A Documentary Biography
By Beaumont Glass
(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)
The Mountains Were on Fire
It was not just the glorious view from 3,000 feet above Santa Barbara. The house itself, made of redwood and stone, was something special. An eccentric millionaire, who loved to do the impossible and had the cash to do it, built the place; Frances bought it for a song. At that rate of exchange, a Lehmann Lied might have purchased the whole mountain. The deal included a house organ fit for a cathedral, a waterfall that could be illuminated with colored lights, and 160 acres of what Southern Californians call a forest.
There was also an artist’s studio, to Lotte’s delight; she immediately began to decorate the house with her paintings. Otto Klemperer came up for a visit. He played on the organ and judged it magnificent. He was less enthusiastic over Lotte’s latest masterpieces. “Tell me,” he said, “do you really think you have any talent?” Klemperer’s manners had changed remarkably little since Hamburg days.
When all was ready, or nearly so, Lotte and Frances gave a house-warming party. Among the guests were Bruno Walter, Thomas Mann, and their respective families. Gazing out at the fantastic view, Mann said he felt as if he were standing on the moon. Later, when Lotte had moved a few thousand feet lower, he disparaged her former eyrie. Lotte, slightly offended, reminded him how enthusiastically he had compared her mountain scenery to a moonscape. “Who would want to live on the moon?” was his unromantic reply.
In one of her flushes of creativity, Lotte had painted a Mexican peon, asleep under his sombrero, on the seat of a chair. Unfortunately the paint had not yet dried when Klaus Mann, the distinguished author’s son, sat on that chair in a pair of brand-new white trousers. When he stood up, Lotte’s Mexican, sombrero and all, was neatly transferred to the seat of his pants. Everyone but Klaus was in hysterics.
The nights were hot up there, when the notorious Santa Ana wind was blowing, too hot for sleeping indoors.
Lotte and Frances moved their beds out onto the terrace and slept under the stars. Fortunately Lotte had not noticed the pair of tarantulas that were sharing the house with them. Frances surprised them one day in a love scene on the stairway, but she wisely kept her mouth shut. For all her love of animals, it is not certain that Lotte would have welcomed a tarantula as a bedfellow.
One day, not long after the house-warming, Frances saw a cloud of smoke in the distance. The mountains were on fire. The blaze became more and more spectacular, but still seemed far too far away to give cause for immediate alarm. Lotte was at her easel, on the terrace, painting Mia Hecht, her house guest. Frances noticed that the wind was blowing the sheets of flame in their direction. She began to pace about nervously, and that bothered Lotte at her work. From time to time flecks of ash would drop onto the wet paint of the embryonic portrait, another impediment to artistic concentration.
Lotte wrote about the fire in an unpublished piece called The Mountains Are Burning:
We did not realize the danger in a California forest fire and calmly watched the spark-spewing clouds of smoke, swirling up from the horizon….Suddenly some men came running up and ordered us to vacate the house….The danger seemed exaggerated, the flames were far, far away from us, and would surely soon be brought under control. Frances asked me to drive down to town with Mia, the maid, and the chauffeur. She, however, wanted to stay there and defend our home. I was determined to stay with her—but not out of any foolhardy spirit of adventure or self-sacrifice for the sake of a comrade: it was simply a case of unenlightened ignorance.
Besides, I wanted to finish my painting….
The fire crept nearer, like a gigantic snake slithering across the ridges of the mountains….Slowly I too became anxious. Suddenly, without any noticeable warning, the nearest peak broke out in flashing, crackling flames. Frances and the chauffeur rushed to get the car and the jeep, and we squeezed ourselves in with the two dogs and a few hastily gathered essentials. As I was about to get into the car, I saw the maid with my concert gowns piled over her arm….Incorrigible optimist that I am, I found that to be a superfluous precaution and told her to take them back to the house. Even if the fire did come nearer, it seemed impossible to me that our property could be a prey to the flames. What do we have a fire department for?!
Instead of quickly joining me in the car, my friend Mia was admiring the conflagration in a sort of ecstasy and kept gasping: “How glorious! Just like Götterdämmerung!” until Frances unceremoniously shoved her into the jeep.
Our “Adagio,” a beautiful cocker spaniel, was our maid’s special darling. I don’t believe that her husband, the chauffeur, can have been especially delighted to hear her sobbing, as she hugged the dog, “If only you will be saved, only you, my Adagio.” For by then the danger was clear to everyone….
They started down the winding road to Santa Barbara, past precipitous drops already filling with dark strata of smoke. They discovered that the usual road was closed. They were forced to make a long and perilous detour along the mountain ridges, 3,000 feet high. Finally they reached the Samarkand Hotel. When Frances found out that the precious concert gowns were not in the car, she quickly made up her mind to go back and get them, despite the enormous risk. She arrived at the house just in time for the rescue. A little while later the place was an inferno. The house burned down in a matter of minutes.
Lotte concluded her story like this:
Bruno Walter made a lovely comparison between the mountain house and our present home at Hope Ranch: “The mountain place was an enchanting lover, fascinating, but not the sort you want to marry. The house you live in now is like a good, solid spouse, with whom you will live to the end of your days.”
All very well! But I was always for adventure—and the short time on that uninhabitable crag lives in my memory like an alluring dream.
Lotte needed a place where she could recover from the shattering aftereffects of paradise lost. Frances rented a house that was touted to be the very abode of tranquility. The day after they moved in, an ear-splitting hammering began. The owners of the land next door had decided to start building a house. Right next to theirs.
Another move was necessary.
An idyllic spot in the section of Santa Barbara called Hope Ranch was up for auction. Frances had already looked at it before buying the mountain house, but she was only willing to buy it if the two lower acres would be included, which at that time were not. Now those, too, were available, making six acres, sequestered from the world, with a glorious view of the Pacific. The competitors stopped bidding at ten thousand. Frances got it for eleven. Its value today must be astronomical.
She soon turned it into a Garden of Eden. It was paradise regained. She named it Orplid, after the dream-island in “Gesang Weylas” by Hugo Wolf. Lotte at last had found her home. It soon became a sort of private zoo, full of dogs and exotic birds. Their mutual love of nature and of animals was one of the strongest bonds between Lotte and Frances. It was very clear to Lotte that she had chosen the perfect companion. Frances did everything possible to make Lotte comfortable, to keep her active with new interests, to find new channels for her seemingly inexhaustible creativity.
They painted together. When Lotte was on tour she would sketch everyone in sight on the train. Then came ceramic tiles. Orplid is studded with them, operatic characters, Michelangelo-faces from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, portraits of friends, every subject imaginable. Lotte could turn out a dozen in half an hour. She could never understand why it should take two hours to fire them. Energetic as she was, even Frances could never keep up with such prolific productivity.
