(The bold text is either up-dates that Glass wrote years later, or his decisions on reinstating portions of his text that had been eliminated in the original 1988 publication.)
Introduction and Chapters 1-3
Arturo Toscanini called her “the greatest artist in the world.” Richard Strauss uttered the words that are now engraved on her tombstone: “Sie hat gesungen, dass es Sterne rührte“—her singing moved the stars. Puccini preferred her “soavissima” Suor Angelica to all others. Thomas Mann addressed her as “liebe Frau Sonne“—dear Lady Sunshine. Bruno Walter accompanied her in lieder recitals which became an annual feature of the Salzburg Festivals until the Nazi annexation of Austria.
Lotte Lehmann was probably the most beloved—and is certainly still one of the best remembered—of all the stars of the Vienna State Opera during its most resplendent era. In all the capitals of opera her Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier reigned supreme for twenty-two years and set standards for all her successors. She was the greatest Sieglinde, Elisabeth, and Fidelio of her time.
Toward the end of her thirty-six-year operatic career, as one by one her other roles began to disappear from her active repertoire and only the Marschallin still lured her back to the opera stage, she found a second career in every way as great and important and beautiful as the first: she opened the door to the marvelous world of German lieder to far greater audiences than ever before. In America, at least, her name became practically synonymous with the word lieder. She used to sing three Town Hall recitals every year in New York, and they were always quickly sold out, including every one of the many extra seats packed onto the recital platform. Her concert tours and her recordings awakened an unprecedented appreciation for German lieder in audiences all over the country.
Then, after she no longer sang in public herself, she evolved a new forum of activity. The master classes in which, before an audience, she imparted to young singers her priceless insights into the interpretation of opera and art song were at that time both original and unique. The atmosphere was alive and exciting, like a performance. Mme. Lehmann would often step before the piano herself to demonstrate the interpretation of a song, or would act out part of an operatic scene. Particularly fascinating was the eloquent way she could verbalize what she was doing, what the piano introduction—for instance—was expressing, or what an operatic character was feeling “between the lines.” How often are we granted an opportunity to witness the creative process in action, to hear a great artist put his or her thoughts into words? How many great artists are even able to do so? Lotte Lehmann’s master classes were a powerful inspiration to all those participants who had the sensitivity to grasp her suggestions and the sense to profit from them. For the audience, too, the master classes were a revelation. Thanks to Lehmann’s unfailing sense of humor, they were also great entertainment.
Two generations of singers have benefited from study with her. Her former students have been singing in opera houses all over the world. Yet she never taught singing as such—or, more exactly, never since her own student days. What she taught was interpretation, how to bring a song to life, how to express its deepest meanings, how to make a living human being out of an operatic character.
Besides what was uniquely her own, she passed on a great and noble tradition. She had studied voice with Mathilde Mallinger, Wagner’s first Eva in Die Meistersinger. She “coached” Strauss roles—and Strauss songs—with Richard Strauss himself. One of her early accompanists, Ferdinand Foll, was a friend of Hugo Wolf’s. She sang with most of the leading conductors of her time. The great three in her life were Franz Schalk, Bruno Walter, and Arturo Toscanini. She shared the stage with many other brilliant artists. She knew the authentic style and the most valid traditions that had evolved under the guidance of Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini, to name just some of the composers who continued to mold their operas in rehearsal after the scores had been printed and published. What she absorbed from great predecessors and contemporaries she passed on, both consciously and unconsciously, to her students.
Her voice, or at least a more or less fair facsimile of her voice, can be heard on records. It had a unique, haunting quality, instantly recognizable but hard to define. What one notices right away is the immediacy of her response to the emotional content of the words and music. Not for her the concept of poetry as emotion “recollected in tranquillity.” The poem is alive in her at that very moment of uttering it, with all the vividness of an actual experience, as if she herself were poet and composer, combined, in an ecstasy of inspiration. The older records, made when her voice was in its prime, suffer from the technological limitations of early recording equipment. The late records capture her singing somewhat more faithfully, but by that time her voice had understandably lost something of its youthful glow. No records, however, can recapture the visual component, the overwhelming impression she created through the combination of facial expression, personal magnetism, and stage presence—a kind of magic—which remained hers as long as she lived and which came across as effectively in her master classes as it had at the height of her career. Her whole being became the song.
As a singing-actress her identification with the role she was singing was total while she was performing—no other singer surpassed her in bringing those ladies of the imagination to such vivid life. Yet when the performance came to an end she could throw off the aura of the character and the mood of the final scene—however tragic, exalted, or nostalgic—with an instantaneousness that often startled her friends. Elsa, Sieglinde, the Marschallin—and all the roles she wrote about in My Many Lives—disappeared in Lotte Lehmann, the woman. Yet in another way those “many lives” were all there inside of her, constituting a woman of many sides and many moods.
What was she like, that woman? Her companion since the death of her husband in l939, Frances Holden, declined the many requests to write a biography of Lehmann. Dr. Holden, who had been so close to Lotte, declared herself daunted by the apparent contradictions in the character of her friend. “Almost any characteristic I might think of could be countered by its opposite; but in one way Lotte was absolutely consistent: there was no meanness in her.” Perhaps a picture of the woman will emerge in this book through the words of her friends and colleagues, through excerpts from her hitherto private correspondence, through quotations from her writings both published and unpublished, through reviews, interviews, and photographs.
She was incessantly creative. When not singing or teaching she was writing or painting or making ceramics, glass mosaics, colorful felt cutouts, or illustrated jokes in verse. A number of her writings have been published, including a novel, an autobiography (up to l937), two books on song interpretation, two on the interpretation of her operatic roles, and two volumes of poetry. There was a One-Woman-Show in New York of some of her paintings, including her pictorial versions of Schubert’s Die Winterreise. She also made a film in Hollywood and read German poetry for Caedmon Records, all of this while maintaining a world-wide correspondence with friends and students, former colleagues, fans from the old days in Hamburg and Vienna, and with such luminaries as Bruno Walter, Thomas Mann, and Toscanini.
Though safely “Aryan” herself (her stepchildren had a Jewish mother), she was staunchly anti-Nazi from the very beginning and stopped singing in Germany soon after Hitler came to power. When he took Austria into the Third Reich, she—German by birth and Viennese by “adoption”—applied for American citizenship. After the war she spent far more money than she could actually afford on parcels of food and clothing and other necessities for her friends in Europe who had suffered great privations during that terrible time. Until the end of her life she contributed generously to a home for needy retired performers in Austria. The generosity of spirit that radiated through her singing found its counterpart in many deeds of kindness (often secret) in her private life. As just one touching example, one of her letters makes clear that she had arranged to teach a talented student for nothing and even to contribute a generous sum each month toward living expenses, while insisting that the student not be told the name of her unknown “sponsor.” There were many such gestures.
