by Michael Scott

Of all the German sopranos of her day, LOTTE LEHMANN (1888-1976) was the greatest artist. There are few singers on records whose musical personality is so potent and in everthing she sings there is an extraordinary communicative energy. Her achievements were all the more remarkable in view of the tight German technique that she had acquired in her youth and which throughout her career she had to overcome so as to give full expression to her interpretative gifts. Her success was not, however, complete, and she never did realise the full extent of her artistic ambitions; her repertory remained narrow, increasingly so with the passage of time. As a girl at the Berlin High School she had taken some lessons from an older student and then won a scholarship to study at the studio of Etelka Gerster, an erstwhile rival of Patti and pupil of Marchesi, whose career, though short, had been exceptionally brilliant. Lehmann was put in the charge of an assistant, Eva Rheinhold. Theirs was not a happy relationship; the kind of pure, emasculated tone and instrumental clarity of execution that the Gerster shcool put before everything and which we can hear in so many recordings made by German singers in the early years of the century, completely inhibited Lehmann. After a time this became apparent to her teachers and she was expelled.

Unfortunately, as is so often the way, though she left without having acquired much skill, she was there long enough to develop certain bad habits: the hard, glottal attack, tight emission in the upper range, and shallow breathing, which she was never able to correct. Thereafter her expreience with teachers seems to have been chiefly a matter of experiment. She went to Mathilde Mallinger, the first Eva in MEISTERSINGER, of whom probably the best that can be said is that she left Lehmann to follow her own instincts, Alma Schadow, the teacher of Elisabeth Schumann – not much of a reference – Hedwig Francillo-Kauffmann, Katharina Fleischer-Edel, Elise Elizza, and Felice Kaschowska, all of whom no doubt contributed something to her artistic development, but whose own methods, records suggest, were too various to have provided any really solid example.

Lehmann’s career began at the Hamburg Opera in 1909 [actually 1910] as the Third Boy [actually second Boy] in ZAUBERFLÖTE. At first her progress was slow and she was mostly kept to tiny roles, though she was heard as Änchen in LUSTIGEN WEIBER VON WINDSOR. During the next couple of seasons she sang Freia in RHEINGOLD under Nikisch, in which she found little favour with the critics, May in Goldmark’s HEIMCHEN AM HERD with Schumann, Agatha in FREISCHÜTZ, Martha in EVANGELIMANN, and Elsa under Klemperer, when she had her first real success, and Micaela in CARMEN. On the last occasion the Director of the
Vienna Imperial Opera was present, he had come to hear the Don José but instead went away with Micaela; he gave her a contract to appear in Vienna as Eva in MEISTERSINGER. Before taking up that, she came to London in the summer of 1914 to sing Sophie in Beecham’s last season before the war at the Drury Lane Theatre, but she quite failed to make any impression on a public enchanted with Claire Dux. Her debut at the Vienna Opera was as Agathe, but her first great triumph was in the premiere of the revised edition of ARIADNE, when she replaced Gutheil-Schoder as the Composer. Other roles in Vienna included Charlotte in WERTHER, Lisa in PIQUE DAME, Tatiana in EUGEN ONEGIN, Manon, Desdemona, the Dyer’s Wife – another Strauss creation – Mimi, Maddalena in ANDREA CHENIER, Heliane in DAS WUNDER DER HELIANE, Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Octavian, and she was Vienna’s first Suor Angelica.

Her international career began in South America in 1922; under Weingartner’s direction she appeared at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, as Freia, Sieglinde, and Gutrune. Two years later came her Covent Garden debut when she switched for the first time to the role of the Marschallin in ROSENKAVALIER. This time she was the toast of the town, and Newman was ecstatic: ‘an exquisite singer with a voice capable of the most delicate inflections, and an actress whose quiet ease is the perfection of the art that conceals art’. She reappeared at Covent Garden every season until 1935 and again in 1938, singing Ariadne, Elsa ‘sung and acted as it had not been perhaps for twenty years’, Eva, Desdemona, Donna Elvira, ‘a most moving and beautiful’ Elisabeth, a ‘delicious’ Rosalinde, the Countess in FIGAROS HOCHZEIT, Sieglinde, Gutrune, and Fidelio. Like Leider and Olszewska, her colleagues on many occasions, she made her American debut as the Chicago Opera, in 1930, as Sieglinde. ‘It is one of the loveliest voices ever heard on the Civic Opera stage. It is of a freedom and purity seldom discovered in German singers and employed with an eloquence and artistry that moved the audience to a great demonstration.’

Lehmann’s first appearance in New York was delayed for almost another four years when she again chose Sieglinde: ‘Mme Lehmann’s voice is not immense in volume as operatic voices go, yet she used it so beautifully it seemed far larger than it is. Her pianissimo of exquisite quality, carried to the furthest corner of the house; her fortissimi pierced without difficulty the climaxes of the orchestra. At the beginning of the scene with Siegmund, and indeed well into the middle of Act One, it was not a warm voice and there were moments of slight departure from pitch, and apparently slight forcing at the top, as in the final apostrophe to Siegmund. But in Act Two her performance had an electrifying quality that swept the critical faculty away and made even the guarded listener a participant in the emotions of the anguished Sieglinde.’

Her New York repertory included only one role which she had not sung in London: Tosca; and in that criticism was not unanimous. Of her Marschallin, however, there were not two opinions, and to this day it remains a classic performance: ‘Mme Lehmann has long been famous for this characterisation, which has everything – the lightness of touch, the manner and accent of the nobly born; the flaming embers of a last passion, the pathos and ache of renunciation.’

During the thirties, Lehmann was active as a concert singer, her programmes including works by Schubert, Schumann, Franz, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, Pfitzner, Mahler, Reger, and Marx, and she even ventured into the French repertory with a few songs by Fauré, Duparc, Hahn, and Paladilhe. With these, as Philip Miller has put it, ‘it was not so much what she sang that mattered, but the way she sang it; it was the personality of the singer that opened up the songs for her hearers.’ She appeared for the last time in opera at the Met as the Marshallin in 1945, and made her recital farewell in 1951. Thereafter she remained active as a teacher at Santa Barbara, where she lived in the later years of her life and ventured abroad on occasion, giving master classes at the Wigmore Hall in London in 1957.