Then Lotte became fascinated with a new medium, glass mosaics. She would break up colored glass into small bits, and arrange them to form translucent pictures. It was a little like painting with colored light. The stained-glass effect gave a luminous beauty to religious themes.
Among her most colorful creations were the pictures made of bits of colored felt. All of the Rosenkavalier characters, of course, had their portraits in felt. In the telephone alcove there was a jungle scene with a tall felt giraffe and a little felt monkey, both with telephones held to their ears. A feast-day in a German country village, a Tahitian beauty à la Gauguin, the Nativity, and an extravagantly gorgeous Christmas tree—all of those, in colored felt, helped to give Orplid an atmosphere of charm and fantasy.
The house began to grow, a process that never ended. For each new activity another sort of space was created, studios for painting and for singing, workshops, a kiln. Frances was always adding something. Aviaries for the talking mynah birds. A swimming pool. Fountains and fishponds. Terraces and winding walks through delectable gardens and groves, with a surprise at every turning.
For exercise Lotte and Frances would go horseback riding and gallop through the surf, up and down the beach. Hardy souls, they went swimming even in winter.
Here is a verbal portrait of Frances Holden by Lotte Lehmann:
She comes from a family totally dissimilar to mine: she is a regular Yankee, through and through; her family belongs to one of those that came over on the Mayflower. For twelve years she was a professor of psychology at New York University. With an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, she lives in the world of books. We are so different that all my friends—and hers too—predicted that we would part as bitter enemies after two weeks at the most.
They all guessed wrong: since the death of my husband in 1939 we have lived together in the most beautiful harmony.
Perhaps it is true that opposites attract. But in our case it is more than that often-cited theory. For we do have much in common: a great love of nature and of animals. A certain creative urge that seeks to explore and to conquer new areas of art. And best of all, we try to season life with a dash of wit and to overcome our troubles with humor….
Through the illness of a very dear mutual friend it happened that Frances came to stay with me “for a while”—and that extended till today. She is quite a wonderful person. Her character is almost faultless, I would say. It is not always easy to live with somebody so perfect. Or better said: it was not always easy. Now, after all these years, I am accustomed to it. I know that when we have an argument about the right or wrong of something, her decision is generally right….
Our life together is based on understanding of each other, and may God grant that it will continue that way.
At first, of course, Santa Barbara was just for vacations, between the seasons of singing opera in the East and recitals everywhere.
In October, 1940, Lotte rejoined the San Francisco Opera, after a three-year absence, for three highly-acclaimed Rosenkavaliers with Risë Stevens, the third in Los Angeles. That engagement led indirectly to a movie contract for Miss Stevens. Various officials of MGM caught her performance and ordered a screen test. The following summer she made a film with Nelson Eddy, The Chocolate Soldier. Lotte came to visit her on the MGM set.
While in California making movies, Miss Stevens was a fairly frequent guest at Hope Ranch. Once Lotte even painted her portrait. Another time she was invited with Bruno Walter for a day of stimulating conversations, to which the talking mynah birds made their edifying contributions, no doubt. One of them, whose name was Jocko, used to say: “I will only accept a contract from M—M.” For some reason, he always left out the “G.” Later, when Mme. Lehmann was teaching, it was quite disconcerting to visiting pupils to hear Jocko reminding them: “Time to go!” The birds had an uncanny knack for imitating Lotte’s voice to perfection. When Frances heard “Frahnces!” she could never be quite sure whether Lotte or Jocko was calling her.
There were seventeen Lehmann concert and recital bookings for the season 1940-1941, including two at Town Hall, one of which was a landmark occasion: on February 2, 1941, Lotte sang the complete Winterreise (The Winter Journey) by Schubert for the first time in her career. Among the lofty peaks of lieder, that cycle is the Everest. The twenty-four songs are steeped in winter colors, twenty-four shades of icy grey. It is a severe challenge to the artistry of a singer to keep the unwavering interest of an audience through so many songs of darkness, heartbreak, and despair, unrelieved by any happiness or humor. Lotte Lehmann held them spellbound. She found a thousand subtle variations of feeling in those haunting, wonderful songs. The following review is typical:
…The New Friends of Music made one of their most valuable contributions…when they presented Lotte Lehmann in Schubert’s immortal “Die Winterreise” cycle in Town Hall. Although in the abstract ideal these songs are more suited to a man’s voice than to a woman’s, we can think of no man appearing before the public today who could have made them more his own than did Mme. Lehmann on this occasion. And it was a memorable occasion….Seldom has the soprano been so completely in control of her abilities, seldom has she struck so deep into the heart of interpretative values…. Each song came fresh and spontaneously to the audience. The shades of melancholy, nostalgia, anguish, bitterness, and resignation passed in review and the listeners were drawn with the singer through the gamut of a poet’s emotions. To extract one memory from another in the series of impressions is well nigh impossible. To point to any song as outstanding would immediately call back another, until the entire cycle was in review….It was very near perfection…. (K., Musical America, February 25, 1941)
Olin Downes, the leading critic of The New York Times called the recital “an achievement which transmitted the very essence of the composer’s spirit.”
As usual, there was incessant travel, from Vancouver to Albuquerque, from Boston to New Orleans. Now always with that sketch pad.
There were recording sessions in February, this time for Columbia instead of Victor. The songs from Winterreise that had not been included in the Victor album were now recorded by Columbia. Combining the two albums, it is possible to hear a complete performance of the cycle. “Die junge Nonne” (“The Young Nun”) and “Der Doppelgänger” (“The Phantom Double”), by Schubert, as well as a recital of songs by Brahms, date from the sessions in March. There were more in June and July, and in August the Dichterliebe cycle with Bruno Walter.
Lotte’s season with the Metropolitan Opera consisted of five Marschallins (one of them in Philadelphia) and two Elisabeths (one in New York, one in Boston). Already the season before, Helen Traubel had begun to sing some of Lotte’s repertoire, en route to the Brünnhildes and Isoldes for which she was indispensable to the Met after Flagstad’s departure at the end of the season. A new and important arrival was Eleanor Steber, who made her debut as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. As it happens, Lotte had had to cancel that performance; but they often sang together subsequently. Later Miss Steber studied some of her repertoire with Lehmann.
Lotte rented another house in Riverdale, on Waldo Avenue, to be her home in the East. One day Toscanini decided to walk over in the snow to see her. He got lost on the way and never arrived. Picturing him with snow and ice in his windblown hair, wandering about and lost in the blizzard, Lotte could only think of the Leiermann from the last song of Winterreise (the poor demented “organ-grinder” with the frozen fingers—or was it a phantom in the snow?). The “Leiermann” became his name, for a while at least.
Frances remembers that Lotte gave her a watch that year as a Christmas present. The maid brought it to her room in a glass of water, to prove that it was waterproof.
Little events had their place beside the major matters. In America, life went on as usual.
On the other side of the world, Hitler was in charge. Between March of 1938 and June of 1940, he had swallowed up most of Europe. Austria, of course; then Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France.