She herself would be the first, however, to laugh at any suggestion that she was a saint. There was a saint in her, yes, and one felt that side of her in her portrayal of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, which, like all her great interpretations, went far beyond mere play-acting; but there were plenty of other less hallowed personae in her fascinating personality. She was, after all, a very famous Manon in the earlier years of her career and always a wildly passionate Sieglinde. Like all great artists she was self-absorbed. A great diva almost has to be, to protect herself. The career has to come first if it is to become—and stay—a world career. The competition at the top is enormous; the strains and hazards of a singing career—one that depends upon the health of a delicate pair of membranes in the throat—are exceedingly nerve-wracking. Perhaps Lehmann was not always an angel; but neither was she the sort of prima donna who would ever stab a rival in the back. It is no secret that Maria Jeritza managed to keep her away from the Metropolitan for many years, or that Viorica Ursuleac made trouble for Lehmann in Vienna during the ’30s and spread malicious, grossly distorted stories about her to the very end. But those ladies were in direct competition with Lehmann in many roles they sang in common; most of her colleagues, such as Elisabeth Schumann and—in the next generation—Risë Stevens, loved her dearly. Elisabeth Rethberg, who shared several of the same roles at the Met, had a close and very cordial relationship with Lehmann. Among the male colleagues there was not, of course, the element of rivalry; from the very beginning they could be numbered among her most enthusiastic friends and supporters. Among her favorites were Richard Mayr, Alfred Jerger, Alfred Piccaver, Leo Slezak, Karl Aagard-Oestwig, and Lauritz Melchior.
In all her writings she maintained a dignified reticence in discussing her unkinder rivals; on the contrary she graciously—and sincerely—praised their artistic accomplishments, unprejudiced by bitter memories of personal injuries behind the scenes.
Seemingly incompatible Lottes somehow managed to coexist in a surprising harmony of contrasts. During the busy years of her career, she often escaped to the isolation of lonely beaches on the island of Hiddensee in the Baltic Sea. Later, she retired to a sort of private paradise in Hope Ranch, Santa Barbara, remote from the bustle of the world—peaceful, perhaps, but not exactly quiet: she loved the barking dogs, talking Mynah birds, singing canaries, and screeching parrots that populated her Eden. Yet the same Lotte Lehmann thrived on excitement and stimulation. Bores were her principal aversion. She was witty, loved to laugh, and adored a funny joke. Highly impulsive by nature, she was quick to act on the whim of the moment, without a thought of possible consequences. If there was no excitement around her naturally, she was capable of stirring some up, deliberately, one way or the other, as when she might bring together two people who could not stand each other, just to watch the sparks fly.
In everyday life, in ordinary human relations, Lehmann could sometimes be wrong about people. Because she was so impulsive and quick, there could be misunderstandings, misjudgments. But she saw into the very souls of the characters she portrayed on the stage; hers was a phenomenal insight into every subtle nuance of the psychology of those creations of the poetic imagination; she made them totally real, gave them the breath and heartbeat of life. Fortunately she could articulate those insights. Mary Garden’s book was a disappointment to those who hoped to find in it clues to her famous interpretations. “I was Mélisande” or “I was Thaïs.” One looks in vain for any revelation. They say Maria Callas shied away from any analysis of her roles. But in My Many Lives Lotte Lehmann has written indispensable chapters on the heroines she portrayed. That book should be required reading for anyone interested in performing those roles or studying those operas. It is also to be recommended to anyone who cares about opera at all.
For those who were there, a Lehmann performance was something very special and quite unforgettable. The love that flowed back and forth between artist and audience was something wonderful to feel. Nothing was ever routine, not even for a moment; every moment was an experience, intimately shared.
A Drop of Theatre Blood
The first Lehmann tones—not bel canto but probably expressive—rang out on February 27, 1888, in Perleberg, in the northern part of Germany, a middle-sized town about halfway between Berlin and Hamburg. The new arrival received a string of names: Charlotte Sophie Pauline Lehmann. The ten syllables quickly dwindled down to three: the family called her Lotteken.
With the same inimitable relish that made a jewel out of every song she sang, Lotte Lehmann in her memoirs and early letters takes us back into another century and another world, the world of her childhood, and recreates its atmosphere with her flair for characteristic detail.
She remembers the night watchman calling the hours, the Gypsies who passed through the town, the ragged little Slovakian boys who peddled mousetraps, the linen lady whose visits cheered Lotte’s ailing mother. “Lumpenmatz,” the rag man, would fish out of his rag bag foul-smelling bits of St. John’s bread (a popular seasonal delicacy in German-speaking countries still) as a reward for the children who brought him pieces of used clothing they had begged from their mothers.
Here, in her own words, is the organ-grinder:
There was always great excitement when a special genius of the barrel-organ came down the street with his picture-cart: it was a kind of forerunner of the “movies,” a “performance” with musical accompaniment. Above the organ-mechanism there was a large box with pictures in lurid colors pasted all around it. The series of pictures told a story, and the horrible “thrillers” of today are tame compared to the blood-thirstiness of those wild tales. They always started with some cruel murder. Blood flowed in streams from tables and benches; one saw the poor victim, usually a beautiful woman, quite dead beyond a doubt, lying on the floor, long yellow hair hanging down in improbable glory, dripping with blood. Then came the murderer; and one was convinced that he was a killer, for his face spoke volumes. At the end one had the relief of seeing him die, generally beheaded, and one had the pleasure of enjoying his mortal terror and of admiring with a shiver the lifted axe. I could never sleep after one of those exciting performances, especially since the impresario of those productions used to rattle off the whole proceedings in a heart-rending voice… I still remember one verse quite distinctly—a lovely beginning: “Robert was a vicious killer. He dispatched in one dark night/All his children plus their mother. ‘Twas a gory, bloody sight.” Sometimes the hoarse voice of the “Director” was drowned out by the barrel-organ, but always enough of his narration stuck in my head for me to act it all out later for Mama in a dramatic performance that generally netted a box on the ears, for I had been forbidden to watch those horror stories.
There was a doll shop in Perleberg…
It belonged to a little, deformed, asthmatic lady who was herself as tiny as one of her dolls. There was something spooky about her when she slowly and with effort moved about among the lifelessly smiling doll faces. That shop had a strong attraction for me. I especially loved to lose myself in enraptured contemplation of the little Negro dolls, which I preferred to all the others. I wonder why. Perhaps because they were so different from the every-day faces of the white-cheeked dolls? It would really be interesting to know why in my collection Negro dolls could never be missing and were always my favorites….
Now and then an acting troupe would come to town, and Lehmann remembered the leading lady, behind the scenes, wan without her grease-paint, wearily sewing spangles on a robe that later, on the stage, would conjure up all the glamour of the theatre for those people of Perleberg who could not afford to visit Hamburg or Berlin.
