LOTTE LEHMANN

A Documentary Biography

 

By Beaumont Glass

(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)

CHAPTER 4

A Chambermaid in Valhalla

August 25, 1910.  First rehearsal: Gerhilde in Die Walküre. Felix Landau, the coach, thundered out the “Ride of the Valkyries” at the piano and Lotte, with a quick prayer and a big breath, let loose a hearty “Hojotoho!” Since there are nine Valkyries in the opera, eight of them often singing at once, it is understandable that Lotte could have been slightly confused as to which one she was trying to sight-read:

I am to sing Gerlinde, one of the Valkyries. Good Lord, is that a lot of shrieking! I can’t say I’m crazy about the part. But it’s quite nice, not at all easy, and one can at least show something.

Lotte meant Gerhilde, though she was later to sing Ortlinde too. It was actually a long time before she sang either one.

Wanting to arrive prepared, Lotte had written to ask which roles she would be singing. She was told she would find out when rehearsals started. A raw beginner could generally count on small parts only; they would be quickly learned in a few coaching sessions.

So much is expected. I had to sight-read everything. Although my heart was beating fearfully, I plowed right in with death-defying recklessness—and even though I sometimes strayed hideously far off the field—it turned out better than I had feared. I was praised with a smile: “Well, at least you have courage.” Yes, that I have. And the happy feeling of hope.

The day before she had ventured bravely into the director’s office, armed with warnings about the casting couch from worried aunts and uncles. Herr Bachur’s “absent-minded look of fatherly benevolence” was a great relief to her. “This was no seducer…my virtue seemed assured….”

He introduced me to the conductor, Gustav Brecher, the assistant general manager, Siegfried Jelenko, and the new conductor, Otto Klemperer. They are all quite friendly and nice. Let’s say: condescendingly kind. I feel a bit like a baby, rather helpless. People are running this way and that, everywhere groups of chattering, laughing theatre people are standing about, nonchalantly staring at me—but they seem to be a cheerful lot.

I sang for Brecher and Klemperer. They found my voice very lovely—but too sentimental. I’ve noticed already that the singers sing quite differently here. They belt it out a bit brutally. Frau Mallinger always insisted that a tone sound beautiful and round. Landau, the coach, said to me today: “You are singing too much. Not so softly.  You have to shout against a full orchestra playing ff—so please sing loudly and with a cutting edge!” Well, I’m going to guard against that.  I’m not going to force. I shall do it as Frau Mallinger told me to.  Something is wrong if you have to try to “shout.”

There were serious financial problems for the family. The apartment where they had hoped to stay rent-free was not available after all. Lotte’s first pay-check (200 marks) would not be due until October. Moving had been expensive. The apartment they found for 160 marks “with central heating” was four flights up, a disadvantage for Mama, who had over-exerted herself and was ill again. Papa had asked for an advance on his pension; it came as a shock to learn that the entire amount would be deducted on the first of October, instead of bit by bit over several quarters. Lotte’s first exciting months in the theatre were overshadowed by constant stress at home. Mama was painfully worried about Fritz, living on his own in Berlin in what she was sure must be great disorder and privation. Papa was in despair about how to pay the bills. Lotte felt that the decision of her parents to move with her to Hamburg had been a great mistake. It was humiliating to have to ask Baron Putlitz for help, but there was nowhere else to turn. The baron came to the rescue with cash for the most pressing needs and a load of potatoes and apples to keep hunger at bay.

Meanwhile each new day brought new experiences at the theatre which Lotte was quick to share with Fritz by letter. The role of her debut was the Second Boy in The Magic Flute.

I’m getting more and more accustomed to theatre routine. Today was the orchestra rehearsal for Zauberflöte. It went very well. Brecher conducted. Everyone was so nice, you have no idea. I hadn’t imagined it like this at all….Incidentally, it is quite helpful to play the child for the time being….They always call me “die Kleine” [the little one]! “Have you heard, die Kleine has never sung with an orchestra before.” I am naturally scared to death and lament to everyone within earshot that I am dying from fear of the orchestra. And I encounter only smiling, kindly faces.

Elisabeth Schumann, who turned out to be one of Lotte’s dearest life-long friends, had been in the theatre for a year already and showed her the ropes. They went shopping for makeup together. “Die kleine Schumann,” as Lotte called her in the letters to Fritz, brought her up-to-date on theatre gossip—Brecher, for example, was the lover of Edyth Walker, the star soprano from America, who indirectly ran the opera house. Lotte was unaccustomed to the free-and-easy ways of her male colleagues at rehearsal. Schumann advised her not to appear to be a prude.