Shortly after the beginning of the war in Europe, Britain broadcast a specially recorded speech of Lotte’s to Germany. She urged Germans to adhere to the ideals of free humanity. She also expressed the wish that “the old Germany could come back to life again, that Germany I love as you love it, with whom I keep faith as you do.” She concluded with the assertion that America “cherishes that old Germany and its ideology, because that has nothing to do with the Third Reich.” She was told that three-quarters of the German people would be secretly listening to that forbidden broadcast. She took that as a hopeful sign of growing dissatisfaction there. “I find that today it is a question of character whether someone voluntarily lives in Germany or not,” she wrote her friend, Mia Hecht; “I would have no sympathy with anyone who chose to go back to that band of criminals and murderers.”
On August 23, 1941, a spectacular collection of talent was assembled at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, to give a benefit concert for British War Relief and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. On a platform at one end ot the swimming pool Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein played together and individually, Lotte Lehmann and Bruno Walter offered lieder by Brahms, Schubert, and Strauss. Later there was dancing, accompanied by the orchestras of Kay Kayser, Ray Noble, and Rudolf Friml, Jr.
At the end of the Metropolitan season of 1940-1941, Kirsten Flagstad decided to return to her native Norway, which had been occupied by Germany since April 9, 1940. Understandably, if unwisely, she wanted to be at the side of her husband during that dark and dangerous time.
Fidelio had been revived for her, with Bruno Walter as conductor. Her departure left the role of Leonore open for its most logical occupant. Three performances were arranged for December, 1941, the first of them in Philadelphia, then two in New York. It was announced in the newspapers that Lotte Lehmann would at last sing one of her greatest roles at the Metropolitan Opera, under the baton of Bruno Walter.
Lotte, wisely, decided not to sing the part. It was now too late in her career. That decision must have cost her soul an agonizing struggle. For ten years, from 1927 to 1937, she had been hailed as the greatest Leonore in the world. Yet America had never heard her in her most glorious role. When she could still have sung it, was in fact singing it with enormous success in Salzburg, the Metropolitan gave it exclusively to Flagstad. That had left a scar on her heart. Should she risk it now, when the top notes were starting to give her more trouble? She would still be incomparable in the part; but there would be more effort than before as she struggled with the high tessitura of the dungeon scene and the finale. Better to leave untarnished a major contribution to the performance history of Fidelio.
What that renunciation must have meant to her can be gleaned from a letter she wrote to Walter ten years later, on March 10, 1951, after hearing his Fidelio broadcast:
Dear and so very honored Bruno — I don’t really know what to say. You were beautiful beyond description today in Fidelio—Oh, how that sounded!!! Not to mention the Leonore Overture, which was a great experience for me—but the whole thing!!! I could clearly see you, standing at your desk, and I was consumed with envy and with the glowing desire to be two decades younger, just for a little while, and to sing all other Leonores off the stage… That’s easy to say! “Everything has its time” [“Jedes Ding hat seine Zeit,” a quotation from the Marschallin’s part in Rosenkavalier]….But then there comes this music, breaking over me, stirring up all my memories, and leaving me breathless. I sat in our blooming, exuberantly colorful garden…on a typically radiant, truly Californian day…with little white feather-clouds…everything concentrated beauty. And I would have sold my soul, to be able once more to sing Leonore, to sing Leonore with you….
A thousand thanks for that painful joy today.
Die Walküre and Der Rosenkavalier were substituted for Fidelio in Lotte’s Metropolitan schedule for 1941-1942. On December 6 she was to sing Sieglinde in a Saturday afternoon broadcast performance. At the last moment she had to cancel. Astrid Varnay, who was only twenty-three and had never stood upon an opera stage before, saved the performance with all the assurance and skill of a veteran. The American musical world was astounded by the feat of a very great artist at the very beginning of her career. One week later, even more amazingly, Miss Varnay jumped in for Helen Traubel and sang her first Brünnhilde.
Her surprise debut would have been front-page news on any other day. But on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On December 11 Hitler declared war on the United States and the European nightmare became a world conflagration.
It is surprising that most Americans have forgotten—or were never aware—that Japanese submarines shelled the coast of California, near Santa Barbara, on February 23, 1942. Frances was with Lotte on tour at the time. Just before a recital at Dartmouth College on February 24, Paul Ulanowsky read in a newspaper that Santa Barbara had been bombed the night before. He kept the news from Lotte, of course, but told Frances, who was naturally frantic with worry. She could not help wondering whether their home would still be there when they returned. When she intercepted a telegram from Mia Hecht to Lotte with the message, “Deepest sympathy,” she naturally assumed the worst. The main thing, however, was not to upset Lotte before the recital. Frances and “Paulchen” were able to persuade the hotel to remove all newspapers from the lobby whenever Lotte was expected to pass through on her way to and from both her rehearsal and the recital. Lotte was at her most radiant. She had a superb success. But she could not help wondering why poor Frances—who was struggling to hide her anxiety—looked so blank and distracted afterwards. That annoyed Lotte. For all the adulation she received, she had surprisingly little self-confidence. One sour face, and she suspected a flop. She reproached Frances for her lack of enthusiasm. “What I can’t understand about you is that you’re never excited about anything.” Then Frances exploded.
The next day brought the reassuring news that Santa Barbara was still intact, despite the shelling.
Although she had applied for U.S. citizenship in 1939, Lotte found herself in the legal position of an enemy alien. A short-wave radio receiver was confiscated. There were severe travel restrictions. For every concert, she had to apply for special permission to leave her home. Sometimes that was arbitrarily denied by this or that ignorant official. Once Frances, in despair, telephoned the officer in Sacramento who was in charge of alien affairs and asked him what he would do in Lotte Lehmann’s place with a contract for a concert and no permit to travel to the concert hall. “I would just pack my toothbrush and leave,” was the honest, encouraging hint.
A worse problem for Lotte was a sudden, sharp falling-off in her recital dates. The season 1941-1942 was, of course, already set before the war began. It included twenty recitals, eight of them with Melchior, as well as orchestra concerts in Pittsburgh (Rosenkavalier excerpts with Reiner) and Indianapolis (with Fabien Sevitzky). Then there was the Met, seven performances (two of them in Boston, her last Met tour), and San Francisco (two Rosenkavaliers, one of them in Los Angeles).
Of those twenty recitals, five were in New York City!
The next season was dismal in comparison. Only five recitals in all (two of them at her own expense): one each in San Francisco, Buffalo, and Boston; two in New York. The rest of the country was apparently not especially eager to hear German lieder that year. Moreover, travel conditions were chaotic during wartime. And Lotte, as an “enemy alien,” was deprived of her former freedom of movement. For Lotte and Frances that season was a financial disaster.