Lotte’s father, Carl Lehmann, was a proper German official, upright, industrious, methodical, orderly. He was a secretary of the “Ritterschaft,” a kind of benevolent society, with branches in various parts of Germany, that also functioned as a bank and managed estate matters for the landed gentry of the area.
The rent-free house in which Lotte and her brother Fritz grew up belonged to the Ritterschaft. It was a fine two-story house, overgrown with vines. There was an acacia tree in the little front garden, a big garden in back and a poultry yard. The garden was their father’s pride and joy. Part of it was given to Lotte, for her to look after herself. Her father had also set up a playground for the children, with a swing, parallel bars, and a roundabout.
Papa had a taste for poetry and a positive attitude toward life. Fritz recalled his characteristic walk, always leaning forward and whistling some little tune or other. He was a very early riser, a trait that Lotte inherited. Once the sun had risen it was hard for her to stay in bed. (Years later she would wake up at six and wait impatiently for the clock to strike seven, so that she could call a bleary-eyed friend or accompanist to discuss whatever new idea had been running through her head during the night.)
Her mother, Marie, had a very different nature, introverted and addicted to worry. She suffered very poor health throughout most of her life. Although Carl Lehmann’s salary was a respectable one for those days, his wife’s medical needs were such that money was always in short supply and the family had to watch every penny. Money was a serious problem—sometimes a desperate one—even well into Lotte’s first engagement as an opera singer. It was the cause of endless disputes at home; and the relationship between her parents, good people both, was often marred by disharmony where money was concerned.
Here Lotte describes the situation in her own words:
As far back as I can remember a lack of money played the leading role in our lives. The eternal worry, the eternal illness of my mother, undermined the happiness of that marriage. I saw many tears, heard many quarrels, and I felt that money must be something bad, dominating, unconquerable. It embittered my parents against each other, even though my father’s wonderful sense of humor quickly won the upper hand and made him quick to forget what those of heavier blood perhaps cannot forget at all.
I like to think of my parents as young people. I love most especially the photos that show them as an engaged couple, both looking so well, each as if made for the other….One knows so little about one’s parents. One sees them always as “parents”—not as warm-blooded human beings with passions and failings and charming caprices….How fervently I hope that my parents enjoyed their blossom time! That all the differences that came later did not totally extinguish their memories of a beauty that was past! I often say that in front of their pictures.
I was deeply biased. It bothers me still today that I didn’t resist getting involved, that I always took Mama’s side, passionately and unquestioningly, whenever “right or wrong” were being weighed. No one asked me to butt in or to favor one side over the other. Mama always leaned on my brother, who was just as much under her influence as I was. Very late we children learned that my good father was not always “in the wrong,” and that we are still very much in his debt. In his last years I became really close to him—I had always been his darling, even when he didn’t always show it all that clearly, as Mama did her feelings for her son. But those two or three years of closeness could not adequately atone for the missed opportunities of my youth.
Music was a common bond—not classical music, for they knew next to nothing about that, but the folk songs that were so much a part of the average German’s life in those days. Papa played the zither and sang tenor in the Perleberg glee club—Fritz called it “the Half-a-Lung Society.” Carl Lehmann’s enthusiastic high C was featured in all of their concerts, though the director sometimes had to cut it short. Mama had a beautiful, mellow contralto which was never heard in public but which played a formative part in Lotte’s love of singing. It was a voice that should have been trained; but Marie’s father was sternly opposed to any idea that his daughter might ever be a performer.
There was another singer in the family: Aunt Lenchen, Papa’s hunchbacked sister, who lived with them for a while before her early death. Lotte later described her voice as that of an angel; but her disability banished all hope of performing in public.
Lotte loved to chirp along with the rest of the family, but when company came (which was seldom, for Mama was usually ill) it was Fritz who was asked to sing, first as a boy soprano, later as a promising tenor. Unfortunately his voice was ruined by an over-eager choir director who made him sing soprano, tenor, or bass according to the need of the moment while his voice was still changing.
Whereas Lehmann always saw herself as having been quite an ordinary little girl—her mother used to say that Lotte had never given her a moment’s trouble as a child—Fritz, who was six years older, was the wild one, the adventurer, the unpredictable artist. He loved to dress up as an Indian—with the scalps of Lotte’s dolls hanging from his belt—to scare the good burghers, out for their Sunday walk in the woods. He was always up to something, the ringleader in many an escapade, and Lotte looked up to him with awe and admiration. She would have loved to join the fun—and sometimes did when they were alone together—but no proper schoolboy would have anything to do with a little sister in front of his friends. Fritz was always in and out of trouble, especially around report-card time, and caused his mother no end of worry; yet, perhaps for that very reason, it always seemed to Lotte that Fritz was Mama’s favorite. Long after she was a grown woman and a famous opera star it still hurt her that Mama would make more fuss over a violet from Fritz than over a new car from her.
Lotte adored her mother. She was a motherly mother, kind, full of concern, always forgiving. Unfortunately, she was also almost always ill. Lotte’s closeness to her mother was a dominating factor in her life as long as her mother lived. Separation from one another always brought on many tears. When Lotte, grown up, went on tour, first to South America, then, years later, to North America, her mother missed her painfully and wrote touching letters full of the fear of “wild Indians” and other imagined dangers. When Lotte sang a new role or a premiere or a particularly important concert, Mama would put garlands of flowers around her picture and “hold her thumbs” (the European version of crossing one’s fingers) until they ached. Lotte was very much under her influence. Mama was always very sweet and kind; but some need of Lotte’s seemed somehow ever unfulfilled, nevertheless, She was almost over-anxious to please her mother and yearned for constant reassurance of her love. Mama cried easily and often. She suffered from chronic gastric pains; reading or writing inflamed her eyes severely. Even in her picture as a lovely young woman one can sense the melancholy strain. Lotte, looking at that picture, describes hers as a somber beauty, without light. She had loved a young lieutenant who fell in the Franco-Prussian War; sometimes she had the tactlessness to refer to that “love of her life” in the presence of Lotte’s father. Both of Lotte’s parents came from the same town, Prenzlau, to the north of Berlin, where Marie’s parents had owned a mill. Her family had been quite well off until her father died, leaving them suddenly without means. Carl Lehmann was a handsome young man, with good prospects. He had been decorated for his service in the war. They married, moved to Perleberg, and settled down to raising their two children.
At Easter there were egg-hunts. At Christmas, Mama would dress up as the Weihnachtsmann—the German version of Santa Claus—and distribute presents. Every summer the family would go off to Warnemünde on the Baltic Sea for a vacation at the beach. There Mama, almost a recluse at home, would be surrounded by friends, adding a cello-like alto to the familiar old songs they all loved to sing.
