A Documentary Biography
By Beaumont Glass
(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)
Exactly Like a Queen
The reopening of the Vienna Opera on November 5, 1955, was one of the happiest events in Lotte’s life.
She was invited to the celebrations as an honored guest.
In one of the last months of World War II, on the night of March 12, 1945, “Black Monday” to the Viennese, four or five high-explosive bombs and a large number of incendiary bombs had struck the roof of the opera house, destroying the stage and the fire-curtain. A frantic effort was made to save the beautiful old auditorium. But there was no pressure in the water outlets. The building burned for twenty-four hours. The majestic façade facing the Ringstrasse—the broad chain of avenues that encircles the inner city—remained standing; the main vestibule, grand staircase, foyer, and richly frescoed loggia were preserved. The rest of the interior was gutted down to the ground.
That was a night of heartbreak for the people of Vienna. Surely nowhere else in the world was a building so important to so many—even to those who had never been inside it and never hoped to be. Since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, its relative value in glory had only increased. It was the symbol of Vienna’s greatest contribution to the world: her music. Proportionately more tax money was spent on the opera in Austria than anywhere else on earth.
The rebuilding of the Vienna State Opera was a remarkable achievement. The old appearance was preserved on the outside, and is as magnificent as ever. The auditorium is all new, but traditional in its atmosphere. The reopening was a joyful, sentimental occasion for every Austrian, and Lotte was thrilled to be a part of it.
It was her first return to Europe since 1938.
Frances, as chatelaine of Orplid, stayed behind to dog-sit. Betty Mont, a friend who had been a great help and support to Fritz at the time of his stroke, was Lotte’s traveling companion. The trip began in late September with two weeks of master classes at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. There Lotte heard for the first time a young singer who soon became her protégée: Grace Bumbry, then nineteen years old and singing mezzo-soprano. “She is outstanding,” Lotte wrote to Frances; “she has to come to Santa Barbara next summer.”
The next stop was New York. Lotte had lunch with Toscanini on October 16. The next day she wrote to Frances:
Maestro has aged very much. He is really very frail, almost blind. He was pathetically happy to see me and was very flattering: “More beautiful than ever and very slender….” So he saw that!!! I am so glad that I saw him. He moved me very much.
Then came Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice. Lotte had looked forward to seeing again those places of beautiful memory. The reality was melancholy to her. The excitement was gone, perhaps irretrievably. Those places had not lost their beauty; the change was in Lotte. It saddened her to think that she might be too old to recapture the exhilaration of her gypsy days. She found herself standing before great works of art and architecture strangely numb, unmoved. Only one painting stirred her deeply: “Cristo morto,” by Bronzino, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. It had moved her many years before. When she looked at it this time she burst into tears. But nothing else seemed to speak to her.
She began to wonder if Vienna would be another disappointment.
Lotte had decided to make the trip only with great misgivings. “Never go back,” she had often been told. She knew that the older people would remember her. But for the younger generation she was only a name.
It would have been a painful experience to walk through the streets of Vienna without being recognized. I prepared myself. “Don’t be a silly prima donna,” I said to myself. “You are entirely unimportant in Vienna. Don’t forget that.”
She steeled herself and drove across the border into Austria.
Then the fairy tale began. She found out that she was the princess.
On her return, she told the story in a talk presented by the Opera Guild of Southern California on January 19, 1956, at the Beverly Hills Hotel:
We spent the first night in Villach, a small town near the border. And there I had my first taste of things to come, things which overwhelmed me and made me more happy than I can say. I was scarcely in my room when there was a knock at the door. In came the innkeeper, literally trembling with excitement, clutching a bunch of flowers which he may have taken from one of the dining room tables. He almost couldn’t talk for excitement. The fact that I was there, spending the night in his hotel, seemed to be something out of this world for him. Being recognized immediately, being greeted in such an enthusiastic way, moved me so deeply that I broke into tears. It certainly made a comic scene, both of us stammering and tears running down our faces…. I said to my friend: “If this already makes me weep, what will happen in Vienna?” The next morning our car was surrounded by people who had heard I was there and we drove away in a flurry of waving hands and shouts of joy….