The Met wanted Lotte to sing the Marschallin in Cleveland during their 1942 tour, but she had other commitments at that time and wrote Edward Johnson, then the General Manager, the following cheeky—or, better, tongue-in-cheeky—letter:
Dear Mr. Johnson:
Since you seem to like formalities very much and have written me such a formal letter, I will try to become also a formal member of the Metropolitan Opera House. I must confess that this is a “premiere” for me—but I took my lesson.
So I have the pleasure to inform you that I am willing to sing on the 24th of March the “Sieglinde” and on the 27th of March the “Marschallin” in Boston, but that under no circumstances am I willing to sing on the 9th of April the “Marschallin” in Cleveland.
…Since my contract provides for mutual agreement as to dates, I remind you that I was asked very early, many weeks ago, when you were first considering the tour, and I said already then “No.”
So nothing on earth can force me, not even you, yes, not even your smile can seduce me to say “Yes” to Cleveland.
In spite of the fact that we all seem to hate each other, I send you and Mr. Ziegler as usual much love, and I am
but officially very determined,
Around that time, the Met asked its leading singers to fill out a questionnaire, presumably for publicity purposes. Lotte’s answers were often uniquely Lotte:
Q: What is your favorite dish? A: Filet mignon
Q: Can you cook it? A: No, for heaven’s sake!
Q: Which foods do you dislike? A: Onions and garlic (Pfui.)
Q: Who is your favorite movie star? A: Micky Mouse, Cleo the goldfish
Q: Do you want your children to follow in your footsteps?
A: My dog does not like music…
Q: What is your height? A: 5 feet 8
Q: Your weight? A: Are you crazy?
Q: What are your antipathies? A: Questionnaires
At the Met, season 1942-43, beside three Marschallins, Lotte sang her last Elisabeth on February 1 (it was noted that she omitted the high B in the entrance aria), and her last Sieglinde (except for excerpts) on February 16. Rose Bampton and Astrid Varnay were now also singing many of her former roles.
A letter to Mia Hecht tells how Lotte felt about that final Sieglinde:
…It is simply too tiring for me now. I am too old, I have lost some of my strength, and I cannot risk endangering my voice with such extravagances. Therefore I have canceled the performance announced for the 27th and will never sing Sieglinde again. She has disappeared from my repertoire, which now consists only of the Marschallin and Elisabeth… The first act was perfect, I was in glorious voice and was emphatically applauded by the audience. The second act nearly killed me; and in the last act I drowned in the ocean of orchestral sound, struggling along with the last remnants of my voice… My vocal technique is so adapted now to the more delicate requirements of lieder that it is a crime even to attempt anything so dramatic….
Her Elisabeth, however, could still inspire critical superlatives:
…Lotte Lehmann, who put herself on record in Town Hall recently as the season’s First Lady of Lieder, just about won the same title for opera with her performance of Elisabeth. Whether heard or seen, the role lived. Every note and line sounded human and needed. Mme. Lehmann seemed to forget she had ever sung any other part, even that she was Lotte Lehmann. For three acts she was Elisabeth, ailing and pleading for her hell-bent Minnesinger. Such acting is rare, whether in opera or theatre, and the more brilliant because bound by musical pace. In awkward waits between sequences Mme. Lehmann went on living Elisabeth in thought and gesture, not just priming for the next cue. It was a tender and womanly portrait… The notes weren’t just notes, but tokens of feeling growing out of a deep-felt conflict… The audience duly noted the great portrayal set before it…. (Louis Biancolli, The New York World-Telegram, February 2, l943)
Four days later the same critic wrote an editorial on acting in opera:
…Mme. Lehmann’s Elisabeth looked fit to rank with the [legitimate] theatre’s best efforts. The singer fully identified herself with the plight of Wagner’s heroine. From the moment she chanted a greeting to the Hall of Song, she seemed intent on sustaining a complete illusion of life. Down to the last gasp of prayer she remained the saintly Elisabeth. By then you forgot a prima donna was singing a part. Elisabeth was merely being Elisabeth, having miraculously borrowed the art of Lotte Lehmann to make herself understood.
Along with the raves there were some serious criticisms as well. The following is from Jerome D. Bohm’s column, “Singers and Singing,” from The New York Herald-Tribune (mid-October 1942):
Mme. Lehmann did not reach the Metropolitan until she was well past her prime. It was not until January of 1934 that the illustrious German soprano’s operatic gifts were first revealed to New York audiences, although Vienna and Berlin had long before recognized her extraordinary abilities.
Mme. Lehmann may be said to be a singer who has triumphed despite the handicap of a faultily produced voice. Of course, it must at once be added that the timbre of the voice is highly individual and of exceptional beauty, so that even the obvious faults of production, the nasality, the pinching of the top notes and the spasmodic breathing have not prevented Mme. Lehmann from achieving a truly distinguished career.
But Mme. Lehmann’s hold on her devotees can be attributed only partially to the entrancing quality of her voice. For had she been unable to make one forget the technical hindrances which mar her vocalism she could not have attained her present distinction. She is one of the very few singers who are equally impressive in opera and recital. Her imaginative gamut is so comprehensive, her musical insight so perceptive, that she can one evening portray with the utmost conviction the sufferings of Wagner’s Elisabeth or Sieglinde and the next night leave the trappings of the operatic stage behind her and convey with equal impressiveness the intimate poetry of the lieder of a Schubert or a Wolf.
If Mme. Lehmann is wise, however, and wishes to preserve as many as possible of the still persuasive aspects of her art, she will in the future eschew the rigors of operatic singing and devote herself exclusively to the interpretation of lieder, a sphere in which she has few peers. Even when I first heard her abroad some twenty years ago she already experienced difficulty in emitting free, effective top tones. Nowadays Mme. Lehmann’s efforts to attain the altitudes of such roles as Elisabeth and the Marschallin are less and less being crowned by success. Mme. Lehmann would profit by taking a leaf from the book of Hofmannsthal’s philosophical princess and realize that in opera as well as in love the Marschallins must make way for the Sophies.
Lotte gave up the house in Riverdale. From then on, Santa Barbara was her home, and she tried to keep her seasons in the East short and concentrated, so as to minimize the expense of living in hotels.
She began to teach. At first it was her colleagues who came to her for coaching. Among them were such distinguished, well-established artists as Rose Bampton, Eleanor Steber, and—briefly, for lieder—Risë Stevens. Dorothy Maynor—a colleague in the concert sphere if not in opera—also studied with Lotte, as did Anne Brown, the original Bess in George Gershwin’s only opera, Porgy and Bess.
Rose Bampton offered these memories of Lotte Lehmann in an interview with the author in January 1986:
When I was asked to sing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser for the first time, I remembered Lotte in that role and longed to study it with her; but I didn’t dare to ask her. Constance Hope said: “Why don’t you go and speak with Lotte? She could just talk to you about the part.” So I took along a flower and went to her hotel. She was so wonderful! Speaking with her about the role made everything so much clearer to me.
