Lotte Lehmann was one of the most beloved singers of her era. She was a favorite of Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, Hans Pfitzner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, and Thomas Mann. Many who heard her consider her interpretations of the Marschallin, Fidelio, Sieglinde, and Elisabeth still unsurpassed. She moved critics in London, Vienna, Paris, and New York to hymns of praise such as one seldom if ever encounters today. She inspired an almost fanatical devotion in her audiences.
She was also a prolific writer. Among her eight published books is an autobiography, Anfang und Aufstieg — literally, ‘the beginning and the upward climb.’ It was published in England as On Wings of Song, in America as Midway in My Song. As the title suggests, it was incomplete. It appeared in 1937 when she was 49 years old. She lived another 39 years and they were active ones, years in which she conquered the vast domain of the German Lied and distinquished herself as a remarkable teacher of interpretation. To fill the gap, Capra Press of Santa Barbara published a comprehensive biography of Lehmann in her centenary year. It is based upon a mass of fascinating material in the Lotte Lehmann Archive of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was written by the author of this article. Lehmann herself left many autobiographical fragments which have been incorporated into the book.
Charlotte Sophie Pauline Lehmann was born on 27 February 1888 in the north-German town of Perleberg, about halfway between Hamburg and Berlin. Her father was a sort of civil servant, very industrious, very orderly, very methodical. It was his fondest hope that his daughter would someday follow in his footsteps. Above all she must have a position that entitled her to a pension.
Her dismal marks in arithmetic soon disabused him of that dream. Her favorite classes were elocution and writing. She was very proud that a Berlin paper printed one of her poems. The ten marks she earned for that effort meant more to the embryonic prima donna than many a fabulous fee in her future.
Everyone in the family loved to sing — old familiar ballads, folk songs, hits of the day. They knew next to nothing of classical music. Lotte was allowed to take piano lessons. One day a neighbor heard her singing around the house and persuaded her parents to let her audition for the Royal High School of Music in Berlin. Her father was assured that she would someday be able to make a respectable living as an oratorio singer — with a pension. Lotte had no repertoire; but one of the more advanced students coached her in Siebel’s aria from Faust and ‘Jerusalem’ from Mendelssohn’s St. Paul. She was accepted as a student of singing. She began to frequent the top gallery at the opera. Emmy Destinn and Geraldine Farrar became her idols. Opera seemed a shining beacon. Soon she found herself dissatisfied with the oratorio-orientation of her course at school.
She was given free tuition at the Etelka Gerster School of Singing. But the vocal methods practiced there, although successful for some students, were nearly disastrous for Lotte. She was expected to sing with a little wooden stick between her jaws, to keep the same degree of opening for all tones, high or low. And when she had difficulties with the second aria of the Countess from The Marriage of Figaro, her teacher forced her to repeat that aria over and over again at every lesson until she was overcome with panic and nausea at the sound of the first chord. She was dismissed from the school (on 31 December 1908) and told that she would never earn a penny with her voice.
Her father enrolled her in a commercial course. She pleaded with him for one more chance.
Salvation came in the ample form of Mathilde Mallinger who, many years before, had been Wagner’s first Eva in Die Meistersinger and who now managed to work wonders with Lotte’s voice.
In 1910, after a year and a half with Mallinger, Lotte signed her first contract: a beginner’s engagement with the Hamburg Municipal Theatre. The role of her debut, on 2 September 1910, was the Second Boy in The Magic Flute; she spent most of her brief time on stage trying to pull the skimpy tunic a little lower over her legs. According to her own account — unequivocally confirmed by the producer — she was at first hopelessly awkward as an actress. She had no idea what to do with her hands and feet. If there were two or three steps to descend she was certain to stumble. Her lovely voice, however, kept her in the company. For two seasons she spent most of her time in page boy tights, as ‘Edelknaben’ in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, but now and then a female part came her way. Three weeks after her debut she was cast as Freia in Das Rheingold. One critic made the comment that among the gods of Valhalla she appeared to be the chambermaid. Then came her first grateful role, Anna in The Merry Wives of Windsor, not in the Hamburg house but in a suburban performance. This time the reviews were highly encouraging. The producer scolded her for beating time with her legs; but her singing captivated the audience and the word soon spread through the home theatre. During those first months in Hamburg Lotte wrote several long, detailed letters every week to her brother Fritz in Berlin. Those letters preserve a vivid picture of backstage life. Here are some random samples: ‘You can’t imagine anything more gemütlich than those rehearsals. What a lot of tomfoolery they are all up to! They act so familiar. If one of them pinches your cheek or puts his arm around your waist it doesn’t mean a thing. If a girl would make a fuss about it she’d be finished….’ ‘This [Otto] Klemperer is a fresh fellow. Yesterday I had a rehearsal…. I happened to come a bit too early and was alone with him. Naturally he swept me into his arms with that stormy “temperament” of his. I fought him off with all my strength. Fortunately he doesn’t hold my resistance against me. He was very friendly afterwards. If he were not such a brutal type, for whom a harmless “flirt” is out of the question, it might be very pleasant for me; as it is, he is a much too dangerous human being.’
Real success, when it came, was very sudden. Otto Klemperer persuaded the theatre to let her sing Elsa in Lohengrin. He coached her intensively for a week. He shouted at her in front of the cast. The rehearsals were humiliating. But the performance made her a star. It was the happiest day of her life until then, 29 November 1912. She forgot herself and her insecurities and became Elsa. From then on she was cast in leading roles. She found herself a great favorite of the public and the press. Young fans followed her everywhere. Her signature tune that everyone wanted to hear was an aria from Die toten Augen by Eugene d’Albert. She had created the role of Myrtocle, one of her most popular in Hamburg.
Lehmann made her very first recordings, Elsa’s Dream and the Song to the Breezes, in the summer of 1914 for Pathé in Berlin.
The director of the Vienna Court Opera came to Hamburg to hear a certain tenor sing Don José; instead he hired the Micaëla. Lotte made her debut in Vienna as the guest Eva in a performance of Die Meistersinger, 30 October 1914. Two seasons later she was a regular member of the company. As such her official debut was in the role of Agathe in Der Freischütz, on 18 August 1916, the emperor’s birthday and the traditional opening night of the season. The critics predicted that she would soon be a favorite in Vienna, as she had been in Hamburg. Nevertheless, she felt that something was missing. Something special was needed to make a real sensation in Vienna. That ‘something special’ came her way a few months later. The second version of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos was nearing its premiere when Marie Gutheil-Schoder, one of Strauss’s favorite singers, became ill and missed a rehearsal. Lehmann was called in to take her place, temporarily, in the part of the ‘Composer.’ Strauss was immensely impressed with her and decided then and there that she would sing the first performance, rather than Gutheil-Schoder, for whom he had originally written the role. The morning after the premiere ‘all Vienna knew who Lotte Lehmann was.’ From then on Strauss wanted her for all his premieres. He coached her himself at his villa in Garmisch. She created the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten (10 October 1919, in Vienna) and Christine, a portrait of his own wife Pauline, in Intermezzo (4 November 1924, in Dresden). For many years she was his favorite Marschallin. He is said to have written the part of Arabella with Lehmann in mind; but politics intervened and she did not sing in the Dresden premiere.
Puccini came to Vienna in October 1920 to supervise the first production there of his Trittico and found in Lotte Lehmann his ideal Suor Angelica. ‘Go to Vienna!’ he said to all who doubted the effectiveness of that centerpiece to his ‘triptych.’ Puccini also greatly admired Lehmann as Mimi and as Manon Lescaut. Later she sang the Vienna premiere of Turandot, actually a ‘double premiere’ with first Lehmann and Leo Slezak and then Maria Nemeth and Jan Kiepura as Turandot and Calaf. Lehmann recorded two of Turandot’s arias, and her recording of the second includes several phrases that are strikingly different from either the standard score or the recently rediscovered original version of the Franco Alfano love duet.
Lehmann’s first Marschallin came about almost through a fluke. She had sung both Sophie and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, but not as yet the part for which she is now best remembered, when Covent Garden offered her a contract that was dependent upon her singing the role of the princess, in the mistaken assumption that it was already a part of her repertoire. She was anxious to sing in London (where she had actually already made an inconspicuous debut in the summer of 1914 as Sophie at Drury Lane), especially since the conductor was to be Bruno Walter. So she kept her secret to herself and signed the contract. Walter worked with her on every detail of the role. It was the beginning of a very inspiring collaboration. That first performance, on 21 May 1924, and that engagement laid the foundation for her international fame.
Meanwhile she had met her future husband, Otto Krause. She was his birthday present. His first wife, very wealthy, had engaged Lotte Lehmann, his favorite opera star to sing at his birthday party. The unforeseen result: he fell in love with his gift. And she with him. He asked his wife for a divorce. For four years she refused. Four children were involved. The scandal titillated Vienna. Finally, in April 1926, Lotte became the second Mrs. Otto Krause — or rather Otto Krause became the first Mr. Lotte Lehmann. He played that part extremely well and was a great help and support to her during their years together.