We stayed two days at Semmering, a beautiful mountain resort…. An old colleague came for a visit; and before entering Vienna I was informed about all the gossip of eighteen years. How truly Vienna that was! I was told exactly what this person said to that person—and the only thing that was different was that all my old colleagues are too old for romances….
In Semmering, her old friend, Alfred Muzzarelli, the one who had found his “head tones” during the darkest days of the war, was the first of the old colleagues to pay a visit. She wrote about that to Frances:
Muzzarelli says that Vienna is going to tear me to pieces, everybody waits for me, talks of me…. We felt it already here: even the woman at the newsstand said: “What? Lotte Lehmann?” At dinner yesterday the musicians played melodies from every opera I had sung in…. It is really very touching. They certainly have not forgotten me!
Lotte’s “official” description continues:
Then, after Semmering—came Vienna.
We stayed at the Ambassador Hotel, near the Opera House. I had the so-called royal suite, the walls covered with red silk, everywhere wonderful chandeliers. I really felt like a queen….
My maids from former years had made inquiries when I would arrive. And there they were—all of them. They had decorated the door of the apartment with garlands and a big sign: “Welcome home to Vienna.” I don’t know what the hotel manager thought about the nails in the doorframe. My rooms were so filled with flowers that it was difficult to put anything down….
Eighteen years ago I had some special fans who followed me everywhere. They were young at the time and they lived, apparently, only for the pleasure of waiting for me on street corners, shouting “Hoch Lehmann!” whenever I appeared. [Hoch is the German equivalent of “long live…” or “hurray for….”] They are now middle-aged, married, have children. But there they were—with shining eyes, hands full of flowers….
You see, there is a very strong bond between the audience and the singer here, stronger than in any other country, I believe. Music is so very much a part of their lives. All the people feel music in their blood, as necessary for them as the air they breathe. And the artist who brings this music to them becomes much more than an idol—more like a part of their lives. Therefore, their adoration is a very personal one. For instance, and you will understand how deeply this moves me, in all those years some of my loyal young friends went out to the cemetery on anniversaries to bring flowers to the grave of my parents. They did that through all those eighteen years…. When I visited the grave I found candles burning and flowers covering the stone. I cannot tell you how humble and grateful I felt.
Also the ties which bind me to my old colleagues are very strong ones. They gave me a big reception. The old ones wanted to see me again, the young ones to meet me. And they wanted to thank me for some help which I had given them after the war in the time of great need. I was very moved about their appreciation of something that anyone would have done.
She could express her feelings more freely to Frances, without the fear that boasting might be construed as conceit, in the following excerpts from several letters combined:
I wish—oh, how I wish it!—you could have been there yesterday at the reception! It was quite incredible: many of the old colleagues greeted me with tears, some could scarcely speak, they were so moved. Reporters from all over the world were there who incessantly photographed me…. Just now comes a package with two marvelous hats as a present from my old hat salon. I am quite overwhelmed. How happy I am to have come here!!!
Then, still to Frances, after the gala reopening and other exciting events:
Ach, it was wonderful. It would have been a crime not to come here. I am borne as if on wings by an incredible love and adoration. That is really only possible in Vienna, this kind of loyalty! I love America, as you know, but this kind of faithful adoration is only possible here…. The people love me still as they did many years ago. Vienna appears to me in a glow of affection and wonder…. Yesterday after the tremendous reception at the Musikvereinssaal we were — — — in a bar!!! Just for a half an hour. Sensation! Applause!!! Everywhere people who recognize me instantly…. I almost drown in love and admiration! Oh, it is quite unbelievable how people on the street greet me literally in tears! This trip has made me very happy….
Returning to her talk:
On the fifth of November in the morning was the official act of the reopening of the Opera. Only invited guests were there and the house was filled with a very distinguished crowd. I sat in the box of honor with some other honorary members….
Oh, it was an unforgettable moment when the iron curtain rose; even now, in memory, it chokes me! This wonderful old house which has served only beauty, which has given joy and uplift to thousands of music-loving people, had been mute for so long. Now it will live again. Now the old times will come back again, I am sure of that. I am not one of those people who sigh for the past. Nobody is irreplaceable. Wherever some beauty dies, some new beauty is being born….
