A Documentary Biography


By Beaumont Glass

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


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.