Lehmann was in demand all over Europe. Her appearances in Berlin as Marie/Marietta in Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold not only won her ecstatic praise from the composer but resulted in one of her most popular and best-selling records, the duet with Richard Tauber of the ‘Lute Song.’ She also recorded a moving aria from another Korngold opera, Das Wunder der Heliane. She created the title role, in which she was called upon by the story to appear nearly nude.
Lehmann sang in the Salzburg Festivals every summer from 1926 until 1937. In 1928 she conquered Paris, Stockholm and Brussels in 1929. Her Fidelio, which she had sung for the first time in 1927, was hailed as the greatest in the world. She was decorated by the king of Sweden; France made her, first, a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, then, later, an officer (she thought ‘chevalier’ much more romantic).
Her North American debut was with the Chicago Opera, 28 October 1930, as Sieglinde. The Metropolitan waited until 1934. Maria Jeritza, who had been Lehmann’s principal rival in Vienna for years, wanted the Met for herself, it is said. After a phenomenally successful Lehmann recital in New York’s Town Hall, on 7 January 1932, the Metropolitan bowed to public pressure. Jeritza left at the end of that season. (Many years later, in 1962, the two rival prima donnas were brought together for a Met broadcast intermission interview. A tape exists, by the way. [Now also a CD.] Lehmann commemorated that earth-shaking event with a cartoon portrait in color of herself and Jeritza, long cat-tails emerging from under their skirts.)
On 11 January 1934 Lehmann made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Her success was triumphant. She was in demand all over America for concerts and recitals.
Then, one year later, Kirsten Flagstad burst upon the scene, out of relative obscurity, like a supernova that outshines all other stars. She was the supreme Isolde and Brünnhilde of her day. Although most critics and the more discriminating members of the Metropolitan audience preferred Lehmann as Sieglinde, Elisabeth, and Elsa, roles she had made peculiarly her own, there was an unprecedented demand to hear Flagstad in anything she was willing to sing. Lehmann sang very few performances. Flagstad generally sang four times a week, always to sold-out houses. She has often been given the credit for having saved the Met during the depression. But her advent was an undeniable blow to Lehmann’s operatic career in the United States. In any case, America never heard her in what may have been her greatest artistic achievement, her Fidelio. That was one of Flagstad’s roles. The most admired Brünnhilde and Sieglinde of their day appeared together only three times, twice in San Francisco (13 and 22 November 1936) and once in Milwaukee (14 December 1937), never at the Met. There is an interesting off-the-air recording of most of the Second Act of one of the San Francisco performances, with Melchior and Schorr, Reiner conducting.
For many years Lehmann had dreamed of one day singing Isolde. Franz Schalk and Bruno Walter had both promised to hold back the orchestra for her sake. She even scheduled some performances in Chicago. But always, each time, at the last moment she backed away from the part. She often sang the ‘Liebestod,’ however, and she recorded it as well.
Lehmann’s famous recording of excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier was even less complete than anyone had at first realized: after the great trio in Act III she simply left the studio, forgetting that there was still the phrase ‘Ja, ja’ to come. Since no one knew where to find her and the recording session was almost over, her colleague Elisabeth Schumann volunteered to sing the Marschallin’s last line as well as her own part of Sophie on the last record side.
Some of Lehmann’s most delightful recordings were of light music. Utterly enchanting is ‘Eine kleine Liebelei’ and late in her career she made a charming album of ‘Songs of Vienna.’
Lehmann had one especially distinguished fan: she began to notice Arturo Toscanini in the front row at all her recitals and her performances at the Metropolitan. They did a radio concert together, his very first commercial broadcast (11 February 1934, the ‘Cadillac Hour’), in which Lehmann sang ‘Dich, teure Halle’ and the Fidelio aria. Their artistic rapport took fire. It became a love affair. In 1935 they performed Fidelio together at Salzburg; a year later they added Die Meistersinger. Those were highlights of Lehmann’s career. Toscanini held a special place in her heart to the very end.
For Lehmann’s sake, Toscanini transposed Leonore’s aria down a half-step, starting in the phrase ‘der spiegelt alte Zeiten wieder’ because he wanted to keep the rainbow in C Major. Another innovation that can be heard on the wretched but fascinating recording that has survived is a small flourish at the end of the aria that is printed in the score as optional notes but very rarely ever performed.
A reviewer commented after Lehmann’s Salzburg Eva that she looked more like Walter’s mother than his sweetheart; Walter was the young American tenor, Charles Kullman. Except for one more Eva at the Met, already contracted, she never sang the part again. Maria Reining sang Eva in Salzburg the following summer.
Meanwhile the Nazi nightmare was darkening much of Europe. Lotte had a famous fight with Göring. She was forbidden to sing in Germany.
The ‘Anschluss’ came in 1938. Lehmann’s stepchildren, Jewish through their mother, seemed to be trapped in Vienna. Otto Krause, Lehmann’s husband, had developed tuberculosis after a taxing trip around the world. He was sent to a sanatorium in Davos. On 4 May 1938, on stage at Covent Garden during the flrst act of Der Rosenkavalier, Lotte collapsed under the strain. A few days later her stepchildren bluffed their way across the Austrian border on the Orient Express and joined her in Paris. One catastrophe had been averted. The whole family sailed to America and applied for US citizenship. Then, a few months later, Otto died while Lotte was on a concert tour. She felt utterly lost without him. She canceled her remaining Metropolitan performances for that season, but was obliged to honor her commitment to an Australian tour (her second — the first, with Otto, had been a particularly happy time for her).
As she renounced her operatic roles, one by one, her career as a lieder singer reached its finest bloom. Her Salzburg recitals with Bruno Walter at the piano had been annual artistic highlights of the festivals between 1933 and 1937; Lehmann considered Walter her greatest teacher. But it was during her last ten years as a singer that Lehmann came fully into her own as a supreme interpreter of the German Lied. Some seasons her usual schedule of three sold-out recitals at Town Hall was expanded to as many as eight lieder recitals in New York City alone. Her fans in New York, it seems, could never get enough of her.
She bid farewell to the Metropolitan Opera on 17 February 1945 in Der Rosenkavalier. Her very last appearance in opera was in Los Angeles on 1 November 1946, again as the Marschallin, with Jarmila Novotna as Octavian.
In 1948 she appeared in a Hollywood film, Big City, playing opposite the child star Margaret O’Brien. The president of M-G-M called her “the greatest screen mother in the world.” But her contract was not renewed.
About this time she wrote a pair of remarkable books on the interpretation of lieder and opera, More Than Singing and My Many Lives, respectively. They are an indispensable part of the Lehmann legacy.
Her famous ‘farewell recital’ in New York, on 16 February 1951, was recorded. She made a moving speech. When she broke down at the last line of Schubert’s “An die Musik”, nearly the whole audience was in tears.
The actual last ‘farewell’ was a recital in Pasadena, California, on 11 November 1951.
After her retirement as a singer, Lehmann had an extraordinarily successful new career as a teacher. Her master classes were a revelation, a glimpse at the inner workings of an incomparably creative artistic imagination. She never taught singing as such, only interpretation. Unlike many great artists, she was gifted with the ability to articulate her vision in words. She inspired a generation of young singers to surpass themselves, and former students of hers are singing on opera stages all over the world today.
The essence of her art was her total identification with what she was singing, and the mastery with which she communicated her feeling to the audience. Those who were privileged to hear her will never forget her.
One of Lehmann’s major biographers, Beaumont Glass writes of his personal and professional association with her.
I have been asked to write about my own experience with Mme. Lehmann at Santa Barbara. It began in the early spring of 1957.
I had just survived my second season as a stage director with the Northwest Grand Opera in Seattle, an unfinished season that came to an abrupt stop when the company went broke.
Suddenly out of a job, I returned to my home in San Francisco. As I walked in the door, I heard the phone ringing. It was a baritone whom I had coached in the Winterreise and An die ferne Geliebte. He was now a pupil in Lotte Lehmann’s master classes at the Music Academy of the West. He said: “Beau, dash to the airport immediately and take the next plane to Santa Barbara. Mme. Lehmann’s accompanist is going to Europe, and you’ve got to get this job.”
I did as I was told, without even stopping to take off my overcoat.
There was a ten-minute interview with Mme. Lehmann. Acting on impulse and intuition, as usual, she accepted me. My duties were still very vague and would not begin until the summer session; but meanwhile I was invited to attend all her classes, which were on a more intimate scale during the “winter” session—is it ever winter in Southern California?—and only rarely open to the public.