Lotte to Fritz:

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.

The great night arrived, September 2, 1910, the debut of Lotte Lehmann. According to the program that has been preserved, Elisabeth Schumann (not Magda Lohse, as Lehmann remembered it years later in her autobiography) was the First Boy, Annemarie Birkenström the Third. Putting on the makeup was a new experience and great fun. Everyone told Lotte that her features  were of a type that would project very well on the stage.

The theatre supplied the costumes, but the soloists had to buy their own footwear and rent the wigs, an unanticipated expense for Lotte. She felt painfully self-conscious in her Second Boy’s skimpy tunic; she kept pulling it down to cover as much of herself as possible until the seams nearly split. The tights she had been given were practically worn through; she had had to buy new ones, another irritating outlay. She must have been braver than she later remembered; or perhaps she just wanted her brother to be proud of her courage:

Well, yesterday was the eventful first night! My first debut. It went very well. My part came off without a hitch, Brecher came up after the first act and shook hands with me as he passed by, saying, “very good, Miss Lehmann, keep it up.” The stage director also praised me. Mama and Papa think I “acted wonderfully,” they thought my movements were “so distinguished!” Well, for the Second Boy that’s about all you can do. I felt no trace of fear, we had been joking around so much in the wings. Singing with an orchestra is a great feeling; I can’t understand why the other beginners all groan about it. You wouldn’t believe how nice everyone is. They all came up to me and asked how I felt the first time; naturally I pretended to be in mortal terror, which everyone found very “sweet.” One thing is very good: it is definitely not the custom to go out somewhere after a performance. Everyone goes home. Unless, of course, there is a special occasion. When Caruso comes in October, for instance, there will probably be some sort of banquet to honor him….I looked very good in my makeup. Everyone was surprised how well I made myself up the first time. The costumes are charming, all silk (Egyptian). The decor is really quite magnificent!….Incidentally, there is no envy among the singers of the little roles. Schumann begged me to take over the part of Pepa in Tiefland, which she doesn’t want to sing, and [Helene] Brandes asked me to study Frasquita [in Carmen], which of course I shall do. I will also learn the part of Siebel in Margarethe [Faust], just in case….

Lotte took full advantage of every opportunity to learn by watching and listening. When she was not singing she was generally in the audience, in the artists’ box or in complimentary seats with her father or mother, learning the repertoire. She was thrilled with Edyth Walker’s Brünnhilde:

I tell you, she is not to be described. There is just one word: phenomenal. Yesterday [the evening before the Zauberflöte rehearsal] I saw Die Walküre. It is overwhelming. And what a cast….it was all glorious. And Walker! She is as great an actress as she is a singer. When Wotan cast her out, she screamed and fell. I tell you, such a scream! I feel as if it is still ringing in my ears. It penetrated to the very marrow of my bones; I was all tense with concentration, that’s how it affected me. Horrifying. Simply marvelous. Who in Berlin can duplicate this Brünnhilde?

Lotte was always direct and straight-forward by nature. She generally said what she thought, and that sometimes caused her trouble, later in Vienna among all the Kammersängerinnen, and even here in Hamburg. Frau Hindermann, who sang the Queen of the Night at Lotte’s debut, was a friend of a friend of Lita zu Putlitz. She took Lotte under her wing and tried to keep her from putting her foot in her mouth:

She counteracted a stupidity of mine. I was saying in front of others that Councillor Bachur had held out to me the possibility of singing Mignon. She quickly interrupted: “I consider it out of the question that you should sing Mignon.” Afterwards she took me aside and said: “But child, you have to be more diplomatic. You said that in front of a singer, Frl. Brandes, who has been longing for the part of Mignon for ages. Something like that could do you damage. One has to be very discreet in the theatre.” Often I say something that seems to me utterly harmless and safe—and later I notice: oh, that was careless again! But I’ll learn, all right. Next summer when I come to Gross-Pankow, I shall probably have become quite false!! That may be practical for the theatre—but I would find it horrible if deviousness ever became a habit with me.