Pelly [Wilfred Pelletier, Miss Bampton’s husband] and I had heard her Fidelio in Salzburg with Maestro Toscanini, and had both wept. And now this chance to speak with her!
I often sang in Buenos Aires, at first Kundry, Italian parts, and Armide in French; then they asked me to do more German roles. I just knew I’d first have to go out to California and work with Lehmann for about a month before my next South American season. I had not yet performed those German parts and I needed her guidance, especially after I had felt the results after our talk about Tannhäuser.
I stayed in a little hotel in Santa Barbara and went out to Hope Ranch every day. I spent most of the day with Lotte, and sometimes most of the evening too. She was a very great inspiration to me! Every night, when I went back to my room after a lesson, I would write down on that hotel stationery everything I could remember that she had said about the interpretation of the role we were working on. The next day I would come back to her full of enthusiasm—and then realize how much I had missed, how much I hadn’t written down, how much I had forgotten. That night: back to the writing desk! Soon I had reams of notes. I carried them with me for years, wherever I went to sing those roles. I kept going back to those papers, and each time it was like being with her again at Hope Ranch and having her talk to me.
I studied Sieglinde, Elsa, and Eva with her that time. Eva wasn’t easy at first. You know how Eva says: “The trouble I have with these men!” Well, Lotte would say about me: “The trouble I have with this Eva!”
When she acted out certain parts of the role for me, she was just like a young girl! It was such a revelation, what she made me feel about that part!
Rehearsing Eva in Buenos Aires, the director started to laugh at me. “Rose,” he said, “this is Evchen, not Sieglinde! You’re crossing the stage in three strides! Evchen is not a mythological heroine, she’s a young girl!” I realized I had forgotten my lesson. I went back to my notes and they put me right back into Lotte’s studio again.
While I was in Buenos Aires I was asked to sing the Marschallin. Jarmila Novotna, a great Octavian, was there too. But I said: “No, I can’t do it this year.”
“Why not?” they wanted to know. “We’d give you all the coaching, and you would have a wonderful director.”
“Because I haven’t worked with Lotte Lehmann yet. Until I’ve worked with her on that role of all roles, I won’t feel I know it.”
So I didn’t do Rosenkavalier that year. In a sense that made me sad, for I would have loved to do it with Novotna. But I had seen Lehmann in the part; and that had been such an unforgettable experience that I knew I would have to study it with her.
When I was acting out the end of the first act for Lotte, I did what I had always seen her do in that touching postlude, when she lets the mirror slip out of her hand. That was a famous moment in her interpretation. But she stopped me. “No,” she said, “you may not copy me! It’s very nice; but you must never copy anything I do. It must come from within you. You must find a way to do it that is from you.”
Nevertheless, that gesture seemed so natural and so right, that I confess to using it after all, when I performed the Marschallin. I couldn’t help feeling it had to be like that.
Sieglinde was another problem. I was very straight-laced; I was brought up that way. One day she was absolutely furious with me. “Oh, you’re too much the lady! That has nothing to do with what you’re singing! Do you love Pelly? I don’t think you know the least thing about love!”
“Well, I certainly do love Pelly, and whatever I know about love is my private business.”
“Oh, that’s where you make a great mistake!” she told me. “Everything that you know about life—all your experience of life—has to come out in the part you’re doing; and if you are in love with Siegmund, you have to show that love! Why don’t you just pretend it’s Pelly?”
For some people, that approach might be too personal; but she had to work that way with me, because I had too much restraint.
I also studied lieder with her, when I was preparing a Town Hall recital. What an insight she had into the poetry! I had previously studied with Elena Gerhardt, another great lieder singer, who was of course completely different, much more restrained in expressing her emotions. When I came to Lehmann it was just a whole new world! With Gerhardt the musical line was everything; with Lotte there was first the poem.
Her approach has naturally influenced me in my own teaching. You know how so many of the youngsters just stand there doing nothing until it’s time to open their mouths. I have to remind them that the song begins with the first notes of the accompaniment and ends with the last notes of the postlude.
Lotte was also marvelous as a friend, so open and giving! She had a very great influence on my life…. She did a little portrait of me on a ceramic tile. It is very precious to me.
Jeanette MacDonald was another famous star who studied with Lotte Lehmann. She had sung scenes from Roméo et Juliette, Tosca, La traviata, Faust, and Les Huguenots in such immensely popular moving pictures as Rose Marie and Maytime with Nelson Eddy, and San Francisco, with Clark Gable; but she had not yet sung an opera on the stage.
It was Constance Hope who suggested to Miss MacDonald that she study with Lotte Lehmann, to “put the cherry on top of the sundae,” as she phrased it.
Lotte and Jeanette MacDonald began working together in the summer of 1944, to prepare the role of Marguerite in Faust for some performances with the Chicago Opera. After their first two-hour session, Miss MacDonald telephoned Constance and told her that the lesson with Lehmann had been a revelation, “as if I had been in a dark room and suddenly a window was opened and sunshine flooded all around me.”
After their work together, Lotte wrote:
…There is nothing that could give me more satisfaction than to think that I really help you to develop what is hidden in your soul: I cannot make you a great artist if you are not one with all your being. And you are: it is almost miraculous how quickly you are able to bring to life what has up till now only slumbered in your heart. You have always much too much been concerned about the technique of singing. And also the fear to “overdo” has held you back. Seeing what you are able to do after such a short time, I don’t doubt that the possibilities are almost unlimited for you, especially as a concert singer.
And before Miss MacDonald’s first performance in Faust:
…My heart is with you on your Tour—and especially in Chicago with your performance of Marguerite. I will be at least as nervous as you. Please, please, don’t forget to be very, very simple in the beginning! The first entrance is so difficult—and so damned important…. Don’t make gestures—you easily do here—and it looks very artificial. And don’t forget to turn your face quicker to the audience. They want to see you. I can’t blame them, by the way.
Miss MacDonald shared with Lotte her impressions of the rehearsals and first performance of Faust in Chicago:
[except some sentence and place these letters complete in Appendix ???]