I pulled up stakes in San Francisco and moved into a little cabin high up in the mountains above Santa Barbara. The view was magnificent, and the spot was so isolated that I could run around stark naked when the weather was warm enough. It was a nice feeling. Once in a while a tarantula would pay me a visit. Otherwise I lived up there completely alone, studying music and reveling in the lush nature all around me.
Incidentally, that telephone call that had brought me to this Paradise was based on false information. Lehmann’s accompanist was not leaving. There was no actual opening at all at the moment. But I sensed that destiny was at work, nevertheless. So I stayed on.
Twice a week I would go to the Music Academy to attend Mme. Lehmann’s classes. They were a revelation to me. She would demonstrate her interpretations of the lieder being studied, and would act out all the roles in the opera scenes. When she stepped in as Micaëla, for instance, she instantaneously transformed herself into a wholesome young girl from the country. Gray hair and wrinkles disappeared as if by magic. Or she would turn into the most hilarious Baron Ochs I had ever seen, snatching the wine away with a poisonous look of frustrated lechery when “Mariandl” was becoming too maudlin in her cups. The Supper Scene can never have been funnier. “Das Wunder der Verwandlung—the miracle of transformation,” to quote a line from Ariadne auf Naxos. I admired the elegantly off-hand way her sophisticated Tosca removed her gloves. Every character came to life in a uniquely believable way. The greatest privilege of all was to see her re-enact her world-famous Marschallin, with a thousand half-lights and nuances, “a tear in one eye and a twinkle in the other,” as Strauss had prescribed. Nothing that she did ever had the stale whiff of “routine.” Everything was freshly recreated, out of her mind and heart and soul, no matter how often she had performed it during a long career. Furthermore, she had the eloquence in her quaintly accented English to articulate her most subtle insights. Her students made fun of me because I used to write down all her comments in my scores. One day they presented me with a huge pencil, as a joke. But Viola Westervelt, one of Lehmann’s friends, who had dropped in for a visit, leaned over and whispered to me: “Someday you’ll be very glad that you profited from her wisdom and experience; someday you’ll write a book about her.” It took thirty years for her prophecy to come true.
One day Mme. Lehmann suddenly asked me to accompany her in two songs by Hugo Wolf, “Gebet” and “Auf ein altes Bild.” That was a moment of destiny in my life and I did my best to make the most of it. I felt a rapport such as I had never felt with any other singer, although I had been accompanying singers since my early teens. I was swept into another world. Even the look in her eyes was electrifying, as she nodded for me to begin the prelude to that simple, moving prayer. The first song was totally new to me, but it was not hard to play at sight, and a wave of inspiration seemed to guide my fingers. The second was already one of my favorites.
Evidently Mme. Lehmann was pleased with me, for she made a sudden, spontaneous decision. She announced that in the coming summer session she would have three separate master classes each week, instead of two. Jan Popper would continue to coach and accompany the opera class. Gwendolyn Koldofsky would continue to accompany the lieder class. And I would be the coach and accompanist for a third series, which would be devoted half to opera and half to lieder. I was overjoyed. I loved lieder just as much as I loved opera. And Lotte Lehmann was equally great in both.
So I spent my time preparing as much repertoire as I could, studying recordings, reading through opera scores and all seven volumes of Schubert songs, three of Schumann, four of Brahms, and all the many small volumes of Hugo Wolf.
My first assignment for the opera class was the scene between Hans Sachs and Eva from Act II of Die Meistersinger. I felt very privileged to be able to work on such a masterpiece. I threw myself into the preparation, played and sang the scene over and over until I felt that I understood the poetic and musical essence of every phrase. Then I coached the two young singers until they were able to sing everything faultlessly and by heart. Their voices were of course far too light for the roles they were singing; but the performance would be in a recital hall, not in an opera house, and with piano, not with an orchestra. The great day finally arrived: my first public performance at a Lehmann master class. I started to play the opening music as I had rehearsed it a hundred times. “Louder, Beau, louder!” Mme. Lehmann called out. I started again, louder. “This is Wagner, not a Schumann Lied. Louder!” She sounded surprisingly impatient. I was devastated. During the course of the scene, Lehmann kept insisting on more volume. Must all of my exquisite details, the nuances I had come to love, be sacrificed to sheer loudness? I could hardly believe what was happening. When the intermission came, I slipped out into the garden, totally humiliated and demoralized. Fortunately for me, Gwendolyn Koldofsky came out and put her arm around me. “Don’t let it get you down; we’ve all been through that at one time or another.” I’ll never forget her kindness. It took me a while to swallow my intense disappointment. I had so hoped to impress Lehmann with my interpretation of one of Wagner’s great scenes! I’m afraid that I took out my resentment on an innocent baritone whose audition I was asked to accompany immediately after the master class. He had to bellow “Nemico della patria” over the loudest fortissimo I could pound out. When I was finally calm enough to analyze what had happened, a sense of perspective gradually returned. Obviously Lehmann, who had sung Wagner with all the greatest conductors in the world, whose teacher had actually sung the world premiere of the opera in question, must have missed something in the way I played that music. Who should know better than she how it was meant to sound? She expected a certain sonority, a certain deeper undercurrent, without which even the most refined nuances would count for nothing. It was a painful but valuable lesson. In retrospect, I am very grateful.
During that first summer I was one of three coaches. During the fall, winter, and spring of the next two years I was the only one. After that unfortunate experience with Die Meistersinger, I must have drastically improved, for Mme. Lehmann and I developed a warm, harmonious relationship as I gradually earned her trust. She saw that I worked well with her students.
Luba Tcheresky was one of Mme. Lehmann’s most talented pupils. She had a lovely spinto voice and lots of Russian temperament. Before one important sing, Lehmann had invited her to spend the night at her house, to get a good rest. Luba was surprised and touched when Mme. Lehmann herself served her breakfast in bed. Years later, when I was with the Zurich Opera, Luba came there to sing Donna Anna and Micaëla.
Another very gifted pupil was a baritone named Douglas Miller. His idol was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,[i] and he took to lieder as a duck to water. I accompanied him in a recital that featured Brahms’ “Four Serious Songs” and Ravel’s “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.”
But the star of the Lehmann classes was undoubtedly Grace Bumbry. She was on the threshold of a big career. Mme. Lehmann reveled in the glorious sound of her voice and was enormously proud of having discovered her and having released her innate talent.
I shall never forget Grace’s very first solo recital, at Santa Barbara. Dame Judith Anderson had given her the simple, flowing gown she herself had worn as Medea in a famous production of Robinson Jeffers’ poetic version of the play by Euripides. Grace looked like a goddess in it. Not yet twenty-one, she showed remarkable composure and dignity. Every song made its effect. Grace had the audience in the palm of her hand the entire time.
Mme. Lehmann thought that there were too many gestures. My impression was that every movement was expressive, sculpturally beautiful, and fully motivated by the text and the mood of the moment.
Gwendolyn Koldofsky was the accompanist at that very first recital. In the many that followed before Grace left for Europe, I had the great pleasure and privilege of being her regular accompanist.
Mme. Lehmann made careful plans to launch Grace in the most effective way. She arranged for her debut recital in San Francisco to take place on Lotte’s birthday, with a glamorous champagne reception to which all the influential people of the local musical world were invited. The Medea gown was copied in gold lamé. Lotte ordered magnificent flowers. The next day there were rave reviews of the recital from both of the leading San Francisco critics. Grace was definitely on her way.
Lehmann did not teach voice as such, only interpretation. For vocal lessons her students were sent to Pasadena to work with Armand Tokatyan,[ii] a former tenor of the Metropolitan and an excellent voice teacher. His pupils all swore by him.
One of my odd jobs by then was to chauffeur the singers to and from their vocal lessons with Mr. Tokatyan. One miserably rainy night I was driving them back to Santa Barbara. We were rounding a curve at a cautious speed when suddenly I saw a car speeding toward me in my lane. There was a mountain on one side and the ocean on the other. I had less than a second to choose. The next thing I knew I was spitting out teeth, half my lower lip was torn away, and the steering wheel was an outsize pretzel pressed against my jaw. The young baritone in the passenger seat was blinded by blood from his forehead. Grace Bumbry was unconscious on the floor of the back seat. My first thought was that the car might suddenly burst into flames, as I had seen in so many movies. I had somehow to get Grace out of that car, and in a hurry. I staggered out the door and found I could hardly walk. I slid around the side of the car and tried to drag Grace out, but I had no strength at all. Meanwhile a large crowd had materialized out of nowhere. Curious strangers stood around and gaped at me. Desperate, I begged for help. Finally a nurse appeared and we managed to get Grace out and all three of us into an ambulance. The baritone and Grace were soon released. She had only a small cut between her eyebrows. She had been sleeping in the back seat, and that had saved her. The scar is there to this day. As for me, my jaw was broken and had to grow a new hinge. And muscle trauma in my legs kept me on crutches for several weeks.
