She died of complications from a stroke she suffered on Nov. 5, said Peter Gravina, her longtime press representative.
At the height of her career, in the 1950's and 60's, Miss Kirsten appealed not only to opera fans, who knew her as an attractive, intelligent, thoroughly musical singer and a fine actress, but also to a broader public that knew her from her frequent radio and television appearances or from her performances in the films 'The Great Caruso,' with Mario Lanza, and 'Mr. Music,' with Bing Crosby. In 1950 she recorded two Decca sides with Bing: "Accidents Will Happen" and "Milady."
On the opera stage, her repertory ran from staples like Mimi in Puccini's 'Boheme' to comparative rarities like the title role in Charpentier's 'Louise.' In her concert and television appearances, she sang not only opera arias but theater and popular songs as well, and she co-starred with Frank Sinatra on the radio show 'Your Hit Parade.'
Miss Kirsten was born into a musical family in Montclair, N.J., on July 6, 1910 (although she gave her birth year variously as 1917 and 1915). Her mother was an organist and music teacher. Her great-aunt, Catherine Hayes, had an operatic career and was known as 'The Irish Jenny Lind.' Her grandfather was a conductor and an early president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.
She was drawn to music and acting early in life, but did not set her sights on an operatic career until she had achieved some modest success as a popular singer. After leaving high school when she was 16 years old, Miss Kirsten worked as a demonstrator of Singer sewing machines and as what she called a trouble-shooter at New Jersey Telephone, while studying voice in New York City at night. When she had made some progress and wanted more frequent lessons than she could afford, she agreed to work for her teacher, Louis Darnay, as both secretary and maid in exchange for lessons.
By 1937, she was singing professionally on radio, both as a member of the Kate Smith Chorus and in her own solo spots with several dance orchestras. The soprano Grace Moore heard her in 1938 and became her mentor and benefactor, sending her to Rome for a year of study with Astolfo Pescia, who was Beniamino Gigli's vocal coach. She had planned to spend a second year in Italy and then a year in France, but returned to New York at the start of World War II.
Upon her return in 1939, Miss Kirsten made her professional concert debut in a stage show at the New York World's Fair. She was also reunited with Miss Moore, who recommended her to the Chicago Grand Opera, where Miss Kirsten made her operatic debut as Pousette in Massenet's 'Manon' in 1940. Miss Kirsten sang 15 minor roles during her first season and the following year shared the stage with Miss Moore in a Chicago performance of 'La Boheme,' singing Musetta to Miss Moore's Mimi.
In 1942, Miss Kirsten began to sing leading roles with the San Carlo Opera Company, in Washington and New York City. She made her New York City Opera debut in 1943, and by 1945 had performed with the San Francisco Opera, the New York Philharmonic and other major orchestras. Starting in September 1943, she had her own radio program, 'Keepsakes,' which ran for a year.
Miss Kirsten's Metropolitan Opera debut, as Mimi in 'La Boheme' on Dec. 1, 1945, was a critical success, and was the start of a 30-year association with the house. In 1971, when she celebrated her 25th anniversary with the company, she reminisced about that debut, and recalled that Miss Moore sat in the first box, at the side of the stage, and threw roses to her. When Miss Moore died in a plane crash in Denmark in 1947, Miss Kirsten sang Schubert's 'Ave Maria' at her funeral.
Miss Kirsten's career was centered in the United States, but she did tour Europe and, in 1962, the Soviet Union. There, besides giving recitals, she sang Violetta in a Bolshoi Opera performance of 'La Traviata,' to considerable acclaim, even though, as she said later, she had to go on without the benefit of a stage rehearsal.
Worked With Composers
During her years at the Met, Miss Kirsten sang most of the important Puccini roles, including the title roles in 'Manon Lescaut,' 'Tosca' and 'Madama Butterfly,' and she starred as Minnie in a revival of 'La Fanciulla del West' that helped restore the work to the repertory. She prepared for the title role in 'Louise' by going to France to study it with the composer. She also worked with the composer Italo Montemezzi on 'L'Amore dei Tre Re' before she performed it in San Francisco and at the Met.
In addition to the Puccini heroines, her repertory included the female leads in Gounod's 'Romeo et Juliette' and 'Faust,' Leoncavallo's 'Pagliacci' and Verdi's 'Traviata.' She sang in the American premieres of Walton's 'Troilus and Cressida' and Poulenc's 'Dialogue des Carmelites,' both in San Francisco.
Miss Kirsten's voice was not huge, but she used it gracefully throughout her long career. When she gave her farewell performance at the Met, on Dec. 31, 1976, Allen Hughes wrote in The New York Times that 'she sang and acted the part of Tosca with the vocal control and dramatic acuity of a prima donna in mid-career.'
In an article she wrote for Opera News just before that performance, Miss Kirsten attributed her vocal longevity to her refusal to accept roles that she felt were too heavy for her voice.
'I've always believed in the principle of protection, and I never sang a role I felt was not right for my voice,' she wrote. 'This took courage and drew some criticism along the way, but after 30 years of preserving Puccini's legato and tessitura I don't have to apologize to anyone, do I?'
Miss Kirsten's autobiography, 'A Time to Sing,' was published in 1982. Recently, several of her television performances on the 'Voice of Firestone' program, including the Poker Scene from 'Fanciulla,' 'Vissi d'Arte' from 'Tosca' and several popular songs, have been released on tape by Video Arts International. And her recordings of several Romberg operettas have been reissued by Angel Records.
Miss Kirsten's first marriage, to Edward MacKayes Oates, ended in divorce in 1949. In 1951 she married Dr. Eugene Chapman, who died in 1954. In 1955, she married Dr. John Douglas French, a neurosurgeon who was director of the Brain Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. When Dr. French developed Alzheimer's disease in the early 1980's, Miss Kirsten testified at a hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and in 1983 she set up the French Foundation for Alzheimer Research. Dr. French died in 1989.
She is survived by two sisters, Eleanor Parker of Tucson, Ariz., and Ethel Anderson of Lenoir, N.C., and a brother, George, also of Lenoir.