I will only give you a sketchy picture of the operas for I could write a book on just my couple of weeks’ experience—I’ll cut out all the problems about Roméo (including breaking in a chap who had never sung the role before [Marine Captain Michael Bartlett]). I’ll just tell you a bit about Faust—Sang R&J Saturday the 11th and Sunday noon had a piano rehearsal with Maestro [Fausto] Cleva. He raced me through it like a bolt of lightning and stopped me on every little sixteenth note or breath; it was very disconcerting and I felt very much like a pupil whose teacher has just about come to the end of his rope in patience. I wasn’t sure whether to cry or get mad and make a rude remark but decided that was what the old boy wanted me to do so I did neither. I simply “yessed” him with a smile and secretly called him a dirty name! The tempos were so shockingly fast I was worried that I would ever be able to act the role and when I mentioned a couple of places that I took a bit slower he said I would have to follow him and that this is the way he does it. When I left I was burning with indignation and not a little worried about the outcome but he did pay me the compliment of admitting I knew the score thoroughly… Thank God! Monday at 11 a substitute tenor went over the business of the garden scene with Bergman. Much was changed but I recalled your message and it is true that the actual business doesn’t in the least affect the characterization. I found B very charming and he even liked the idea of having the nun succor me in the church scene. Next morning at 10:30 orchestra rehearsal with Pinza and the same substitute tenor (Raoul Jobin, who was scheduled to be there, had a recital the night before and Cleva forgot to get him out on the train after the concert, hence he was unable to be at the orchestra rehearsal). At this rehearsal it was discovered that all the entrances and exits given me the day before were wrong; and since Mr. Bergman had had an argument with one of the directors the night before, he had taken the train for New York. With the orchestra the tempos slowed down somewhat and I only missed a couple of places by a breath! After the rehearsal I went home and expected a call all afternoon from Jobin who didn’t get in till later in the evening, at which time I had gone to bed. He came to my hotel at 1 p.m. next day when we ran throught the business and sort of hummed the parts. I must confess I was very apprehensive of the performance, but he assured me he would guide me if I started to do anything too wrong. I didn’t! I was on stage a bit too soon on my first entrance—which necessitated my filling in some time, so I forgot to be too nervous. I may add that the stage manager sent me on! Garden scene went extremely well—Jewel Song got wonderful reception and I was not too displeased (though I am always one to be utterly miserable if every little thing doesn’t go exactly as I want it to). The church scene was so changed that I had to cut the pillar bit and made a flagrant error in my lyrics “Dieu, quelle est cette voix qui me parle dans l’ombre?” I really don’t know what words I sang, but no one was any the wiser but the prompter, who almost had a baby; but when I came in with the right phrase next he was quite relieved. This act got quite an ovation. The nun was eliminated because they forgot to have anyone make arrangements to get a nun’s outfit from Il trovatore, so some females came to me—all grabbing at different parts of my anatomy! The scene with Valentin was perfect as I never did have a rehearsal with him and so did as I damn pleased. Oh! I forgot to mention: some friends told me the church scene made them cry. The prison scene was splendid except that I couldn’t shake the tenor. I literally pushed him away from me a couple of times but he always came pawing back at me and finally for the trio I got down on my knees for I knew he couldn’t follow me there. It worked and also proved effective. The audience missed nearly all of the “pourquoi ce regard menaçant, etc.,” because the ovation was so great. I think you would have been pleased, Lotte, and wish you could have been there to point out the good and bad spots. It was however really like a good dress rehearsal for me and now I really want to DO IT…. By the way, I gave the critic Claudia Cassidy an interview in which we discussed you…. Everyone is scared stiff of her and for me to have won her approbation seems to have been nothing short of a miracle…. Give my best to Miss Holden and my love and gratitude to you, for without the careful coaching I should never have been able to cope with everything, and above all you have given me a confidence I have never had before and I will forever be grateful for that.
After Lehmann’s painstaking attention to every detail of characterization, to every nuance of feeling, it came as quite a shock to come into contact with the “real” world of instant opera. The following excerpts from a letter written to Lotte on July 19, 1945, give Miss MacDonald’s impressions of a production of Faust in Cincinnati:
We had a couple of mishaps—a result of inadequate preparation. The way these things are thown together is appalling. There was at no time any attempt to rehearse the stage business—not a sign of a prop. When I asked the (so-called) stage director what the sets would look like, and where the benches, door, etc., would be, it was as though I had committed a faux pas. The truth of the matter was that he didn’t know himself, and it wasn’t until the actual performance (before each act) that I was able to find out, and could look the situation over. I might add that I even took the liberty of placing the furniture for my own convenience! Actors and actresses had no idea which side of the stage they were going to be on until the time arrived. The Church Scene was an unholy mess, with the chorus picking up the wrong cue for the prayer, which meant that the orchestra and I were doing one thing and they were singing another. It was pretty ghastly….The prompter had left his box to play the organ backstage, and the stage manager was in his place. He, in turn, knew no more about prompting than your little Mausi [one of Lotte’s Pomeranians]. So, all in all, the effect must have been like a cat-and-dog fight. Ultimately, however, the chorus, realizing I had stopped singing, took their cue and stopped also. I then proceeded with the orchestra alone. At any rate, I won!
[For the complete letters, see Appendix ???]
Quite a contrast to Toscanini’s sixty rehearsals of Die Meistersinger at Salzburg in 1936!
After their work on operatic roles, Jeanette MacDonald returned to study lieder with Lotte, who was surprised at her aptitude for an art-form so far removed from her usual repertoire.
One evening Lotte invited Jeanette and her husband, Gene Raymond, for dinner. The maid of the moment was excited all day at the thought of seeing such celebrities up close. Lotte told Jeanette the girl was a fan of hers and would be deliriously happy to serve her. When the maid came in, the lovely screen star flashed her famous smile. Perversely, the maid made a point of ignoring her. The MacDonald smile was beginning to freeze, but still the maid never cast a glance in her direction and went stiffly about her business. When she had clumped out for the last time, Lotte and her guests had a hearty laugh.
After the lean harvest of 1942-1943, Lotte changed managers. Coppicus, of Columbia Concerts Corporation, ascribed his failure to secure more Lehmann bookings to her standing refusal to attend social functions after her recitals. He claimed to have received many complaints over the years from disgruntled local concert promoters. That may well have been true. But Lotte had already suspected for several years that he was really not doing everything he could to get her dates. She transferred her allegiance to Marks Levine of the National Concert and Artists Corporation (NCAC). It was he who conceived the idea that she should sing an annual series of three Town Hall recitals, each featuring a different composer, or a different segment of the lieder repertoire. Those recitals became an institution. More than anything else, they helped to consolidate Lotte Lehmann’s reputation for supremacy among the lieder singers of her era.
Levine made an immediate difference. In the first season under his management, 1943-1944, Lotte had thirty bookings, the most in years. Possibly America was suddenly less paranoid about Schubert, Schumann, and Strauss. There were seven recitals in New York City alone, five (the new series of three, plus two extras) in Town Hall, one each at Columbia University and Hunter College. New York, it seems, could scarcely get enough of Lotte Lehmann! At least in recital. Strangely, she sang no performances at the Met that season.
There was a new accompanist for Lotte’s West Coast recitals after 1943: Gwendolyn Williams, now also very well known as Gwendolyn Koldofsky, her married name. Paul Ulanowsky was so much in demand in the East, that it was more and more difficult for him to free himself for transcontinental tours, especially in wartime, when travel was unpredictable and complicated.
