows up the sound.  Also in that season of 1940, Kirsten experienced Moore in Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re, a role Dorothy herself would sing in Chicago fifteen years later.  But in doing research and learning about the part, the young artist went back another generation, and spoke with Mary Garden about the role.

Kirsten was also fortunate to be able to study another famous role with its composer
Louise.  “Charpantier was wonderful, and told me about the characters and what they should do and how they should be.”  Recalling his words, Kirsten told me, “Louise has got to be a French girl, someone who knows something about Paris, and has good diction.  He was always upset with Americans because the Mother was always played as a shrew.  He told me she was a wonderful woman.  The opera was partly the story of his life; he was Julien!  The mother should be played as a real mother with some kindness to her.”

At this point, I asked Miss Kirsten if there had been any unexpected disasters which she could now look back on with some levity.  This reminded her of a Faust in New Orleans.  “There were only two rehearsals, and when I arrived there was no spinning wheel.  The people assured me that since there were so many antique stores around, they could find one.  I said it would be OK, as long as I could try it before the performance.  (I never touched anything on the stage that I didn’t know would work.)  Well, the one they found had the largest wheel I’d ever seen.  I had to sit side-saddle in order not to be hidden.  I started the arietta and all was going well, but as I sang, the wheel left the frame and rolled off into the wings!  I nearly died and the audience was hysterical.  It was hard to go on, but I went ahead as best I could.”  She also told me about a Tosca in Los Angeles where the candles were electric and had to be operated by a stagehand.  She insisted on a complete rehearsal, and the sequence of their being blown out was agreed upon.  Naturally, the performance had a twist.  “It all went well as I put out the first one.  Then when I put out the second one, the first one came back on.  It went like that all around
as I put one out, the previous one would come back on.  The papers noted that I was late coming out for the curtain-call, probably because I was killing the electrician.  It was most embarrassing.

*     *     *     *     *

kirstenDuring this most enjoyable hour, Miss Kirsten also spoke of her Puccini roles.  She said that Mimì is a simple role
not to sing, but dramatically.  “She doesn’t know her emotions like Manon or Butterfly or Tosca.”  The singer then recalled Minnie in Fanciulla del West and said, “It’s the most demanding role Puccini wrote for the lyric-spinto voice.  I called it my Brünnhilde, and not only because of the horse!”

Even before the days of the visually-lovely soprano, Kirsten was always delightful to look at.  “I never allowed myself to get fat,” she proclaimed.  Now, of course, television makes it easy for singers to see just how they look.  Kirsten feels opera belongs on the tube, but only when it’s done well.  “I think we make a bad mistake by putting on poor productions.  It gives the wrong impression.  The stage is completely different from TV or film.  Live performances give the public a lot more than they get on TV.  Artists are real and are giving their insides to present the work.”

At this point, I ventured to the area of new operas, and Miss Kirsten noted that she felt there was a lull in the time of good composers.  “I don’t understand why we can’t produce any good new operas.  I think Menotti,
especially, is very talented, but it’s not my kind of opera.”  I asked if she thought that studying voice would help a young or older composers write better operas, and she said she didn’t want them to waste their time developing vocal cords, but suggests they should learn about singing from experience with working alongside of singers.  “The singers could tell the composer things that will and will not work well for the voice.”  Does she feel this advice also holds for the conductors?  “To be a composer,” she says, “one doesn’t have to be the greatest musician in the world, but to be a conductor you must study and you must control the opera, and that takes technique.  I think that conductors should all consider the singers because they’re working with a human voice, and not an instrument that can be taken home under your arm.”

As we wound up our chat, Miss Kirsten paid this interviewer a lovely compliment, saying, “I’m so glad to talk with someone intelligent about my business.”  That is a remark I shall treasure for a long time.

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© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on June 26, 1985.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1987, 1990 and 1995.  This transcription was made and published in the semi-annual Massenet Newsletter in July, 1987.  It was slightly re-edited and expanded in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.