There were always pets at the Ritterschaftshaus. Lotte Lehmann had a life-long passion for animals that began with Mohr, an old poodle, and Maunzi, a yellow tom-cat. They were the first in an unbroken line. She loved animals and animals loved her. Even deer, normally so shy, would eat out of her hands. Lotte hated to see any animal suffer. She would run away when she learned a hen was to be killed. Years later in Chicago, then the meat capital of America, the thought of the animals brought there to be slaughtered filled her with revulsion. She even “hated” Meta, the maid-of-all-work, for killing a fish. The hatred, however, did not last very long, for Meta was a favorite playmate in the fascinating dress-up game they called “countesses.”
Lotte, Meta, and Selma Betz, a friend from school, would wrap old bedsheets around their waists, give each other flowery names, mince around the house with dainty steps, and make up the kind of high-flown talk they had picked up from Meta’s mystery novelettes. The really thrilling parts of those stories, however, were just too scary to act out; bits like this would keep Lotte awake at night: “And suddenly the coffin-lid was lifted and the pale Countess Elvira stepped out…” Meta tried to convince Lotte that the Ritterschaftshaus was haunted. She had seen a ghost on the stairs. Perhaps Meta is to blame for Lotte’s lifelong fear of being alone in the dark.
Playing countesses was a sort of embryonic step toward opera. Soon Lotte was “Queen Louise” in a school operetta. Her still tiny voice was nevertheless the best in the school and already there was talk of training for a singing career. But Papa would have none of that. She would have a proper, practical profession. Still, he let her put on plays in the vine-covered summerhouse in the garden. He even supplied paper lanterns and, afterwards, led the dancing and singing. On that stage Lotte played her first trouser role, in one of her brother’s hand-me-downs and a false mustache, good practice, no doubt, for the Octavians, Composers, and Fidelios that lay in the future. The first play she ever saw had been Cinderella, performed by a troupe of midgets. Then came Camillo von Kunzendorff and his traveling players.
According to family legend Papa was descended from an illegitimate son of Sophie Arnould, the great French singing-actress. In an unpublished article called “Growing Up,” Lotte fantasized about that drop of theater blood that was then beginning to stir in her veins:
That red, glowing drop of blood in my family—has it given me the restlessness of an artist? Has it given me the will to create, to give myself to the theatre? Has it given me the glorious blessing of self-transformation? Who knows?… I find it intriguing to think that Sophie Arnould haunts about in my bloodstream and has me do things in my lively life that none of my other ancestors would understand.
I wish I could say that already as a child the theatre devil held me in his clutches and made me someone “unusual.” Unfortunately that was not the case. Looking back, I think that I was a very average child, only moderately gifted in anything, never outstanding in any way….I was quiet and obedient, played quietly in the corner with my doll,…and had a pretty little voice. I was nothing more than a “good girl.”
Instead of being proud of that, I feel rather uncomfortable at the thought of myself as such a model of virtue….
There were secret piano lessons, paid for out of Mama’s household allowance, to surprise Papa on his silver wedding anniversary. Then came dancing lessons and Lotte’s first admirer, a sturdy farmboy from Fritz’s class at school. Her first love, when she was twelve, was her music teacher at school. Her first engagement—it lasted perhaps five minutes—was to the boy next door.
Another talent began to flourish about this time: she loved to paint. Her specialty was an appropriately flamboyant rendition of Hell.
Mama was never very happy in Perleberg and longed to live near her relatives in Berlin. Eventually she persuaded Papa to apply for a transfer to a Berlin branch of the Ritterschaft—a real sacrifice for him, for he loved the garden he had cultivated so often between dawn and the start of office hours at the Ritterschaft next door.
In 1902, soon after Lotte’s confirmation, the Lehmanns made the move. Fritz had gone on ahead to begin his training for the humdrum routine of officialdom. To please his worried mother he had given up his dream of going to sea. The family found an apartment on Hochmeister Street in the cheap northern sector of Berlin. It was very different from the spacious house and garden and the clean air of Perleberg.
A Door to Wonderland
Berlin was exciting. Mama was happy to be among her relatives. Papa was able to add Ober (chief) to the string of words that made up his title. Fritz formed a secret society with the lofty name, Justice. Mostly the members drank a lot of beer. Lotte felt at first like a country mouse among big city cats. But soon she had many good friends. There were some disappointments however. The Tiergarten—the name implies a zoo—turned out to be autos instead of animals; and the linden trees of Unter den Linden—a famous boulevard—seemed “miserable, stunted, and insignificant” compared to those in Perleberg.
Lotte was enrolled in the Ulrich Lyceum. It was a school for girls and every one of them—including Lotte—was madly in love with “Ulli,” as they called Headmaster Ulrich. He gave them advice that she never forgot: “Go your own way, don’t run with the herd. Be a personality. Become what you are, that is the best thing in life.” The girls also had a crush on their classroom teacher, who encouraged Lotte’s very evident talent as a writer. The check for ten marks she received when one of her poems was accepted by a Berlin paper, Der Tag, meant more to Lotte than many a splendid fee she later earned from her singing.
Lotte loved that school, especially play-reading and declamation. “To be able strangely to transform oneself, suddenly to be able to express what someone else had felt and to make it one’s own, so that it seemed to come out of one’s very self—how fascinating! To be an actress was my quiet, secret dream…” Mathematics, however, remained a thorn in her side. She never did learn how to balance a checkbook.
A triple romance began to blossom. The neighbors had two girls and a boy. The Lehmanns had one girl and—temporarily—two boys, for Erich, a friend of Fritz’s, was boarding with them. For some time six young people were finding excuses to pose near a window. All sorts of signals were intended or imagined—and sometimes intercepted by an irritated mother. Finally the two families got together for a Sunday outing at a suburban concert-garden where the bandmaster was celebrated for a particularly choice rendition of “Glow, Little Glowworm.” The customers consumed coffee and cake, danced, or talked politics. Since in this case both fathers were staunchly conservative, their conversations were more a mutual ratification than a stimulating exchange of ideas. There was a series of such outings. On the way home from one of them Lotte received her first kiss and a proposal of marriage. Willi Hilke asked if Lotte would wait five years for him. First there would be his year of military service—in the “Cockchafers,” a guards regiment with a particularly dashing uniform—and then four years at the university, studying philology. Lotte said yes.
Willi was handsome and blonde. Reams of poems flew his way from Lotte’s pen.
Maybe it would be best to get married, to marry the handsome son of our neighbors, who was in love with me but found much about me to criticize. He was a student of philology and wanted to become a teacher. He was horrified at my lack of knowledge. We had many a quarrel when, for instance, I couldn’t tell him the date Napoleon was born or when the Battle of Waterloo took place. I sat there, rebellious and mocking. “It’s all the same to me,” I said with my nose in the air. “Why is it important to you and me when that old Napoleon came into the world? I don’t live in the past, I live now, and shall always live for the moment.”
Willi stared at me with a look of helpless incomprehension. “But don’t you want to expand your general education? Do you want to live only for your own limited interests? Don’t you want to participate in those things that are important to me?” I said that it was important that we loved each other and would get married in five years, when he would have his degree and could get a job.