Lotte took her work very seriously, and that bothered some of her colleagues. They struck her as a rather frivolous crew, but she was grateful for their friendliness, nevertheless, and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere at rehearsals:

I’m simply amazed how jolly they all are. I am used to being so deadly earnest about my work—at Frau Mallinger’s it would have been unthinkable for us to cut up during our lessons. But here! I can’t be quite that merry myself, it’s all too strange and new to me. Recently someone said to me: “This must be your first engagement. Your expression is so naïve and astonished.” One learns unbelievably much at rehearsals. I go to every orchestra rehearsal. The others all say: “Ha, she’ll soon get over her eagerness.” But I won’t….I am so firmly convinced that honest effort will lead me to my goal. All the conductors like my voice—if I only had the chance to sing something that suits me, like Micaëla or Mignon. But I shall train myself to be a heroine of diplomacy, and that means above all: wait patiently. Fatal words! And yet unavoidably necessary. First I have to prove myself in little parts, before they will trust me with bigger ones. Ah, I’m so happy to be here in Hamburg….

Lotte’s second role was all of four words long: “Wolfram von Eschenbach, beginne!”  Not even solo; three others shared the line with her. She sang the Second Page in Tannhäuser on September 6th, the first in a series of Edelknaben (pages) for the Inseperable Four, Lotte, Magda Lohse, Grete Schlegel, and Annemarie Birkenström, who were later to perform the same distinguished service in Lohengrin, with twice as many words (eight) for the same fee. As a matter of fact, Lotte almost lost the chance to sing in Tannhäuser; at one of the rehearsals the Second Page made a mistake:

Wolfram von Eschenbach, beginne!” was a discord—and what a furious look Brecher gave me.

“Give that part to someone else,” he declared categorically.

It was my first painful experience at the theatre. I wept bitter tears.  Annemarie comforted me:

“You should be glad,” she said, “that you’ve got out of that silly Page’s part. It’s the sort of part that can stick with you for years. Brecher will soon forget that you went wrong—and you needn’t sing it any longer.”

But I wanted to sing it….I wanted to sing absolutely anything just to learn not to regard the stage as foreign territory. So I waited for Brecher outside the rehearsal room and when he came out I burst into tears and begged him to give me back my Page’s part. He looked surprised and amused. It was certainly the first time a soloist had ever begged for that little part that everyone is glad not to have to sing.

“Very well,” he said, keeping a straight face with difficulty, “if you promise never to sing a wrong note again, I shall let mercy temper justice.”

Every now and then there would be talk of a small solo part, like Flora in La traviata—Lotte arranged to borrow a party gown and some stage jewelry, for it was the custom in those days to play that opera in contemporary dress. But Flora never materialized.

Finally, after being a second boy and a second page, she was cast in a female part that even had a name: her first real solo role, Freia in Das Rheingold, with the great Arthur Nikisch as guest conductor. The performance date was exactly three weeks after her debut. Poor Lotte was torn to shreds in the newspapers:

…Fräulein Lehmann played Freia with touching clumsiness….about the vocal qualities of the young performer, whose throat seemed to be constricted with nervousness, nothing can be said…. (Fremdenblatt.)

…With resignation one had to make the best of the vocally as well as dramatically helpless Freia of Frl. Lehmann…. (Correspondent.)

Another reviewer amused some of his readers with the opinion that among the gods of Valhalla Fräulein Lehmann’s Freia seemed to be a chambermaid.

Such reviews are understandably devastating to a young and insecure performer. But Lotte showed amazing spunk and spirit. After quoting every dismal word in a letter to Fritz, she went on to say:

I am not at all discouraged by the bad reviews, though I was furious at first. I pleased Brecher, that is the main thing. He said I did very well for a beginner and surpassed his expectations….

Lotte’s reign as a goddess turned out to be brief. Soon she was back with the page boys. Her repertoire was enriched with one of the bridesmaids in Der Freischütz (at least a small solo), an apprentice in Die Meistersinger, and a choirboy in Der Prophet (Meyerbeer, in German, of course).

She began to pester the directors, conductors, and coaches—in fact anyone who would listen—for better parts. Otto Klemperer fascinated her.

That is a wonderful human being; he looks like a mad genius. I found him enormously interesting, this thin young man as tall as a lamppost with the mournful, burning eyes and pale cheeks. I invested him with romantic glamour and had quite a passion for him….

Apparently she began to fascinate Klemperer too. Soon she was fighting him off in deserted stair-wells and he was chasing her around the furniture in empty rehearsal rooms. The passion on her part, referred to above, actually came much later, after he was hot on the pursuit of Elisabeth Schumann. Lehmann and Klemperer shared a long friendship, but never a simultaneous passion. In 1910 she may have found him “fascinating,” but his passes were most unwelcome.