A month after my car accident, I met my future wife. I was still on crutches, four front teeth were missing and my jaw was wired shut. She was absolutely gorgeous (still is, forty-three years later). I first laid eyes on her when she came to audition for Mme. Lehmann. I, as usual, was the accompanist. The first thing I heard Evangeline sing—omen of things to come!—was Grieg’s “I Love You,” in German, the nearest thing to a Lied that she knew by heart at the time. Then she let loose some glorious, full-blooded high notes in Santuzza’s aria. Mme. Lehmann accepted her as a pupil. And I scheduled her coaching sessions as the last in the day, so that I could have as much time with her as possible, with no interruptions from other students arriving for their lessons. We worked on arias from Lohengrin and Tosca, then went for long strolls in the beautiful gardens that surrounded the Music Academy. We had met in January, became engaged in March, and were married in June. Our daughter Melody was born the following March, after her mother had performed a very pregnant Sieglinde under Mme. Lehmann’s direction in Act I of Die Walküre.
It was always an experience to be invited to the menagerie that Lotte Lehmann called home. Numerous dogs would beg for scraps at the table. We were encouraged to feed them, then to let them lick the plates. There were parrots, horses, all sorts of animals at one time or another. But my favorites were the talking Indian mynah birds. They seemed to know when their mistress was getting bored. They would say with uncanny clarity in a sing-song tone: “Time to go, time to go!” And we all had enough sense to take the hint.
After our baby was born we left Santa Barbara’s cozy Paradise for the real-life rigors of New York, to pursue mutual careers. Two years later, Lehmann invited me to come back and be her assistant in staging her final production, Beethoven’s Fidelio. She was seventy-three at the time and troubled by arthritis. So she needed someone to move people around the stage while she worked on details of characterization with the individual singers. Besides helping with the stage direction, I was the chorus master and sang in the chorus myself. Evangeline participated in the master classes, making an outstanding impression in two scenes from Die toten Augen by Eugene d’Albert. One of Lehmann’s greatest early successes had been the role of Myrtocle in that opera. She showed Evangeline how to mime the immensely moving climactic scene where her character blinds herself by staring at the sun during a long and powerful orchestral interlude, a tour de force as Lehmann performed it, and as Evangeline re-created it under her guidance.
For Lotte teaching was a great satisfaction when she felt some response, a great frustration when that was lacking. Before every new series of master classes, especially those in a new place, she would be extremely nervous. Would the students be too good? Would there be nothing to correct? Or would they be so untalented that the class would be boring? Such thoughts tormented her beforehand; but the moment she stepped before an audience her theatre blood began to tingle. The old inspiration always came back. No matter how many times she demonstrated a song, no matter how many times she herself had sung it during a long career, it was always like a first time when she stood there in the bend of the piano and the accompaniment began.
There are two conflicting theories about interpreting art songs. The one is based upon the definition of poetry as “the recollection of emotion in tranquility.” That school of thought maintains that the performer is basically a reader and should simply recite the poem, if possible clearly and tastefully, but with a certain emotional reserve. The other school—to which Lotte Lehmann most emphatically belongs—urges the performer to re-experience the feelings that gave birth to the poem, and to communicate those feelings to the audience as vividly as possible, to give life to the poem—though within the conventions of the recital platform rather than those of the theatre. With her voice, with her eyes, with her whole being she lived the song. And she brought the audience with her into its world. She did not resort to theatrical gestures; but within the accepted performance traditions of lieder, she was able to project what she felt about the song by exploiting all the expressive possibilities of body language, facial expression, and verbal nuance.
In Lehmann’s day, it was customary for lieder singers to hold their hands in a clasped position. But she could do that in so many expressive ways: lightly or fervently, relaxed or tense, close to the body or reaching out. She could lean quietly against the piano; or she could surge forward vigorously. When she first attended a recital by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, her world-famous successor in the field of lieder, she was surprised that he kept his hands more or less lifeless at his sides. His face and voice were enormously expressive, but his hands remained relatively inert. That perplexed her. When her students tried to adopt the new style, which has since spread everywhere, she was willing to experiment with them, always trying to keep the body expressive, even though the hands were down. She found it very difficult and very frustrating. Because Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is a great artist with an extraordinary gift for communicating the nuances of a song, no one notices his hands when he is singing. But for less experienced recitalist, the hands can be a distracting problem.
Personally, I find that compromise is possible. Depending upon the mood to be expressed, the hands can be at one’s sides; one hand or both can touch—or grasp or rest upon—the piano lid; the hands can be clasped; one hand or both can touch the body in an expressive way. The important thing is that one’s whole being be in harmony with the atmosphere and the emotions of the song, that every element be organic and artistic, and that nothing be overdone.
[i] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, phenomenally versatile Ger. bar., b. Berlin 1925. Op. deb. Berlin 1948, Salzburg 1956, Bayreuth 1957, Vienna 1957. One of the greatest and most-recorded lieder singers.
[ii] Armand Tokatyan, Armenian-Bulgarian/Am. ten., b. Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 1896, d. Pasadena, Calif., 1960. Met. Op. 1922-46, also San Francisco, Berlin, Vienna, and London.
Alternative Beaumont Glass view of Lehmann from his Presidential Lecture as Professor of Music at the University of Iowa in 1988.
The greatest operas are enduring works of genius. We think of Monteverdi, of Mozart, of Verdi or Wagner. Their masterpieces are inexhaustible mines of inspiration, insight, wisdom, and wonder. They are an indispensable part of our cultural heritage.
To be experienced, an opera must be performed. Ideally by a cast of singing geniuses. But nature’s gift of a healthy pair of vocal cords is not invariably accompanied by corresponding spiritual or intellectual endowments. As Anna Russell -the “concert comedienne” -has put it so immortally, there are some singers who have resonance where their brains ought to be. When a high C is rattling your cranium there can’t be much room for anything else at the moment.
What famous singers first come to mind? Pavarotti? Caruso? Melba, Patti, Flagstad? Fabulous voices. Their impact is sensual, the thrill of glorious sound or the brilliance of exceptional virtuosity. Then there is a handful of strongly individual singing artists somehow set apart, certain rare singers who must have had that special quality we call genius. Wilhelmine Schroder -Devrient inspired Wagner to become a composer. Maria Malibran became a legend. Jean de Reszke, Mary Garden, Feodor Chaliapin, Olive Fremstad had rare gifts that went far beyond vocal beauty or perfection of technique. They were creators in their own right. Through the power of their imaginations and of their personalities they held audiences spellbound, fascinated. They threw startling new light on the roles they portrayed, they brought those imaginary beings to incredibly vibrant life. Nearer to our present day, Astrid Varnay could make us shiver with her shattering Isolde, Elektra, and Kundry. And certainly Maria Callas impressed her indelible mark on a whole generation of singers.
Lotte Lehmann was that sort of artist. She had genius. What set her apart from most of the others just mentioned was her unusual ability to articulate her interpretative insights, an ability she demonstrated abundantly in her books and in her master classes. Another quality that set her apart from many singers with more beautiful voices or more dazzling techniques: she knew how to win not just the admiration, but the love of her audience. Few performers in the world of classical music have been so loved. That is why that world is celebrating her centennial this month with so much nostalgia, honoring a woman who died almost 12 years ago with gala commemorative performances and innumerable tributes in Vienna, New York, and in most of the major musical centers.
That is also why I was asked to write a book about her, which has just been published. I was asked because I had been Lehmann’s assistant for several years at the Music Academy of the West, and because I had heard her “live” in opera and concert during the years of her active singing career.
Lotte Lehmann as “The Composer” inAriadne Auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, Vienna 1916.
Lotte Lehmann was born in Perleberg, Germany, a town halfway between Berlin and Hamburg, on February 27, 1888. Her voice was discovered by a neighbor who heard her singing at her housework and encouraged her to study music. Her father, however, favored a “practical” profession, one that would entitle her to a pension some day. Fortunately for opera, her dismal marks in math kept her out of the commercial course.
She has been revered for some time as one of the outstanding singers of this century. All the more startling, then, to learn that she had been expelled from a famous school of singing for lack of talent.
In an age when many opera singers simply stood around in their sumptuous costumes and sang to the gallery gods, she became famous for her acting, for her total identification with the role. She was often called “the Duse of opera.” Yet during her first two years on the stage, directors had torn their hair out in despair over her hopeless, helpless clumsiness. She herself was the first to admit that when she was a green beginner if there were two or three steps on the stage she would shake in mortal terror at the inevitability of stumbling over them. After she was already a famous star, one of her early directors told in an interview how -years before -she had acted her first aria “with her feet,” beating time and staring wildly at the conductor. At the end of Der Freischützshe was supposed to cry out: “Don’t shoot, I am the dove!” Her fun -loving colleagues kept prompting from the wings: “Don’t shoot, I am the goose!” Fortunately she was too nervous to notice.
