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 Mimi in “La Boheme.” 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.
Her signature appearance for tens of thousands will always be as the disillusioned and deserted Japanese bride “Madama Butterfly.”
Wrote Goldberg more than 30 years ago:
“Her Cio-Cio-San is a minutely detailed characterization of moving power and authority. . . . All the details fit into a conception that moves logically to the culminating tragic climax.”
Tenor Placido Domingo remembered “with great fondness the ‘Tosca’ we sang together. She was an artist I admired very much and a great lady of the stage.”
Veteran Metropolitan baritone Robert Merrill recalled her as “a wonderful colleague, the most professional artist I have ever known and she always showed intense devotion to her art.”
“Not only did Dorothy have a beautiful voice, but she was a wonderful actress,” Merrill added. “She knew the drama of a part. You didn’t just act--you reacted to her portrayal.”
Miss Kirsten married for the first time in 1943 to Edward Oates, a radio executive. They divorced and in 1951 she wed Eugene R. Chapman, the assistant dean of the UCLA Medical School, who died in 1954. The following year she married French.
“Puccini remained her specialty, throughout an amazingly long, carefully plotted career. She was a remarkably poignant, remarkably credible Cio-Cio-San in ‘Madama Butterfly’ even when she happened to be many years older than Puccini’s teen-age Geisha. She never forced her silvery soprano for dramatic impact, never allowed her tone to lose its focus. Thus she was able to achieve success in several roles that defeated rivals with heavier vocal equipment: most notably Minnie in ‘La Fanciulla del West’ and Tosca.” Miss Kirsten remained close to her roots and when the Metropolitan Opera moved to Lincoln Center in 1966 she purchased the chairs from Box 2 and had them shipped to her Bel-Air home.
“That was the box,” she explained, “in which Grace Moore sat and threw flowers at me on the night I made my debut.”
Miss Kirsten is survived by two sisters, Ethel Anderson of Lenoir, N.C., and Eleanor Parker of Tucson, Ariz.; and a brother, George Kirsten of Lenoir, N.C.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 30, at Westwood Presbyterian Church, 10822 Wilshire Blvd.