This Klemperer is a disgustingly fresh fellow. Yesterday I had a rehearsal with him, with three other singers. 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. And then he asked me with deep surprise whether I didn’t love him. I said: “No, Herr Kapellmeister, not the least bit—not at all.” And he simply didn’t believe it. It’s really laughable. Fortunately he does not hold my resistance against me. He was very friendly afterwards.

I could laugh myself sick over Klemperer. He looks so melancholy whenever he sees me. 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.

Four weeks later:

Lately Klemperer impressed me very much. He is a remarkable person. As I was looking at the rehearsal schedule one evening, he came up to me and said: “Sing something for me.” I went with him into a rehearsal room. As usual, he tried to embrace me again. As usual, I resisted, for Klemperer is the kind of man against whom one has to defend oneself—he is like a beast. Then I sang the Micaëla for him. He praised many things about it. And then he said: “What do you want now from me? You want the part? And you think I will give it to you without further ado. You overestimate my power. I have nothing to say. I never do the casting for the operas I conduct. I shall propose it, but I cannot guarantee the result.” And he looked at me with something like contempt. Too bad that I have so little to do with him. I must now try to convince him that I don’t want to take advantage of his weakness for me. Though in fact I do. But I like that about him.

There was constant tension back home. Lotte regretted that her parents had ever decided to move with her to Hamburg. They were always complaining and Lotte, already nervous over her work at the theatre, confessed to Fritz that she was ready to “climb up the wall” at the eternal “back to Berlin!” Kindly Mama had become “the incarnation of reproach.” She felt that Lotte had changed.

And I have changed. Do you know, I’m often amazed at the toughness and the energy that keep me above water. I had been afraid that I would lose heart a little. But no, I feel what I am tempted to call an almost frivolous optimism, a goal-conscious certainty. And that is foreign to Mama. She cannot understand that I no longer need to “seek refuge in the bosom of my parents,” weeping and longing for help, as I used to now and then.

On November 18th, members of the Hamburg Opera ensemble presented a concert in Altona, one of the suburbs. Lotte sang Micaëla’s aria, along with lieder by Franz and Reger, and had her first taste of local applause. The word spread around at the opera house, how beautifully she had sung and how enthusiastically the audience had responded. Soon she had a chance at a Sunday matinée to sing a really grateful role, Anna in Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. Anna has a big aria and a lovely love-duet, besides the ensembles and the dialogue. The audience took her to its heart. This time her father describes it all to Fritz:

Dear Fritz! Today Lotte had a great day that will probably be decisive for her whole life. Whereas her vocal qualities as Freia in Rheingold could scarcely be judged, the Anna in Die lustigen Weiber gave her a most beautiful chance to shine. Her success was—to skip to the point—sensational, especially so when one considers the usual attitude of the Hamburg audiences toward newcomers. Lotte looked enchanting, bringing, in her whole personality and her voice, everything to the role that was called for. From her first entrance she seemed to be as sure of herself as if she were a seasoned artist, and without an orchestra rehearsal she made no mistakes, either in acting or in singing…..Lotte passed the test brilliantly. A stone fell from all our hearts. Now I no longer have to worry about Lotte’s future; she has a fine career in front of her.

A rather different view was expressed, years later, by Siegfried Jelenko, the assistant general manager of the Hamburg Opera, in an article he wrote after Lotte Lehmann had become a beloved star:

Finally she was entrusted with the part of Anna….which she sang satisfactorily, but, but  — during the aria she continually beat time with her left hand and sang, so to speak, with her legs. It was touching and side-splitting. But the brilliance of her glorious soprano won a triumph.

In spite of Jelenko’s negative impressions, the reviews were without exception very encouraging:

…Frl. Lehmann charmed the eye and the ear equally, with a highly graceful portrayal of Jungfer Anna, born of the spirit of the Biedermeier era…. (Hamburger Fremdenblatt.)

…Frl. Lehmann was a charming Jungfer Anna in every way. As she sang it, the duet with Fenton was a high point of yesterday’s performance…. (Hamburger Correspondent.)

…and Frl. Lehmann as a charming Jungfer Anna, whose loveliness of appearance and refinement and purity of vocalism were equally pleasing…. (Hamburger Nachrichten.)