Five years! What are five years when we are young? One throws them away—and one races through them, laughing, as if in a dance. Or does that only seem so to me today? Does it seem so today, when every day is a precious gift, when every hour must be used to the fullest, and when I look back with a shudder at the extravagant wastefulness of my earlier years. Maybe life was just as full of problems then and I have only forgotten. Perhaps the fact that I trembled at the thought of having to hand in my homework was just as much a torment to me then as my later fear of failure. Could be. Today I recall my school days as one long rosy dream.
Marriage with Willi seemed infinitely preferable to the lot of a secretary at the Ritterschaft, pension or no, that Papa was planning for her. First Papa had hoped that Lotte might become a schoolteacher. Her dismal marks in math soon burst that bubble. But a “practical” profession would in any case be necessary. Sometimes Lotte struggled against Papa’s principles; sometimes she submitted. Her relationship with her father was often adversarial. Papa, the sensible one, generally found himself outnumbered, three to one. Fritz always sided with Lotte, and Mama always sided with Fritz. It was only in later years that Lotte came to understand and to appreciate her father’s special ways of showing his deep love for her.
About the time Lotte graduated from school, the Lehmanns moved to Gross-Lichterfelde, a pretty garden suburb of Berlin, where the air was better for Mama, whose health, always precarious, was on one of its downward curves. With their new apartment came the right to use the garden, a special blessing for Papa. Lotte, freed from schoolwork, helped with the household chores. To pass the time she would sing folk songs and the latest hits while she dusted or swept (cooking was ruled out; she would be too extravagant in the kitchen).
One day the lady in the apartment upstairs, Frau Kühnen, who had often complimented Lotte on her singing, decided that Lotte’s lovely natural voice deserved to be properly trained. She was shocked to learn that Papa had already enrolled Lotte in a commercial school. She prophesied a glamorous operatic career, maybe even marriage to a prince. Frau Kühnen had a “contact.” Her uncle ran the canteen at the Royal High School of Music. That uncle of hers turned out to be very helpful. He arranged for one of the advanced singing students, Fräulein Erna Tiedke, to prepare Lotte for the entrance examinations which, as luck would have it, were only a week away.
Lotte had been twice to the opera, standing in the top gallery with Willi and Fritz. Her first opera was Lohengrin, a work that was later to be a major milestone in her career. Then came Mignon with Emmy Destinn, who became, with Geraldine Farrar, one of Lotte’s early idols.
But still she had absolutely no repertoire of classical music, nothing at all to sing at an audition.
With Mama’s blessing, but behind Papa’s back (for the lessons cost two marks each), Lotte worked with Fräulein Tiedke on “Jerusalem” from Mendelssohn’s St. Paul. They also took a fleeting look at Siebel’s aria from Faust. Here is Lotte’s impression of her mentor:
Erna Tiedke was a very superior-looking girl…She loved behaving like a prima donna, wore a whole shopwindowful of imitation jewelry on her person and a shawl with long fringes decorated with ostrich feathers… To me she appeared as a higher being… a door to wonderland had opened to me in which shone the glorified form of Erna Tiedke, singing her brilliant trills and bewildering coloraturas and relating her dizzying conquests on her path to fame… It seemed to me that every other coloratura-singer in the world was done for, and when I shyly asked Fräulein Tiedke who sang her parts in the Royal Opera House, she would answer with proud modesty: “As yet, Frau Herzog…”
It was a frantic attempt to pack a year or two of vocal lessons and musical training into six days; but it worked.
At the audition, her very first ever, Lotte offered to sing “Jerusalem.” The judges groaned. They had just survived renditions of that same piece by the last two contestants. Somehow Lotte managed to find her way through Siebel’s aria. She was accepted. But there could be no scholarship for the first term. That was a fixed policy.
Papa had accompanied her to the audition, presumably unaware of the cram-course that had preceded it. To his ears none of the contestants sang as beautifully as his Lotte. He saw the necessity of raising the tuition money and somehow he managed it. As long as he lived no one else ever sang like his Lotte.
She was now a Student of Music. That was at least a minor distinction in title-loving Germany. And an inner transformation went along with it. When Willi wrote to congratulate her but expressed the hope that her future professional activities would not conflict with her duties to house and home, she was deeply offended. “Does he mean me to beat carpets in the morning and give concerts at night?” She thought of Erna’s high-minded maxims: “I must dedicate my life to Art. Nothing must divert me from my lofty goal!” There was a farewell letter. It cost a few hot tears. A turning point had been reached.
At the Royal High School of Music Lotte studied with Helene Jordan, one of the voice teachers. Progress seemed painfully slow. Lotte was impatient for results and all too aware that she was just a rank beginner. When a bass from the opera class called out: “Well, little lamb, can you say baa yet?” she burst into tears. There were classes in theory—there she felt quite hopeless!—as well as in Italian and piano. Her favorite was elocution and she gives to her teacher, Elise Bartels, the credit for the clear enunciation that was consistently praised throughout her career. Every vowel, every consonant was carefully and consciously shaped and drilled and polished. At the end of the term Lotte won a scholarship.
Unfortunately Mama became seriously ill with a severe gastric hemorrhage. Lotte had to take leave from school and take care of her. She also had to do the cooking. No matter how conscientiously she tried to stick to the recipe, there were long faces at the table; but everyone was kind enough to pretend to Mama that Lotte’s concoctions had been delicious. Her friend of later years, Frances Holden, claimed that when Lotte took it into her head to cook, it was as if there had been an explosion in the kitchen. She had—as the whole world knows—other, compensating talents!
One summer the family discovered the enchanting island of Hiddensee, in the Baltic, north of Stralsund. In those days the island—from then on one of Lotte’s favorite haunts—was inhabited mostly by artists. It was cheaper to live there than in Berlin and the family had wonderful, healthy vacations in the invigorating sea-air.
During Lotte’s second year at the Royal High School of Music, Helene Jordan became seriously ill. Lotte was given to another teacher with whom all progress soon came to a standstill. The school director kept urging Lotte in the direction of oratorio; but the ambition for opera had begun to take hold of her, heart and soul. Her old scrapbooks from that period are full of penciled comments on the clippings of newspaper reviews. She must have managed to see quite a few performances of opera in Berlin, and her scribbled criticisms show considerable discernment. She became discouraged at the Royal High School and decided to make a change.
After an audition,Lotte was accepted into the Etelka Gerster School of Singing. Mme. Gerster had studied with the legendary Mathilde Marchesi and was for a while Adelina Patti’s principal rival. Her school was packed with rich young ladies from all over the world.