Lotte had started her career in opera with bit parts at the Hamburg Municipal Theatre in 1910. She made her debut as the Second Boy in The Magic Flute and spent most of her brief time on stage trying to pull the skimpy tunic a little lower over her legs. Her first real solo role was Freia in Das Rheingold. One critic wrote that among the gods of Valhalla Miss Lehmann appeared to be the chambermaid. During those early months in Hamburg, Lotte wrote several times a week to her brother in Berlin. Those letters are packed with vivid pictures of her first impressions of life in the theater, with colorful backstage gossip, and with a running account of her apparently successful efforts to fend off the mostly unwelcome advances of the brilliantly talented but highly predatory young conductor, Otto Klemperer, who was constantly chasing her around the furniture in otherwise deserted rehearsal rooms, or blocking her way up narrow stairwells.
Deciphering those early letters was my first and most daunting challenge when I began my research. They were scrawled very hastily -sometimes in pencil -in a now -obsolete form of German script, further obscured by her own personal idiosyncracies. Fortunately I had learned that alphabet for fun while I was studying German in high school; and my cryptographic work as a naval officer came in handy too. I made myself a “Rosetta Stone.” Her first letter took about two days. The next two hours. After that it was pure entertainment, like a double -crostic.
Lehmann’s first real success, when it came, was very sudden. And it came through that same Otto Klemperer (who, for the record, was now chasing another young soprano around the pianos). He believed in Lotte’s voice and persuaded the theater to let her sing Elsa inLohengrin when a colleague had to cancel. He coached her himself, a mad Svengali, and screamed at her in front of the whole company at rehearsals. But the performance made her a star. It was the happiest day of her life until then. She forgot her insecurities and became the part she was playing. From then on there were no more Second Boys or Third Pages. She found herself the darling of Hamburg. Young fans followed her everywhere.
The career of Lotte Lehmann is a striking reproach to any of us who may be tempted to disparage the talent of a beginner. First she was assured that she would never earn a penny with her voice; then, after finding a teacher who uncovered the beauty of her instrument, she was told that she could never act. Yet she became, at the height of her long career, the most highly acclaimed singer in Europe and, finally in America too, one of the most beloved.
Preparing her biography I read thousands of reviews, from Hamburg, Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna, London, Paris, Florence, Rome, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Melbourne. I expected to find plenty of enthusiastic praise; I was astonished to read a thousand raves, more consistently ecstatic than I have ever encountered elsewhere. Those eyewitness reports of her performances are in themselves such a remarkable tribute to her career, they provide such an impressive documentation, that it was truly difficult to keep more than a representative sampling out of my book.
What was the nature of this “genius” of hers? As she sang she seemed to reexperience what the poet had felt when he was first moved to write the text, what the composer must have felt when he was inspired to set that text to music. Everything she sang was to her a piece of someone’s life, born of a powerful feeling that needed to be expressed in a poem, in a moment of drama. Everything was special, unique; the ordinary life of every day is rarely the inspiration for a song. Before the first note of the introduction Lehmann had already transformed herself into that unique person who felt that special feeling, who was living that piece of a life. As her assistant I saw that transformation take place a thousand times. It seemed to be an instantaneous thing: no matter how often she had sung a particular song or acted a particular scene, there was never a sense of “routine”; her inspiration seemed always to have the freshness of a first time. There was always a special sensitivity to the words and to their most subtle nuances, perhaps because she was herself a poet. The ten marks she earned when one of her adolescent poems was published by a Berlin newspaper meant more to her than many a fabulous fee that she later received as a reigning prima donna. Later she published two volumes of verse, in German. Some of those poems were set to music, by Robert Heger among others, the conductor of her famous Rosenkavalier recording.
Words were very important to her; more important still was feeling. It was her nature to give lavishly of herself in her singing. Her genius was a genius for expression, for communicating her enthusiasm and love to her audience. That exuberance, unrestrained except by her exceptional sense of style and artistic form, was offensive to some of her more reserved colleagues. Kirsten Flagstad, her most formidable rival at the Metropolitan Opera, made the comment to a friend that Lehmann sang Sieglinde as if she were undressing in public. That same exuberance was largely responsible for her faults as a vocalist, which were duly noticed -and forgiven -by even her most enthusiastic critics. All that outpouring of emotion was incompatible with the sort of economy of breath that a singer needs to sustain a long musical phrase.
Giving so much, holding nothing back, meant a chronic shortness of breath that was always characteristic of her singing. But she learned how to make a virtue out of necessity by mastering the art of the “expressive” breath, well known to actors but avoided by most singers for the sake of a smooth musical line. Lehmann could take a breath just before an important word and make it seem even more important because she had breathed there. That “trick” carried her safely past many a lurking danger. Her almost reckless lack of caution meant taking the hurdles of the high notes on “the wings of emotion,” without the conscious technical preparation that most singers find necessary when nearing the upper limits of the voice. Her ecstatic rush toward the climaxes could be wonderfully thrilling when she was in great voice; but there was always the risk that intensity would produce tension, the constriction that results in shrillness of tone. Those were her “faults,” but they were the shadows of her virtues.
Her instinct for interpretation, as it developed in time, was close to infallible. Her artistic wisdom did not suddenly spring, fully armed, out of the mind of Jove. It was gradually molded. The teacher who helped her find her voice1 had been Wagner’s first Eva and had even inspired him to add a trill to his score of Die Meistersinger. One of her accompanists2 had been a close friend of the great composer of songs, Hugo Wolf. Many of her colleagues were outstanding musicians and actors. She was part of a great tradition. When she was not singing herself, she was up in the artists’ box at the opera house, studying the repertoire, observing the other singers. She learned from everyone; but she went her own way.
And she had the inspiration of working with the leading composers and conductors of her day. She always considered Bruno Walter her greatest teacher. She had prepared her most famous role, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, with him; and their lieder recitals were one of the major attractions of the Salzburg Festival for many years, until Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Walter taught her how to think in character through the musical interludes, when she had nothing to sing, so that every movement, every facial expression, led naturally into her next cue. She had always been nervous before the great quintet in Die Meistersinger, which is very soft and sustained, very exposed and difficult. There is no real action in the introduction, which is the expression of an inner soul -state only; there seems to be nothing to do but get nervous waiting for the cue, while your mouth and throat are drying out and your knees start to rattle. Bruno Walter guided her thoughts through that delicate music in such a way that, he lost all sense of self and found the unbroken line that led her character into the difficult opening phrase as if it were the most natural, inevitable thing in the world.
Then there was Arturo Toscanini. Her performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio with him at Salzburg were the absolute highpoint of her career. Toscanini and Lehmann struck fire together. Their spiritual union in that music ran parallel to a passionate, secret love affair. One of the exciting moments in my research was the discovery of hidden fragments of his love letters. After Toscanini’s death, a mutual confidante managed to find Lotte’s letters to him before anyone else could do so and sent them to Lotte, who burned them. As for hisletters to her, Lotte tore them up into four to six large pieces each and tossed them into the fireplace. But there was no fire burning there and she did not have the heart to strike a match. When she left the room her companion -who had a sense of history -rescued the fragments from their bed of cinders and stuffed them into a secret compartment behind a file cabinet drawer. There they remained, forgotten, until very recently, when odd bits of them happened to fall into the files. Soon many pieces were found that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. But there were frustrating gaps at some of the most interesting points. I was living in the house at the time, writing my biography of Lehmann. My long, thin arm and flexible fingers finally managed to dig out the last remnants from the depths of their very inaccessible hiding place. At least the most crucial lacunae could finally be filled. There are passionate love letters, postcards, inscribed photos, and a daringly indiscreet telegram; besides the very personal messages, there is also a vehemently emotional diatribe against Hitler and Mussolini. All were fascinating to decipher. Almost nothing was dated; but it was generally possible, from internal evidence and a knowledge of Lehmann’s whereabouts, to reconstruct an approximate date for each item.
Since Lotte did not speak Italian and was not yet fluent in English, Toscanini wrote to her in his own highly individual brand of French, seasoned with an occasional dash of Italian spice. He shared with her an addiction to rows of exclamation points. Both of them would underline key words two, three, or four times for emphasis. Temperament practically leaps out of every page.
The reassembled Toscanini letters, which are now in the possession of Lehmann’s only heir, are to be sealed for a certain number of years and will eventually become a part of the Lotte Lehmann Archive of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Another major formative influence was Lehmann’s close working relationship with Richard Strauss. Their first meeting was a turning point in her career. She was the understudy for the role of the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, the new version that was about to be premiered in Vienna. The part had been especially written for a famous singing actress, Marie Gutheil -Schoder, who was one of Strauss’s favorite performers. But on the day of a crucial rehearsal Gutheil -Schoder was ill. The understudy threw herself into the role with all her heart, glad for the chance to sing it at least that once. Strauss was overwhelmed by her ecstatic interpretation. He announced that she would sing the premiere. Lehmann protested: Gutheil -Schoder was her idol, she did not want to hurt her. Franz Schalk, the conductor that day, wrote in his memoirs that never before had he known a singer to refuse a leading role in an important premiere for the sake of a colleague. Lehmann, later, laughingly disclaimed any right to a halo: she let herself be persuaded soon enough, when Strauss insisted. She sang the premiere, a world premiere of the new version. The next day a leading critic wrote his most often -quoted line: “last night at 7:40 all Vienna knew who Lotte Lehmann is.”