Once, for instance, Lotte’s plane from Toronto could not land in New York and had to return to Toronto. There seemed to be no way to get to New York for her concert. Frances, who was with her, managed to get space for them both on a troop train. They arrived just in time.
For the rest of her singing career, Lotte continued to engage Mrs. Koldofsky as her accompanist for recitals in the western states. Superb musicianship and an impeccable sense of musical style were combined in her with an elegant appearance and a sweet nature. For many years she has been a highly respected, well-loved teacher at the University of Southern California and at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where she also accompanied the Lehmann master classes in lieder while Lotte was teaching there.
Although she had heard her many times at Covent Garden, years before, Mrs. Koldofsky’s first impression of Lotte Lehmann off the stage was rather startling. It was on the lawn of the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, where Gwen had just been rehearsing for a recital with Herta Glaz. Lotte came running over in hysterics from the court house just up the street, calling for Frances. It seems she was in serious trouble with the authorities over her application form for final American citizenship papers. As usual, Frances had filled it out for her. After “race,” she had absent-mindedly entered “Aryan,” having forgotten for the moment the usual designation, “Caucasian.” The clerk happened to be Jewish. To him, the word Aryan had a suspicious odor of unregenerate German arrogance with distinctly Nazi connotations. He was about to withhold the papers, pending further investigation. Lotte was frantic. But, as usual, Frances knew how to cope. She found the right words to placate the clerk, and all was well again.
Lotte sang for the armed forces on a number of occasions. Whether at Town Hall or an army base, her warm personality, along with her voice, quickly won the hearts of her audiences, soldiers as well as civilians. After an Easter Sunday afternoon recital at Camp Roberts in California a young soldier from Texas told her: “You sing just like my mom.” In July 1944 she also sang at the Hollywood Canteen, where famous movie stars entertained the troops.
On October 15, 1944, Lotte’s first art show opened at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. One of the paintings was stolen. Lotte was thrilled. She took that as a compliment.
Later she had another show in New York. It featured her imaginative visual interpretations of each of the songs in the Winterreise and Dichterliebe cycles. (She has also made a complete set for Die schöne Müllerin.) She succeeded, often very movingly, in capturing the mood of the individual songs in striking images.
The season 1944-1945 offered twenty-one recitals, starting in November with Tucson, Arizona, and Salt Lake City. There were eight recitals in New York, counting one in Brooklyn.
After an all-Brahms recital at Town Hall, Luis Biancolli wrote eloquently of Lehmann’s special magic as a lieder singer, in The New York World-Telegram of January 22, 1945:
…Lotte Lehmann’s heart went into each number. You could feel it beat in every phrase, almost as if she had either written the song herself or lived the poem. The personal note was that strong. At times you even felt slightly embarrassed, as if suddenly you were looking into a soul and caught a confidence. Sharing that kind of feeling is probably art’s loftiest reach. There was no sense of illusion here. It sounded too real and went too deep…. Of course, Mme. Lehmann has a knack of breathing life into song that few can equal and none surpass. Possibly she does it by the simple process of forgetting herself and becoming the song. Or else through having lived the moment herself at some time…. The real Brahms, the poet of passion and pathos, writer of noble, stirring songs, is a special treat. So special, only the finest seasoned style is equal to it. And every one of these songs was warmed over in the heart, mind, and vocal cords of a great personality….
On February 17, 1945, a few days before her 57th birthday, Lotte Lehmann took leave of the Metropolitan Opera as the Marschallin. It was her only performance there that season, and the first in exactly two years. For the audience, who gave her an endless ovation, and for her colleagues, who were in tears, it was a profoundly moving occasion.
It was not her last Marschallin, however. She sang two more performances in San Francisco that fall, and again in 1946. Her Baron Ochs was Lorenzo Alvary. Risë Stevens was Octavian in 1945, Jarmila Novotna in 1946. The Sophies were Eleanor Steber and Nadine Conner.
The pathos of the final exit in Act III, of that series of final exits, is almost palpable in Lotte’s own words, here quoted from My Many Lives:
Each time when, leaving Octavian and Sophie alone together in the third act, I close the door behind me, it is as if with a smiling farewell I were closing the door upon an experience of my own.
And isn’t this really so? Isn’t each time a farewell, now that I so rarely return to the opera? I am now only a guest. I no longer feel that I belong to the colorful world of the stage. Waiting in the wings for my last entrance in the third act, I feel as a stranger to whom this fantastic world is something new.
Then I realize again with a kind of melancholy that this was once my whole life—the theatre and all that went with it. And the Vienna Opera rises before me in all its old splendor….
Here, in the wording she used in a later book, is her interpretation of the Marschallin’s Monologue:
Alone at last, she can now drop the mask of politeness, which on this of all days seems more oppressive than ever before. She despises Baron Ochs, this despicable creature who is putting out filthy tentacles to crush an innocent girl. And with that he still has the colossal impudence to insinuate that he is the one who is lowering himself.
Suddenly the Marschallin is trembling with rage. In great excitement she moves back to the other side of the stage, but stops short abruptly, her sense of humor getting the better of her and restoring her perspective. “After all, what am I getting worked up about? This is the way of the world….”
A rather lengthy prelude, this, to the superb monologue, and the less “acting” the Marschallin does, the better. The thoughts that move her are not of tragic profundity, being merely a restatement of her basic philosophy, such as that one has to take things as they come, and that nothing is ever as bad as it seems. The bride of Baron Ochs will also manage to survive somehow, will settle down after exhausting the resources of tears and rebellion, will become a good wife, will raise a brood of charming children, and will grow more realistically modest in her expectations.
Or else, and more probably, she will follow the pattern customary in her social circle, have extra-marital affairs, find happiness in someone else’s arms, sin, do penance, and be forgiven. Why get excited? That is life.
What the Marschallin should be doing here is standing quietly, half-smiling, pensive. She has learned to smile the wise smile of a woman tried and tested by life, the smile that, carved out of youth’s passionate rebellion, is one of life’s greatest and most gratifying victories. Thoughtful, she should walk over to her dressing table and sit down, hesitant, brooding. She must very definitely avoid conveying the impression of sadness; the music here is joyfully moving. Her thoughts merely touch upon past and depressing times, when she herself was unhappy in a prearranged marriage. But all that has receded into the dim, distant past, has been clarified and resolved, and now is remembered only as one remembers a sentimental song out of the past, a trifle sad, perhaps, in a sweet, warmly pleasant way.
The Marschallin recalls her own girlhood, the day when she herself, just barely out of convent school, was forced into a marriage not of her choosing. With a melancholy glance at the mirror, she seeks that youthful image of herself. “Where is the girl I used to be? Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Just barely past childhood, still dreaming and hoping—and here I am already about to grow old. The very notion seems absurd, and the Marschallin simply cannot conceive of herself as cold, extinct, finished—she, who this very night was young again in Octavian’s arms, the torrent of passionate life coursing through her veins as never before. And yet, soon no one will whisper passionate pleas into her ears, the deaf ears of an old woman. Bowed by the weight of the imagined years ahead, she imitates the people talking to each other about her. “See that one over there? That’s old Princess Resi….” There is something frightening about the idea, and in sudden panic the Marschallin grips her throat. How can this be? I am unchanged, the same as ever, with the same strong heartbeat, the same passions and desires, the dreams I dreamed as a child, even if the faces and the songs around me have changed. I am what I am, and I don’t want to turn into a living corpse.