The world-renowned soprano Lilli Lehmann, who had sung in the first Bayreuth Festival and introduced several of Richard Wagner’s music dramas to New York, was a guest of the school at the audition. Lotte had not been told in advance, to spare her nerves the extra strain. Frau Lehmann invited her to tea at her home. And there Lotte felt the full, delayed shock of stage fright that had not yet hit her while she was actually singing. The diva graciously gave the young beginner—who had obviously made a very favorable impression on her—a little gold medallion. For many years, until the 1930s, Lotte wore it on a chain around her neck whenever she gave a performance.
Presumably as a result of Lilli Lehmann’s enthusiasm at the audition, Lotte received free tuition, a great exception, and was assigned for voice training to Frl. Eva Reinhold (who had been singing in the chorus at the leading opera house in Berlin).
The Gerster School method was disastrously unsuited to Lotte’s voice. The students were made to hold small wooden sticks between their jaws to keep the mouth opening always the same for every tone, for every vowel, at every pitch. Vocalizes were specially printed in three colors, to emphasize the various registers. Such methods went counter to Lotte’s healthy vocal instincts, as well as to her musical sense. The little stick kept the jaw muscles rigid; the emphasis on different registers impeded the development of an even scale. Woe to the poor unfortunate whose stick slipped out! The rest of the class would break up with the giggles and Eva Reinhold was not noted for a sense of humor. For a few months, however, Lotte’s relationship with her teacher was a reasonably positive one. In the summer of 1908—Lotte was now twenty years old—Frl. Reinhold arranged for her to stay with aristocratic friends of hers at their beautiful estate. They called Lotte their nightingale and were very kind to her. She began to feel less awkward in society. The future Marschallin kept her eyes open.
Meanwhile, in Perleberg, another contact was working for her good, with the help of highly-placed connections. The wife of the director of the Ritterschaft there, Frau von Saldern, had heard of Lotte’s beautiful voice and arranged, through Baron Konrad zu Putlitz, the president of an agricultural society that often had dealings with the Ritterschaft, to sing for his brother, the Intendant of the Stuttgart Court Theatre, another Baron Putlitz.
The exciting news reached Lotte while she was still on vacation and she was quick to share it with her teacher, who happened to be taking a cure at Bad Kissingen. Frl. Reinhold—who was swathed in wet compresses as she wrote—took a very chilly view of such an audition, feeling that Lotte was far from ready, but giving a grudging consent. She referred Lotte to Professor Otto Bake, a well-known concert accompanist, for coaching. The good professor sweat a bit of blood over Lotte’s rhythmical insecurity; but with his help she prepared “Elsa’s Dream” and Agathe’s aria from Der Freischütz. The audition took place at the Excelsior Hotel in Berlin, where Baron Putlitz happened to be staying, on September 28, 1908; he was very favorably impressed with her voice and agreed to hear her again when she felt ready to accept an engagement.
When she returned to the Gerster School, however, things took a discouraging turn. Lotte was having difficulties with the Countess’s second aria from The Marriage of Figaro. Eva Reinhold was determined that Lotte would get it right. Week after week, at every lesson, she insisted upon hammering away at that same aria. Lotte grew more and more tense and more and more frustrated. It would not come. For years afterward her knees would shake at the mere mention of the opening words, “Und Susanna kommt nicht…” It became a complex, a paralysis. She never really enjoyed the role of the Countess, even though her singing of that very aria was highly praised, later, in Hamburg, Vienna, and London.
Frl. Reinhold was convinced that Lotte was not working hard enough. Instead of trying any other approach, she kept forcing Lotte to struggle through the Countess’s aria. Her attitude toward her pupil seemed to have changed drastically ever since the audition with the Intendant from Stuttgart.
One day—it was New Year’s Eve—Lotte was summoned before Etelka Gerster herself. The great lady listened with ice in her eyes. Once again it had to be the Countess’s aria. Her verdict was a harsh one and there was no appeal: she was most dissatisfied; Lotte had sung very badly and done her no credit. Lotte’s studies at the Gerster School were at an end.
It was the blackest day in Lotte’s life. She went home numb and silent. A package was delivered with a cushion she had made for Frl. Reinhold as a Christmas gift. It was accompanied by the following letter:
Dear Fräulein Lehmann:
I shall speak to your father today on behalf of Frau Gerster, but I should like to write you a few lines. I am sorry that your singing instruction at the Gerster School has come to an end in this way, but alas! I have seen this coming for months. I can only say that none of my pupils has ever been such a disappointment as you have, and this has given me many a dark hour. I believe that, if you want to and have to achieve something in the future, you should take up a practical career. Only then will you come to know the real meaning of hard work, and perhaps you will realize later that you weren’t doing your duty with all your might. Whether you were considered a hard worker at the Hochschule you will know best yourself. Finally, I have one request to make. It is very painful for me to keep this cushion you gave me, now that you are no longer my pupil. You have taken great trouble over it and I am sure you will be able to make use of it elsewhere. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Fräulein Lehmann, but I really cannot keep it. The feeling that you had made any sacrifice for me would be painful to me. Now I know that the only sacrifice that you and your parents made during your year’s study at Frau Gerster’s School of Singing was only a matter of ten or twelve marks, and that you were unfortunately unable to appreciate the value of your tuition—for which others pay sixty marks a month—its true worth. Frau Gerster requests me to tell you that your progress is not even that of a mediocre pupil, and that even as a paying pupil you would have been expelled. Free tuition in her school is only for girls of exceptional attainments; moreover Frau Gerster was extremely surprised at the tone of your letter to me. She says that I have done more with you by my great patience in teaching you than she could have expected, for otherwise you would have been dismissed from her School of Singing several months ago. How could you expect me to recommend you to any other member of the staff in the school when Herr Bake found your industry unsatisfactory.?
With all good wishes for your future, Fräulein Lehmann, and kindest regards
I am, yours sincerely,
A Pair of Miracles
What to do now? Lotte and Fritz searched the want ads. Perhaps she could be a companion to some older lady and sing to her now and then. At least her voice would be good enough for that. Papa enrolled Lotte in the next starting session of a commercial course. Lotte rallied from her depression and rebelled. She poured out her troubles and hopes in a desperate letter to Mathilde Mallinger, begging for a chance to study with her. Mallinger had been Richard Wagner’s first Eva in Die Meistersinger—she had even helped him “compose” it, having playfully added a trill to the phrase that closes the ensemble at the end of the Prize Song (Wagner was delighted and wrote that trill into his score). King Ludwig II of Bavaria called her his “immortal Elsa.” She had been a star in Berlin and Bayreuth. Now she had a singing class in Berlin. Lotte put her whole heart and soul into that letter.
Papa had never been so angry. How could she be so stubborn? Did she think that all those experts were wrong? Such a letter would surely be the waste of a stamp. Lotte made up her mind that if this letter failed to help, she would never ask her father to invest another penny in her voice. The letter—to the “Royal Prussian Kammersängerin and Professor Mathilde Mallinger”—was dated January 9, l909.
There were long weeks of suspense. Lotte shuddered as the deadline for the commercial school drew near. Finally there came a reply, written on February 18th; it was brief, simple, and offered to hear Lotte and “get acquainted.”