She had established herself in Vienna with an authentic sensation. The year was 1916. For the next 22 years, until the NaziAnschluss, she was a top star in Vienna -one of two. Every diva needs a rival. Lotte Lehmann had Maria Jeritza. They were opposites in many ways: Jeritza was glamorous and beautiful; Lehmann had a rather plain face, but inner beauty. Jeritza was tempestuous, temperamental; Lehmann seemed to embody all the womanly virtues. Jeritza might be a man’s dream mistress and Lehmann his fantasy wife. They shared some of the same roles. And, since Vienna loved to watch the sparks fly on the opera stage, they were often cast together in the same opera; they would enter the house through different doors, different flocks of fans waiting at each entrance. Lotte never knew when Jeritza’s lightning would strike; but she could be fairly certain that if she had a soft, sustained high note to sing, Jeritza would find a way -as if it were a part of the staging -to nudge her off balance.
Once Lotte asked the wardrobe department if she could borrow, for a guest engagement in London, a cloak that had been part of Elsa’s costume in Lohengrin. Jeritza would be singing the role during Lotte’s leave of absence and everyone in Vienna knew that Maria had recently added a magnificent cloak, all cloth of gold, with a spectacular long train, to her Elsa costume. The wardrobe mistress was sure there would be no need for the old costume and was about to pack it in a trunk for Lotte to take to London. Somehow Jeritza got wind of it and suddenly materialized at the scene. “Put that back!” she ordered, “I might just get a whim to wear it.”
After Lehmann’s success as the Composer in his Ariadne, Strauss naturally wanted her to create leading roles in his future premieres. The next, in 1919, was to be Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow). Lotte took one look at the part he had supposedly written for her and nearly died of fright. An unsympathetic role, bad enough; but, above all, fiendishly difficult -so it seemed -and high and loud. She turned it down. Strauss invited her to come to Garmisch and study the part with him at his villa. Schalk, codirector with Strauss of the Vienna State Opera, sent off an urgent telegram: IMPLORE YOU OVERCOME HYSTERICAL PANIC STOP ROLE SCREAMS FOR LEHMANN AND ARTISTIC SPIRITUAL SALVATION STOP ON TO GARMISCH. Strauss also sent a telegram. Lotte was still adamant; she answered that she did not want to sing the part because she had no intention of establishing herself as a match seller on the Kärtnerstrasse the day after the premiere. Another telegram from Strauss: ROLE NEITHER LOW NOR HIGH NEITHER LONG NOR TAXING COME HERE SO I CAN PERSONALLY CURE YOU OF THE STUDY -SICKNESS DIAGNOSED IN ALL SINGERS SINCE SALOME WITH TRIED AND TRUE REMEDY OF ALTERATIONS. Still she refused. Finally a mutual friend was ordered by Strauss to pack her into a trunk and bring her to Garmisch by force, if need be. At last she relented. The weeks she spent with Strauss at his villa in Garmisch were among the most artistically productive of her life. Fortunately his wife -seen by everyone but her husband as the most notorious shrew since Xantippe -took a liking to Lotte. Just as well, too; for in the next Strauss premiere, Intermezzo, Lehmann was called upon to play the part of that very woman: Strauss had written an opera about his own marriage. He felt that only Lotte would know how to make a sympathetic character out of a wife that the rest of the world seemed to regard as a gorgon.
Meanwhile Lotte had married. She met her future husband, Otto Krause, under rather unusual circumstances: she was his birthday present. His first wife, very wealthy, had engaged Lotte Lehmann, his favorite opera star, to sing at his birthday party. The unforeseen result: he fell in love with his gift. And she with him. He was a dashingly handsome former cavalry officer and he swept her off her feet. He asked his wife for a divorce. For four years she refused, doing whatever she could to embarrass Lehmann in public. Four children were involved. The scandal titillated Vienna. Finally, in April 1926, Lotte became the second Mrs. Otto Krause -or rather, Otto Krause became the first and only Mr. Lotte Lehmann. He played that part extremely well and was a great help and support to her during the rest of his life.
Richard Strauss was by no means the only composer who saw Lotte Lehmann as the key to the success of one of his operas. When Giacomo Puccini heard her sing his Suor Angelica he felt that finally an artist had come along with the special qualities needed to bring the title role to convincing life and to confer success upon the least successful of his trio of one -act operas, Il trittico. “Go to Vienna!” was his answer to those who cast doubt upon the effectiveness of that centerpiece to his “triptych.” He came to her dressing room with tears in his eyes after her Mimi in La Boheme and wrote to her enthusiastically about her “exquisite” Manon Lescaut.
During the 1920s Lehmann’s career spread out all over Europe and even as far away as to Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. She was a great favorite in London and Paris. She was the brightest star of the Salzburg festivals. But North America was slow to beckon. A key factor was Maria Jeritza, Lotte’s bête noire in Vienna, who was now enjoying a very gratifying success in New York and who had no desire to share it with her most dangerous rival. Maria decided that the Met was not big enough for both of them. That seems to have been the gist of a notorious clause in her contract with the Metropolitan Opera. At any rate, Lehmann never sang there until Jeritza had left. Actually Lotte conquered New York first as a lieder singer in January 1932, two years before her Met debut. And it was mainly as a lieder singer that Lehmann became famous in America. For a whole generation her name was practically a synonym for German lieder.
Lotte’s mother, with whom she had a particularly deep emotional bond, died the day after the final dress rehearsal of Arabella, Strauss’s newest opera. The premiere could not be postponed: people had come to Vienna from all over the world for this important event -not the world premiere (that had been in Dresden), but a performance that would be crucial for the success of the opera. No other singer was available. Lehmann had to go on. As usual, she gave herself to the role. She forgot her personal agony in the emotions of Arabella. She considered that the greatest blessing of an artist’s life, the opportunity to step outside of oneself and to overcome private torments in the re -creation of another being. Toscanini was in the audience that night. He had not yet met her, but he was impressed with her courage. Later, when they were working together, he called her “the greatest artist in the world.”
Success at the Metropolitan Opera was almost anticlimactic. She had conquered the ultimate stonghold of opera. She made the cover of Time. There was a New Yorker “Profile.” She was in demand all over America for concerts and recitals. But there was no special thrill. The Met had waited too long; it was hard for her to forget that.
Lehmann found her real satisfaction in America in introducing to a broad audience the intimate beauties of German song. Her expressive singing transcended the language barrier. She made you see what she was seeing, feel what she was feeling. It was not just voice; it was eyes, face, hands; it was personality, warmth, humor, and charm. What one saw and what one heard were in total harmony. Not for a moment did one see a singer waiting for her entrance while her accompanist was playing an introduction: she herself was the introduction; the prelude, the interludes, the postlude -they were her feelings, and her expressive face mirrored every nuance in the music. Even before she started to sing, the tilt of her head, the way she stood at the piano, the way she nodded to the accompanist that she was prepared -all those things conveyed a world of meaning about the song that was to come. Every song was an adventure, a touching glimpse into a life, an unforgettably atmospheric picture. Those who knew German could admire the subtle inflections; those to whom the words meant nothing still felt the magic. America showed its appreciation in endearing ways: from the sponsors of the Kraft “Bing Crosby Show” a year’s supply of cheese; from General Motors a magnificent limousine; from the music lovers of Detroit a life -size gingerbread Santa Claus, who occupied the upper berth on her train ride back to New York.
Meanwhile the Nazi nightmare was darkening Europe. Lotte Lehmann, like many other German artists of that day, was still naive about the true intentions of the new regime. She had never taken the slightest interest in “politics.” One evening in April 1934, while she was singing a recital in Dresden, an official -looking man tried frantically to interrupt her in the middle of a song. She closed her eyes, tried to concentrate, and finished the piece. He informed her in front of the whole audience that Hermann Goering, then the minister of education, was on the telephone, wanting to speak to her. Lehmann kept him waiting until she had completed her group of songs. There was no applause: the audience was in a state of shock at her audacity. Goering, of course, had hung up by then; but he sent his private plane to bring her to Berlin the next day, which happened to be Hitler’s birthday. After her arrival it was his turn to keep herwaiting, while he exercised his horse. The Nazi salutes, the whole goose -stepping show, struck her as ridiculous, second -rate playacting. At lunch Goering offered her the title “National Singer.” He proposed an enormous fee that left her speechless. Then he promised her a villa, a pension for life, and a horse. Did she have a special wish? Why not a castle on the Rhine? There was, however, a catch in all this munificence: she would not be allowed to sing outside of Germany. “The world should come to us to hear you,” he declared. Then he introduced her to his pet lioness. Was that perhaps a subtle hint?