God alone knows why it has to be so; but why do I have to see and feel it coming, with full awareness of what is happening to me? Why can’t I just imperceptibly slip from one age into another, simply accepting this as the natural course of events? Certainly I’ve learned to understand, but there are some things I’d rather not understand, and this is one of them. I don’t want to be robbed of life’s beauty and warmth, have it slip out of my grasp while I am still fully conscious of what is happening.
God, my God, I don’t understand You.
Perhaps Your ways are meant to remain hidden from us poor sinners. We simply have to accept and bear them.
This serene wisdom now marks her smile as she lifts her head. “It is how we accept and the way in which we bear it that makes the difference,” she whispers in what sounds almost like a warning to herself. She is determined to accept old age with dignity, to resign herself to the inevitable. This is her philosophy of life.
There is an off-the-air recording of the last act of the October 18, 1945, San Francisco Rosenkavalier. By that time Lehmann was leaving out the high notes in the trio. The high B natural at the end, meant to be sung first by Sophie and then by the Marschallin, without a break, had been sung by Sophie alone, for its full duration, during recent years. But now the B flat in the opening phrase was also out of reach. The orchestra played the melody while Lotte sustained a lower tone. The record is nevertheless a very touching souvenir.
The Metropolitan Opera heard her voice one more time. When Lauritz Melchior celebrated his twentieth season there with a special Gala Concert, Sunday evening, February 17, 1946, Lotte joined him in the closing scene of the first act of Die Walküre, singing over a cold. The program also included excerpts from Act II of Tristan, with Astrid Varnay, and from Act III of Lohengrin. Fritz Busch opened with the Meistersinger prelude. Melchior and Lehmann had each made their Covent Garden debuts in the season of 1924, Melchior as Siegmund. He went on to become the greatest heldentenor in the world. Lotte was his favorite Sieglinde. They had sung the twin lovers together in many great opera houses.
At the reception on stage after the performance, Lotte presented him with a caricature she had drawn of the two of them in wheel chairs, performing their 7,000th Walküre in 1976 (strange—that would be the year of her death).
When Melchior thanked Lotte for her participation, she wrote him a touching letter:
It is I who should thank you. Despite my illness, not to be with you on your honorary day, not to sing, for the last time, an act of Sieglinde (the role that I love above all others) with you, would have been unthinkable. You are right, we were the best Wälsung-pair. Do not be concerned over that word “were.” You have preserved all. You are the same. You have the very same vocal technique that you had in younger years and you combine this young art with the wisdom of experience. You are very blessed, dear Lauritz…. Ever your true Lotte.
Lotte’s final farewell to opera was a very last Marschallin, sung in Los Angeles, on tour with the San Francisco company, on November 1, 1946. When she gave that wonderful last look to Octavian she said goodbye to a part of her life.
Here, from My Many Lives, is Lotte Lehmann’s interpretation of the final scene:
The Marschallin stands in silent anticipation. She doesn’t want to make it too easy for Octavian. He should show that he is a man and is capable of handling this situation like a man. But Octavian stands between [the Marschallin and Sophie] helpless and confused. With an anxious gesture he keeps Sophie from leaving, and vainly tries to find the right words to make his feelings clear to the Marschallin. She smiles sadly as he restrains Sophie when she in her embarrassment seeks to leave the room. It has gone so far that he is afraid to be alone with her! Does he really know her so little, does he believe that it would be possible for her to reproach him? With a sigh she turns away from him….Marie Thérèse now sees that she herself must take the initiative….She takes the whole situation into her own generous hands….
Octavian is deeply touched. He shyly approaches her and says with great tenderness: “Marie Thérèse, how good you are…Marie Thérèse. I don’t know at all…” but he can go no further. The Marschallin stands absolutely motionless. She doesn’t want to hear any more. She wants no thanks, no explanations. She wants no protestations. She only wants to be left in peace. With clenched teeth she says to him tonelessly: “I also know nothing, nothing at all…” [and before “gar nix” Lehmann tightly closed her eyes.]
In this moment Octavian does not know what to do. He goes closer to her, and his whispered “Marie Thérèse” conveys pleading and protestation and searching questioning. Yes, in this moment he is so overcome by the greatness of Marie Thérèse—by her goodness, her warmth of heart—that I have always felt that she holds his fate in her hands. I believe that if in this moment she should turn to him and say: “Be mine,” Octavian would obey her. But the Marschallin is too great, too wise. She turns to him, and her eyes say—farewell.
The heavenly trio which follows is the climax of this lovely opera….The Marschallin reminds herself that she has sworn to love him in the right way. To love him so that she would also be able to love the woman for whom he would leave her. All this might seem incredible to one who has not experienced it, and yet she knows that it is the truth. There was a time when she had felt one with Octavian—yet there he stands now and belongs to that girl who is a stranger, and he will be happy with her in the way men know how to be happy.
The Marschallin knows that she is no longer needed here. With a long look at the two young people who have eyes for nothing but each other she says: “In the name of the Lord,” and leaves the room.
Neither Octavian nor Sophie has felt the Marschallin’s presence, and they do not notice her departure. They fall into each other’s arms and sing the love duet, whose simple melody is like a folk song. In a wonderful way Strauss lets this melody soar suddenly from out the waves of music as the expression of simplicity, of the feeling of being now at home, of the uncomplicated union of two beings attuned to one another.
The Marschallin, accompanied by Sophie’s father, again enters the room. Faninal seems rather overwhelmed by the benevolence with which the Princess has honored him. He goes to his daughter, enfolds her in his arms, and then with great amiability shakes Octavian’s hand. Then he turns to the Marschallin and says in a friendly and contemplative way: “That’s the way they have—the young people.”
Yes, that is it. Love and the future belong to the “young people”—and she, the Marschallin, stands here beside this old man whose daughter will be the wife of her charming young lover. With a resigned and smiling “Yes, yes,” she acknowledges the rights of youth which are no longer hers.
Led by Faninal she leaves the stage. During this time she hasn’t looked at all at Octavian—she has stood there completely “the Princess Field Marshal.” But now, with a single gesture, as she is leaving she shows the whole generosity and warm kindliness of her nature. She once again stretches out her hand towards Octavian and he kisses it with impassioned gratitude. With this gesture she seems to say to him: “Don’t be worried, I understand and—forgive…”
She goes out of the door with Faninal, leaving the two lovers alone….