Mallinger was a kind of miracle. Lotte’s voice began to blossom and grow. She felt free. That was the way she had always dreamed that singing could be. Mallinger had lots of temperament; when impatient with Lotte she was quite capable of throwing things around—she was after all a prima donna. One day she shouted: “Learn how to darn socks, you silly goose! You’re totally untalented!” But her annoyance was never more than momentary. On other days, her praise would be equally exaggerated. Basically she was very kind and motherly. Lotte loved her dearly and thought of her always with deep gratitude.
Mallinger taught Lotte that expression must come from inside, that the heart must participate in the art of singing. She was far in advance of her era, actually very modern in her concept of acting, in her disdain for stereotypical gestures and poses.
Decades later, in an interview for The Étude, Lotte recalled her work with Mme. Mallinger:
Under her freer and more natural methods of instruction, my voice developed, my inhibitions left me, and I found my way into a career. I do not presume to say even now that the Gerster studio methods were “wrong” and Mallinger’s “right.” I say only that they were “wrong” and “right,” respectively, for me. And that experience made me extremely wary about expressing an opinion as to the absolute value of any “system.”
Mme. Mallinger’s art lay in presenting the work in the way that was most understandable, not to her, but to the pupil. You see the difference? A teacher may have a fixed goal in mind and she herself may approach it in a very definite way. But that does not mean that her way is the only way. She must be mentally flexible enough to think up a number of ways of approaching the same goal. Mme. Mallinger did that. In teaching me, for instance, she soon saw that I became confused by a too frequent “don’t” or “you must not,” while I learned quickly where the goal was presented to me in such a way that I could visualize it as a finished whole. For example, she never said to me, “Raise your right arm,” or “sing forte,” or “take three steps to the left.” No. That made me at once turn to stone. She would say, “The character wishes at this point to give extra emphasis to her words. How will she do it?” And I would answer, “By a gesture.” And then I’d make that gesture in my own way. Or she would say, “Here the emotion becomes more intense. How would you normally give voice to greater intensity?” And, as a matter of simple reasoning, I would sing forte.
Personally, I believe that this is the only way to work. Indeed, if a singer cannot accustom herself to plotting her own effects, based on her own conception of human values, she is out of her sphere in dramatic art. I always work from the inside out. In coaching with my accompanist, I proceed as Mme. Mallinger did, never touching on material results, but trying always to make such material results the only natural outcome of human feeling. After all, it is not especially important for a singer to wax forte in one place or to raise her arm in another. The important thing is to express the emotions of the song or the part. And the fortes and the gestures must come as the natural result of your personal delineations of a character.
Baron Konrad zu Putlitz paid for the lessons, another “miracle.” Her letter thanking “his Excellency” led to an invitation from his wife to meet the family at their home. Thus began a close relationship with the Putlitz family that was to play an important part in Lotte’s life. The baroness became a sort of second mother, advising Lotte on appropriate clothes and many such matters and guiding her through the intricate social codes of the day. Lotte made friends with the two daughters, Erika—who was about Lotte’s age—and Elisabeth. As for the baron, Lotte wrote of him as “goodness personified, always a little vague and absent-minded—for he had a poet’s nature.“
Erika recalled their first meeting with Lotte:
…So Lotte came promptly to tea at our home, and my sister and I were very eager and very curious to meet this new protégée of our parents. Now Fräulein Lehmann was standing there in front of us in her simple white blouse and dark skirt. Her blond braids were twined around her head and tied in front with a little black ribbon. Her big blue eyes looked at us shyly, almost frightened, and her movements were uncertain and inhibited. I was only a bit younger than our guest; I believe Lotte was about twenty years old. Immediately I felt drawn to Fräulein Lehmann, and so began our friendship, which has been such a blessing in both of our lives. At the tea table everything was discussed…
Baron Konrad zu Putlitz agreed to pay for a year of study with Mathilde Mallinger and then to help Lotte find an engagement at one of Germany’s opera houses.
The following August, while Frau Mallinger was on vacation on Starnberg Lake, Lotte was invited to Gross-Pankow, the Putlitz family estate at Retzin-Prignitz.
It was a glorious, merry summer. Lotte soon had copper-red cheeks and a peeling nose. So mother insisted that she should wear a big straw hat to protect her beautiful skin. Mother also took care to provide appropriate clothes for her….
In Midway in My Song, Lotte luxuriates in memories of that long-ago summer:
The whole milieu of the castle was again quite new to me. There was, I believe, no better housekeeper than Baroness Putlitz. The whole day was mapped out, and who would not have gladly submitted to the dear maternal severity of those eyes? Oh how good this precise division of time was for me, slightly spoiled by an overindulgent mother and generally arranging things as I though good. But here it was 7 a.m., Morning Prayers. Everyone, including the entire staff of servants, had to be assembled punctually to the minute. Those summer weeks, followed later by others every year, made me an early riser, for it was a very bad thing indeed to come in late! The look the contrite sinner got prevented him from repeating it ever again…. And then came the morning tasks: when the weather was good, we had to work in the garden, pull up weeds, pick currants, fetch flowers for vases and strip lavender, which was then put in linen bags and perfumed every cupboard. When it was wet, there was always sewing on the veranda…. But again how shaming it was when the Baroness with a reproving look picked up some discarded cotton and carefully used it up to the last little shred.
In the afternoons we would drive through the fields with the Baron himself at the reins, and it was the greatest honor to be allowed to sit beside him on the driver’s seat and be put through a cross-examination. —“What are those?” —“Oats.” —“Wrong: barley. You’ll never learn, I’m afraid. You’ll only be able to sing. You’ll never know anything about the cultivation and uses of lupines, but you’ll always go into raptures over the sweet perfume of their lovely yellow flowers, won’t you?”
“Perhaps Lotte will soon be all perfumed herself,” Erika prophesied. “She will powder the nose that shines in the sun today and will go rustling about in silk petticoats.”
The Baroness cast me a look of motherly solicitude. “Thank Heaven she won’t get very high fees to start with. So that will cut out any rustling for a while,” she said vigorously. I laughed and promised neither to rustle nor to use perfume or powder.