Lehmann was unwilling to limit her career to one country. They could keep their castle on the Rhine. Her refusal sent both Goering and Hitler himself into respective rages. The result was that Lotte Lehmann was forbidden to sing in Germany.
They could not stop her from singing in Austria, however. Not yet. She was still the star of Vienna and Salzburg. And now she had a family there: when the first Mrs. Otto Krause died in 1936, Lotte suddenly inherited four grown -up stepchildren, aged 17 to 21.
The joys of motherhood and domesticity were not destined to last.
Less than two years later Austria became a part of Nazi Germany. For the second time Lotte lost a homeland. Because they were half Jewish through their mother, her stepchildren were now in mortal danger. The Anschluss came while Lehmann was in America. Otto, her husband, seriously ill with what turned out to be tuberculosis, rushed back to Austria to try to settle his family affairs. His physical condition soon became so critical that his doctors sent him to a sanatorium in Switzerland. His children had passports and immigration papers for the United States, but to leave Austria they needed two things: official proof that all taxes had been paid -their mother’s estate was still far from settled -and evidence of professional necessity to travel abroad. There were endless snags, they were trapped in a legal labyrinth. Finally they decided, on their own, to risk a bold adventure. They packed their bags and boarded the Orient Express, bound for Paris. But their papers were not stamped and one of the borders to be crossed was virtually uncrossable.
Meanwhile Lotte was in London, terrified for Otto’s life and for the children’s safety. In the middle of the first act of Der Rosenkavaliershe collapsed on the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
A few days later the children somehow bluffed their way across the border. They looked young and innocent; the guard did not notice -or ignored -the missing permission. One catastophe had been averted. The reunited family made its way to America and applied for U. S. citizenship. Then another catastrophe struck: Otto died while Lotte was away on tour. She struggled through a raging blizzard to try to reach his side in time; trains had been delayed for her sake; but all her frantic efforts were in vain. She felt utterly lost without him.
She needed someone to help her cope with all the exhausting demands of a singing career. She found the ideal companion in Dr. Frances Holden, a professor of psychology at New York University who was fascinated by Lehmann’s artistry and hoped to make her the focus for her study of genius in the performing arts. Dr. Holden helped Lotte through a difficult time by encouraging her in new and different forms of creativity. They began to paint together. For the rest of her long life, Lotte never ceased to turn out prodigious quantities of sketches and paintings, sculptures and ceramics, mosaics of stained glass, or tapestries made of colored bits of felt. Once one of her paintings was stolen from an exhibition. Lotte was delighted; her work suddenly seemed more valuable to her, since someone had found it worth stealing.
Soon Europe was at war. Lotte found a refuge in Santa Barbara, a dream house high on a mountain pass. Thomas Mann, Bruno Walter, and Otto Klemperer risked the narrow, winding roads -along the very edge of precipitous drops -to visit her there. Five weeks after she had moved in, there was a gigantic forest fire. The dream house burned to the ground. Her next home, home for the rest of her days, was less spectacular but just as beautiful -and far more accessible. Her private paradise -overlooking the Pacific -was something of a zoo. She had always traveled with little dogs in the time -honored prima donna tradition; now she could have all the big dogs she wanted, along with parrots and talking Mynah birds. The latter had the disconcerting habit of saying “time to go!” whenever a guest happened to overstay his welcome. No one ever knew whether those birds were psychic or had simply recognized the first symptoms of boredom in their normally vivacious mistress. Most of us simply took the hint and said our hasty goodbyes.
America entered the war. Although she had long since applied for U. S. citizenship, Lehmann found herself in the legal position of an enemy alien. A shortwave radio receiver was confiscated. There were severe travel restrictions. For every concert, she had to apply for special permission to leave her home. Sometimes that was arbitrarily denied by this or that ignorant official. Once Frances Holden, in despair, telephoned the officer in Sacramento who was in charge of alien affairs and asked him what he would do in Lotte Lehmann’s place with a contract for a concert and no permit to travel to the concert hall. “I would just pack my toothbrush and leave,” was the honest, encouraging hint.
Many Americans are not aware that Japanese submarines shelled the coast of California, near Santa Barbara, in February 1942. At the time Lehmann was in the East on a concert tour. She was to sing a recital at Dartmouth College the next evening. Her accompanist had read the news in the morning papers. He and Frances, who had intercepted a telegram with the words “deepest sympathy” and was frantic with worry that the house in Santa Barbara had been bombed, were determined to keep the news from Lotte, at least until after the recital. They managed to persuade the hotel to remove all newspapers from the lobby every time that Mme. Lehmann passed through. After the recital -a superb success as usual -Lotte reproached Frances for her apparent lack of enthusiasm. Frances, who had kept a heroic poker face for hours, finally exploded. The next day brought the reassuring news that their home was still intact, in spite of the shelling a few miles away.
Lehmann spoke out staunchly against the Nazis in interview after interview. For the BBC she made several broadcasts to Germany during the war. She went out of her way to sing for American troops whenever possible, both at their bases and at the Hollywood Canteen.
While she was still active in opera, fellow professionals, including leading artists of the Metropolitan Opera, began to come to her for coaching and advice in interpretation. Eleanor Steber was one of the first. Rose Bampton studied all of her Wagner roles, Fidelio, and the Rosenkavalier Marschallin with Lehmann. Risë Stevens worked with her on lieder. Dorothy Maynor and Anne Brown, the original Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, came to Lotte for lessons. She never taught singing as such, only interpretation. Jeanette MacDonald, the popular movie star, who had sung operatic scenes in several of her films but had not yet performed in an opera house, studied Faust, Bohème, and some art songs with Lehmann. She wrote to a mutual friend that her first lesson had been a revelation: it was, to quote her own words, “as if I had been in a dark room and suddenly a window was opened and sunshine flooded all around me.” After her inspiring work with Lehmann on every detail of the role of Marguerite in Faust, it was a profound shock to discover at her rehearsals for a Philadelphia production that in those days opera performances were sometimes thrown together with an abysmal lack of preparation or artistic integrity. The so -called stage director had no idea what the rented scenery would look like until the day of the performance. Each individual singer did his or her thing with no guidance or coordination. The offstage chorus got lost in the Church Scene during Marguerite’s prayer. The musical chaos reminded Miss MacDonald of a cat -and -dog fight. Two decades later that performance might have been called a “happening.” For the leading lady, at least, it was a nightmare.
One by one Lehmann’s famous roles were disappearing from her active repertoire. During her last few years in opera, they had dwindled down to one, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Richard Strauss considered her portrayal of that infinitely subtle part to be the best in the world. Every other singer who sang the role after her was measured according to the standard she had set.
She had revealed the gallantry and the wisdom in that part in a definitive way, and she tried to use what she had learned from the Marschallin in her private life as well as on the stage. Most obviously, she had learned the art of letting go with dignity and grace. She took her leave of the Metropolitan in February 1945. The audience gave her an endless ovation. Her colleagues were in tears. She continued to sing a few performances of Rosenkavalier on the West Coast, however. Her final farewell to the opera stage was in Los Angeles on November 1, 1946. When she gave that wonderful last look to her stage lover, she was saying goodbye to a part of her life.
What was it that made her Marschallin so special? She remembered Strauss’s prescription: a tear in one eye and a twinkle in the other. She never gave in to self -pity. At the end of act 1, where other Marschallins burst into tears, Lehmann mastered her melancholy with dignity and noblesse. With the last chord she lifted her face, and one could see determination and courage in her eyes. That was the image as the curtain fell. It was not sad. It was a lesson in wisdom.
Lehmann continued to sing concerts and recitals until 1951, when she was 63. That “second career,” as she thought of it, was a voyage of discovery into new worlds of lieder. Whereas before she had occasionally been reproached by the critics for singing too many “chestnuts,” too many thrice -familiar songs, in her recitals, she was now being urged by her managers -on the theory that audiences like what they know -to put more “sugar” into her programs, which now featured many of the rarer treasures she had unearthed. But -thanks largely to her own efforts over the years -recital audiences in the United States, in the major cultural centers at least, had become more sophisticated, more receptive to unfamiliar songs. Lotte Lehmann C was more successful than ever. She was now singing five to eight recitals during the annual concert season in New York City alone, year after year, an unheard of exposure for a lieder singer.
