Lyric soprano Dorothy Kirsten French, who rose to opera stardom and dedicated her later years to battling Alzheimer’s disease, died yesteday of complications from a stroke. She was 82.
Kirsten was best known for roles in “Madame Butterfly,””Tosca,””Manon Lescaut” and “Girl of the Golden West,” but she retired abruptly in 1982 upon learning her husband, the late Dr. John Douglas French, had Alzheimer’s disease.
The next year, she and Richard K. Eamer, head of National Medical Enterprises Inc., founded the French Foundation to support Alzheimer’s research and to develop methods of caring for patients.
She also helped design the John Douglas French Center for Alzheimer’s Disease in Los Alamitos. The 148-bed center was the nation’s first facility devoted exclusively to Alzheimer’s.
Kirsten first made her mark on the stage in 1940, when she debuted with the Chicago Opera Company. Within five years, she moved into prima donna roles with the San Francisco and N.Y. Metropolitan operas, specializing in the lyric roles of Verdi and Puccini.
She was the first American soprano to sing opera in the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War in 1962, the director of the Tiflis Opera hailed her as “the strongest link in the chain of friendship between the Soviet Union and the United States.”
Kirsten worked in radio with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Perry Como, co-starred with Mario Lanza in pic “The Great Caruso,” recorded arias with Robert Merrill and Richard Tucker and pop music with Crosby, Gordon MacRae and Nelson Eddy.
In 1975, at a New Year’s Eve performance of “Tosca,” Kirsten became the first prima donna to celebrate a 30-year anniversary with the Metropolitan Opera.
Her husband, a neurosurgeon who headed the UCLA Brain Research Institute, died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1989.
Kirsten, originally of Montclair, N.J., is survived by two sisters and a brother.
Memorial services were scheduled for Nov. 30 at Westwood Presbyterian Church.