The other Baron Putlitz, Konrad’s brother Joachim (the Intendant of the Stuttgart Court Theatre for whom Lotte had auditioned while still at the Etelka Gerster School), happened to be there as well, with his wife and daughters, Dora and Adrianna. One morning he asked her to sing for him again and specifically requested the piece that had so impressed him before, Agathe’s aria from Der Freischütz. Lotte’s heart sank. She hadn’t looked at that music for months. Here is her description of that day as she wrote it to her family:
I sat there totally turned to stone and stared at him in horror. He immediately turned a degree or two cooler and asked: “Don’t you want to?” I stammered something about being “unprepared.” But the Baron [Konrad] was making anxious signals at me from the background, so I quickly added “yes.” I felt as if I were condemned to death. I was dreadfully sure that all would now be over, because how could I get up and sing the great Freischütz aria, knowing it would be all rusty and full of mistakes? I went inside to practice feverishly. The Putlitzes were touchingly kind. Baron Konrad comforted me by saying that the Intendant is actually quite unmusical, that he can only hear through experience whether a voice is effective or not. Little mistakes slip by him completely unnoticed. If I had refused to sing for him I would have ruined his impression of me forever. By evening I was half dead from fear. Both daughters of the Intendant were charming to me. Dora, the one who is sick, is especially delightful. She kept holding my hand for a whole half hour, saying, “the main thing is that you become calm.” Erika gave me a glass of heavy, old Malaga, and that had its effect too. I sang exceptionally well, without an atom of anxiety. Everyone was enthusiastic. Especially the wife and daughters of the Intendant. Erika told me in confidence that they are the actual “Intendant“…well, I have them entirely on my side. Dora gave me a picture of herself, she’s enormously fond of me. The other one, Adrianna, threw her arms around me, and as we were getting ready to drive home she wrapped me so snugly in covers that I could scarcely breathe.
Lotte’s vocal progress soon reached the point where she was encouraged to start learning entire operatic roles. Her first was Agathe in Der Freischütz, the very prototype of a German heavy lyric soprano (called jugendlich-dramatisch, young-dramatic, Lotte Lehmann’s voice type throughout her career). Her coach for repertoire was Arthur Arndt, who also provided help and advice along the way. Lotte gave singing lessons herself to two or three pupils. That way she could earn a little pocket money (at one mark a lesson).
On October 24, 1909, Lotte sang in a charity concert in Perleberg. It was the first time she had returned to her old hometown since the family had moved to Berlin. She sang eleven numbers, including two excerpts from Lohengrin and two Schubert lieder. Already in this first recital the reviewers mentioned the warmth of feeling for which she was later so famous:
…Miss Lotte Lehmann develops more and more into an exceptionally promising artist. As a result of the noble timbre of her voice, which is pleasing to the ear even in the highest register, she was able not only to interest us outwardly but to touch us more deeply through her warmly felt interpretations, which are always kept within the limits of artistic discipline and refined taste.
Although the reviewer was on the staff of a provincial newspaper, his observations foreshadow the impressions of many a leading critic in the future.
After about a year Mallinger sent Lotte around to the agents. Accustomed to singing teachers’ recommendations, they tended to ignore her. Mallinger told her she should put on a few prima donna airs. Lotte was too natural and down-to-earth to even think of trying to bring that off.
Meanwhile she needed dramatic training. Mallinger sent her to Felix Dahn, stage director at the Royal Opera House in Berlin. With him she studied the role of Agathe from the actor’s point of view. The part includes a good deal of spoken dialogue. Lotte, who had always loved reciting plays in her elocution classes with the text in front of her, felt naked and clumsy without the book in her hand. Then there was the visual, the physical side of acting. “Here I stood helpless in an empty space and suddenly had two arms too many and two legs getting in my way.” Lotte always thought of herself as having been terribly awkward and self-conscious during her early efforts to act. If there was a step or two on the stage she felt sure she would stumble. Yet her efforts must finally have been pleasing to Herr Dahn, for he wrote to a number of theatres on her behalf and recommended her to Carl Harder, director of the very important E. Drenker Theatrical Agency.
Frau Mallinger and Herr Dahn considered Lotte to be ready now for a first engagement. Baron Konrad zu Putlitz advised her against accepting his brother’s offer of a beginner’s contract at Stuttgart. Her colleagues would suspect favoritism, in view of her friendship with the family of the Intendant, and would resent her. The theatre at Rostock expressed an interest; but Lotte would have had to supply her own costumes, and they would have been too expensive, considering the more than modest salary she would receive there.
Suddenly an exciting prospect materialized. An entrepreneur with grandiose ideas and—as it turned out—shaky financial support, a certain Max Halpern, arranged to take a company of German singers on tour to Romania and Bulgaria to present a series of German operas for the first time in those countries. Among the singers were two stars, Rudolf Berger, from the Royal Opera of Berlin, and Marie Rappold, from the Metropolitan in New York. Lotte would be engaged to sing small roles; but Halpern was so taken with her that he spoke of the possibility of Marguerite and Micaëla as well! Dahn was responsible for this offer. Both he and Mallinger were strongly in favor of accepting it. Papa, on the other hand, was not so sure. Understandably, he wanted assurance that his inexperienced young daughter would be safe in far-off lands among free-and-easy theatrical types (whose wives would probably be left back home). Lotte tried to convince him and the baron that this would be a fabulous opportunity to make up for her lack of ensemble training, and to get stage experience singing with an orchestra among seasoned professionals. The baron wrote to the German ambassador in Bucharest, who made inquiries as to suitable, safe lodgings for a young lady there. Finally Papa asked the conductor, Edmund von Strauss, who had been signed for the tour, whether on his honor as a father he would give his consent to his own daughter. At that gentleman’s “decided negative” everyone in the family but Lotte breathed a long sigh of relief. And a good thing too. The entire enterprise collapsed in Sofia. The death of King Edward VII of England put the other courts of Europe into official mourning and kept influential society out of the theatres. Without their patronage neither Bucharest nor Sofia was large enough to support a season of foreign opera. The tour ended in scandal and ruin. Lotte would have found herself out of funds and stranded far from home.
There was an audition in June with the director of the Hamburg opera, Herr Geheimrat (Privy Counselor) Max Bachur. In July came the signed contract, her first ever. A landmark. It was of course a beginner’s contract. That meant small roles and corresponding pay (three years at 200 marks a month the first year, increasing by 100 each of the next two years).
Many years later, the accompanist of that audition, Carl Gotthardt, recalled the sound of her voice:
She had a voice that could send chills down one’s back. A timbre of rare beauty. So silken, so lovely, so like a zephyr. It was not a powerful voice, definitely not. But then very large voices are not always beautiful—and the voice of Lotte Lehmann was simply beautiful. One can find no other word. How that was only someone who has heard her sing can judge. And in her youth. Later, in her maturity, her singing was more voluminous, more womanly, more sensual. But in those early days a young-girl freshness, an absolute naïvet??? and innocence emanated from her singing.
Her parents would not dream of letting her live in Hamburg all alone. They had heard hair-raising tales of the pitfalls of theatrical life. It was decided that Papa would retire—although that meant a sacrifice of part of the pension that had been his goal throughout his working life—and that the family would move with her to Hamburg. Only Fritz would have to stay behind in Berlin for the sake of his job. He moved into shabby quarters, always ready to put Lotte first, to sacrifice his own ambitions for what he recognized to be her greater talent. No one appreciated her achievements and her successes more than Fritz. No one was happier about her freshly launched career.