When she was not singing or painting, she was writing books. Besides her poetry, she had already written a novel, Eternal Flight, and an autobiography, Midway in My Song. Both had been published in the original German and in English translation, and both had sold well in America as well as abroad. Now she produced two books of major importance: one, More Than Singing, discussed in detail her ideas about the interpretation of songs and her practical techniques for communicating those interpretations to an audience; the other,My Many Lives, explored in depth the psychology of the characters to whom she had given such vivid life on the opera stage. Both books are invaluable -in fact, indispensable -to any student of singing and to anyone who cares about lieder or opera at all. They have been reprinted several times and are still available in paperback. To read her chapters on Elisabeth in Tannhäuser or Manon, or the Marschallin, is to marvel at her insight into those widely differing personalities and to discover new depths of meaning and truth in masterpieces one had begun to take for granted.
In 1947 Lehmann signed a contract to sing in the Edinburgh Festival and agreed to a European recital tour with Bruno Walter. As the time drew nearer, she began to panic. She had not appeared in Europe for ten years, she had stopped singing opera; her artistry was more mature than ever, but there were inevitable signs of vocal decline; would her old audiences be disillusioned, would new audiences be disappointed? Would it not be wiser to leave precious memories intact? She became more and more nervous, until her health was in jeopardy. At the urging of her doctor she canceled her plans for Europe and begged to be released from her contract. Her selfconfidence was at its lowest ebb. Then, out of the blue, came a call from Hollywood. MGM offered her a part in a motion picture. That was just what Lotte needed, a new interest, a new challenge, a chance to act without having to worry about her voice. Little by little her old vitality returned.
Bruno Walter was furious, at first. He did not know that she had canceled her European commitments before the offer came from Hollywood. When he learned the facts, harmony was restored with the humor and charm that usually characterized their correspondence.
Making a movie was a fascinating new experience for Lehmann. She played the mother of Danny Thomas in a film called Big City. Thomas, together with George Murphy and Robert Preston, were the three “fathers” of a foundling, played by the child star Margaret O’Brien. Lehmann sang the Brahms lullaby and a vocal version of Schumann’s “Träumerei” (which was about as close as Hollywood cared to come to German lieder), along with “The Kerry Dance” and, as a sort of grand finale, “God Bless America.” During the shooting, the president of MGM was wildly enthusiastic; he called Lotte Lehmann “the greatest screen mother in the world.” Extravagant promises were made for future films. Scripts were discussed. Lotte bought a house near Hollywood, high in the hills. But the picture was not successful at the box office -though in recent years it has occasionally turned up on late -night television. The industry soon forgot about its greatest screen mother.
Movie fans turned out to be more aggressive than the opera and concert variety. Three particularly persistent young men were not satisfied with Lehmann’s promise to send them her autograph; they were determined to meet her personally and nearly broke into her New York hotel suite. She was terrified. From then on she was always afraid to sleep alone.
The annual concert tours became more and more exhausting, and New York winters less and less appealing after the peace and comfort of Lehmann’s Santa Barbara home. The dogs used to send her telegrams, to cheer her up. She longed to be back with them. One night, impulsively, she decided that her next recital would be her farewell to New York, in effect her formal farewell to her career as a singer. There was no announcement because, as she put it, she did not like to celebrate her own funeral; but a friend got wind of her plan and persuaded her to let him record the entire recital. That recording, called “Farewell Recital,” soon became famous. It is a deeply moving historical document. It has been reissued over and over again. At the end of the first half of the program Lehmann held up her hand to speak. There was a moment of breathless suspense. When she said this would be her last recital in New York, a murmer of “No, no!” rumbled through the hall. People began to cry. With her unfailing humor she found just the right tone in which to take her leave of the public that was dearest to her heart. This is what the critic Irving Kolodin wrote in his review:
“Lotte Lehmann taught us something about the singer’s art every time she sang. In the latest and unfortunately the last appearance she taught us how a great artist says goodbye to a career . . . .”
She choked up just before the last words of her encore, “An die Musik,” Schubert’s immortal hymn of gratitude to music; she was too overcome by her emotions to sing the final phrase, “Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir” -“Beloved art, I thank you!”
Every time that Lehmann closed a door behind her, she found another door opening ahead. That same year, in the summer of 1951, she began her famous series of master classes at the Music Academy of the West. It was a new concept at the time, teaching a class in the presence of an audience. For the students there was the excitement and the challenge of a performance. For Lotte the audience provided an extra stimulation that inspired her to give her very best. There were unforgettable moments when she would take her place in the bend of the piano to demonstrate a song, or would act out part of an operatic scene. She showed us how to use all the tools of expression, not just the voice. When she sang, it was only very softly and an octave lower than the original pitch; but there was never any “marking” of expression –that was always there in full. There were classes in both opera and art song. Eventually she produced complete operas, including such ambitious works as Der Rosenkavalier and Fidelio. She acted out all the roles, not just those she had sung herself. Her Baron Ochs in the Supper Scene of Rosenkavalier was surely the drollest that ever stood on a stage. In 1961 a series of Lehmann master classes was filmed for National Educational Television.
For students who could take criticism in public, Lehmann was a marvelously inspiring teacher. She could be tactful and kind; she could occasionally be devastating. But her criticism was generally constructive and always reflected a lifetime’s accumulation of artistic wisdom. Today her former students are singing in opera houses all over the world.
My years as Lotte Lehmann’s assistant at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara were a glorious time for me. The ocean, the mountains, the romantic beauty of the Academy grounds, magnified the unfailing inspiration of working with Lehmann on opera and lieder -nature and music in perfect combination. I had seen her on the opera stage and in recitals and had always revered her artistry; now I had a fascinating opportunity to observe that artistry at work, to follow her thoughts as she built up a scene or demonstrated a song. My scores are scribbled full of her illuminating comments. It was a rare chance to study an exceptionally creative mind in the process of creation. Edification was well seasoned with entertainment: Lehmann had a remarkable sense of humor. One moment we were moved to tears, the next convulsed with laughter. Audiences always brought out the best in her. Theater blood flowed in her veins. But there was much more than that. There was a spiritual component to her art that is as rare in the theater as it is precious there. She seemed to be in touch with the same power that had inspired the poets and musicians whose work she brought to life. Those who heard her felt that, and it lifted them up. That is the greatest gift that art can give.
In 1955 Lehmann returned to Europe for the first time since before the war. She had been invited to attend the reopening of the Vienna Opera as an honored guest. The occasion was a highly emotional one for all Austrians. The State Opera House had once been the symbol and the center of Austria’s cultural life. But one night in March 1945 it was gutted by both high -explosive and incendiary bombs. The stately facade remained standing; what had been the heart of the building became a pile of rubble and ashes. For ten years the Vienna Opera performed in other halls while funds were raised for the reconstruction of their beloved home. Now that magnificent monument was ready. The musical world flocked to Vienna. The house was packed. On the night of the reopening enormous crowds stood in the streets around the opera house to listen to the performance through loudspeakers. When Lotte Lehmann’s name was mentioned by the announcer everyone cheered. She was overwhelmed by the warmth of her welcome all over Austria. Everywhere she was treated like a queen, her hotel rooms filled with flowers. When she entered a restaurant, the orchestra would strike up music from her famous roles. Old colleagues burst into tears at the sight of her; but even strangers recognized her immediately wherever she went. She had not expected so much adoration after so long an absence, and she was deeply moved. From then on, she returned to Europe for a visit every year. Famous singers came to her for coaching. She gave master classes in London and Vienna. Those in London were hailed as “the artistic event of the season.”
There was a brief “third career.” In 1962 the Metropolitan Opera invited Lehmann back in a new capacity -as stage director for Der Rosenkavalier. She was 74 then and severely handicapped by arthritis. She agreed to work on interpretation with the singers of the leading roles. Another director, Ralph Herbert, did most of the actual staging, which would have been too strenuous for her by then.
When she passed away in 1976 at the age of 88, Lotte Lehmann left behind a legacy that will continue to inspire singers and stage directors in generations to come, through her recordings and books, of course, but above all through the standards she set with her own example, as those standards influenced her colleagues, her students, and her audiences. She was always faithful to the spirit of the work; there was fascinating individuality but no eccentricity. She discovered the inner truth of the role in all its facets, never imposing a “conception” from the outside. She had an uncanny ability to lose her own personality in that of the character to be portrayed. They were all utterly different. It was not Lotte Lehmann up there on the stage, playing Elisabeth, Fidelio, Manon, or the Marschallin; it really seemed to be another human being, the creature of the composer’s imagination suddenly incarnate in flesh and blood. She found the perfect combination of the universal and the particular in every part, threedimensional credibility and archetypal essence.
Centennials of composers are often celebrated. But it is rare that the world honors a singer as Lotte Lehmann is being honored this year. She is the subject of numerous tributes on three continents, of symposia, books and articles, of television features and radio broadcasts, of a gala performance by the Vienna Opera; many of her recordings are scheduled for rerelease on compact discs.
Composers, colleagues, critics, and fans have long sung the praises of Lotte Lehmann. Perhaps Richard Strauss paid her the most beautiful tribute of all. He said of her, “When she sang she moved the stars.”