Nevertheless Lehmann herself often referred to her early awkwardness on stage. Those of us who saw her act, or saw her direct singing actors, can hardly imagine her as ever having been clumsy as an actress. She was often called “the singing Duse.” Yet in 1910 that particular talent was far from evident. Jelenko’s article describes what must have been a real problem at first:

At her audition we were struck by the warm timbre of her bright soprano. She appeared uncommonly unassuming, even timid. Wherever one placed her, there she stuck, with a touching lack of concern or affectation. After the first rehearsals….conductors shook their heads, saying she had no sense of rhythm in her body, and doubting whether she would be adequate even in little roles. The sensuous sound of her voice seduced me; I pleaded for patience….”One can, one must try her out for a year!”

The winter went by, and spring had brought no great progress; her singing was probably more secure, but her acting ability?!—Attempts to infuse a little dramatic life into her would be answered with such an uncomprehending, naïve cheerfulness that one would have been brought to the point of despair, had not the beautiful sound of her voice cautioned further patience.

Even before her successful performance as Anna, Lotte had shared an exciting secret with Fritz. Brecher, the leading conductor at the opera, had promised her the part of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier in the première, at which Strauss himself would be present. She was to say nothing to her colleagues but to study the difficult role very diligently. Every day she was given at least one musical rehearsal. It seemed a sure thing. She fell in love with the enchanting new music, and threw herself into the part with enormous dedication and energy.

Dear Fritz! A great piece of luck! I mustn’t rejoice too much—it is so great, that it’s almost unbelievable. I have been given a LEADING role in Rosenkavalier by Strauss….The part is as if it had been written for me. Naïve-sentimental. Captivating. But difficult—madly difficult….I am speechless that I should get such a part. The music is wonderful. Completely delightful. It all sounds colossally playful and elegant. Edyth Walker will play the Rosenkavalier. Imagine that, me with such a partner! The Rosenkavalier is a very young prince [sic] whom I marry at the end….

Lotte did not realize that the role would be double cast; that she would be competing with Elisabeth Schumann for the première; and that everything would depend upon the staging rehearsals scheduled for January. Lotte was generally thought to have the more beautiful voice. But Elisabeth was at that time a much more graceful actress; she also had come to the theatre a year earlier than Lotte and had far more experience, far more “routine.” Jelenko was the stage director, and we know what he thought of Lotte as an actress. Edyth Walker, the Octavian, wanted Schumann as her Sophie and that was that. So Elisabeth Schumann sang Sophie in the Hamburg première of Der Rosenkavalier—a role which she practically owned for the next quarter-century—and Lotte had a crushing disappointment. 

At the time, of course, I thought it an atrocious injustice that I hadn’t been allowed to do the first performance. I regarded Elisabeth as the world’s greatest intriguer—a role which, Heaven knows, was quite foreign to her nature—and felt myself misunderstood and ousted from my rightful place….Elisabeth, always a good colleague, was well aware of my unjustified mistrust. She took great pains to be especially nice to me….

That was a very short-lived shadow in a very long and happy friendship.

Back to the pants parts.  Max in Fortunios Lied (by Offenbach) and the Sandman in Hänsel und Gretel.  Then came Lola in Cavalleria rusticana.

When I was just a beginner I had to learn the part of Lola rather quickly and substitute for a fellow-singer who was taken ill. It was one of the first roles which I had to “portray.” I was so clumsy and so horribly inhibited that I could scacely move or stand on the stage, and the self-assured Lola was the very last person whom I was capable of representing. In deathly fear I stared at the conductor, possessed by the single desire to sing “correctly,” fearing that otherwise I would never be given another role. Why under these circumstances I had any desire for another role is not clear to me, for the tortures which I endured I wouldn’t wish on any enemy. I really must have been something catastrophic, for after this performance even a very good friend advised me to give up the stage for ever.

It is hard to imagine that her acting could have been quite as hopeless as she paints it. Before the end of her first season she was given the chance to sing Agathe in Der Freischütz for one performance in Altona. That was a major leading role for her Fach (voice type) and an important step forward. Her fun-loving colleagues, knowing she would be nervous in her insecurity, did whatever they could to befuddle her backstage. At her last entrance she is supposed to cry out: “Do not shoot!  I am the dove!” They pretended to be prompting her and whispered from the wings: “I am the goose, I am the goose.” Dear colleagues! Fortunately she did not fall into their trap.

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