In 1952 Asbjorn Lunde attended the opera Dido and Anaeas which was being performed, with Kirsten Flagstad in the title role, at the home of Bernard Miles in Acacia Road. Bernard had converted a barn on the property into a theatre and concert hall with very good acoustics. (see the earlier article in this website entitled Mermaid Theatre)
Lunde Family in America in the 1920s
Asbjorn’s parents had emigrated from Norway to America at the end of the 1920s and lived through the depression there. He himself was born in 1925 and became a lawyer in New York. He was always passionate about music. Kirsten Flagstad, Norwegian, became a focus for him and he collected many of her records. He recalls finding a treasure, three rare old vinyl 78 rpms of her singing the Grieg song cycle, found while the family were on their first long road trip in Canada after the war.
In Europe in 1952
When Asbjorn was making his plans to come to Europe in 1952 he read that Kirsten Flagstad was to perform in London, and determined that he would go to hear her if he possibly could. So he wrote to Bernard Miles and a correspondence ensued. He came to St John’s Wood, was welcomed as a guest and invited to stay on after the opera to meet Kirsten.
Kirsten Flagstad in St John’s Wood
The occasion was evidently memorable, with his heroine’s wonderful singing. The purity and beauty of the tone of her voice was remarkable. It was a nice venue for the performance, with comfortable seating for about 200 people. There was a small orchestra, probably about 15 musicians. Later he was able to talk to Kirsten, and her sister too (who was playing Belinda to Kirsten’s Dido). Also present as well as Bernard, were his wife Josephine Wilson and their daughter. Asbjorn does not know how Bernard originally got to know Kirsten, but apparently they made a friendly deal, that if he refurbished the barn, she would come and sing 20 performances for him – with payment of only one pint of Guinness a time!
The small gathering meant that they could all converse easily. Asbjorn learnt that Kirsten was singing at the Lucerne Festival that same summer, and also in the Basel opera house. So he heard her sing again.
Back in New York, she came to the Metropolitan Opera House, where sadly she was accused by protesters of being a Nazi sympathiser during the war. This was untrue, though she had indeed returned to Norway to join her second husband in 1941 when the Nazis occupied the country. Asbjorn went backstage at the Met, so keeping up the personal contact with her. Obviously Norwegian as a common language made a bond between them.
Meanwhile Bernard moved his performances to the Royal Exchange the following year, 1953, subsequently making a permanent venue for the Mermaid theatre at Puddledock in the City in 1959.