When I came downstairs at the hotel [the evening of the opening performance] it felt like old times; I knew I looked well—and you know how that can give one all the necessary poise and dignity. The whole square before the hotel was black with people who wanted to see me and there I went, exactly like a queen, through the cheering crowd!
Arriving at the Opera…we walked through a battery of cameras up to the box; and the delight with which my name was said, again and again, awakened in me a delight which certainly matched that of my old admirers.
The box was decorated with roses; and we were in a crossfire of popping flashbulbs. There we stood, side by side, Alfred Piccaver and I, who once had been, and I say this with all humility, favorites of the audience…. He is now old and I am old—but I certainly did not feel it at all at that moment….
The Fidelio performance began. Perhaps you would like to know details about the performance. I am sorry. I was much too excited really to take it in. You see, Fidelio is so very near to my heart. It is difficult for me to go into details…. The important thing was that the Vienna Opera House was alive again. Beauty had awakened out of ruins. The heart of Austria was beating again…. Oh, it is so deeply moving—people began to give money for the rebuilding of the Opera House even before they started to rebuild their own living quarters. And that is a fact! Now all the people were there, standing outside the house like a long wall. Looking at the lighted windows, listening to the radio which brought to them the splendor of Beethoven’s music, the lovely voices of the singers who will continue where we had to stop. It was not only a happy day in their lives, it was a holy day, a day of deepest thanksgiving….
I want to tell you something quite interesting: willpower is really all we need when we want to succeed. You see, I have rather bad arthritis in my knee and walking down stairs is very difficult for me. After the performance I had a moment of terrible panic. I had to walk down the stairs which were flanked on both sides with photographers and reporters. I said to myself: “This I cannot do, I cannot show them that I am so handicapped. I just have to walk as if nothing is the matter with me.” AND I DID! I just walked down as if going on clouds. I really don’t know how I did it. When I reached the ground floor my knee hurt me like the devil. But never mind that….
There were receptions… luncheons… reunions….
At the opera I heard two more performances: Don Giovanni and Die Frau ohne Schatten, which I really heard for the first time from “out front,” having always sung the Dyer’s Wife myself. The one quite exceptional voice I heard was that of Leonie Rysanek, who sang the Empress….
I must tell you about Geoffredo, my Italian chauffeur. When we came to Austria it dawned on him that I was a well-known singer. That gave him delusions of grandeur. He believed that the mere mention of my name was a kind of “Open Sesame.” For instance, he drove down a one-way street in the wrong direction. When a policeman stopped us, he said, with a theatrical gesture: “This is the car of Madame Lehmann.” The cop blushed in embarrassment: “Even Madame Lehmann cannot drive through here.”
When we went to a performance of Madame Pompadour at the Volksoper, Geoffredo told me afterwards that he had seen it too—for nothing. “I told them `Chauffeur of Madame Lehmann’ and they said `PLEASE!’ [= be my guest!]”
When, during the official reopening ceremony my name was mentioned over the loudspeakers and the people in the street broke into applause, he got up, asked with a wide gesture for quiet, and said: “Me—the chauffeur of Madame Lehmann” and got a tremendous ovation….
Ever since receiving the invitation to attend the reopening ceremonies, Lotte had worried about what might happen if she and her nemesis were sharing the same box at the opera. Fortunately for Lotte, Jeritza canceled at the last moment when she was informed that there would be no place beside her for her new husband. (Alma Mahler-Werfel, incidentally, had specified that she wanted a box of her own, with neither Lehmann nor Jeritza anywhere near her.) Lotte’s companions among the honored guests were Helene Wildbrunn, Anny and Hilde Konetzni, Maria Nemeth, Emil Schipper, Hans Duhan, and—basking in glory at her side—Alfred Piccaver.
Acording to Frances, the trip to Vienna gave an enormous boost to Lotte’s morale. She had been so afraid of finding herself forgotten. It also gave her again a taste of what it means to be a beloved prima donna. She had her devoted audience at Town Hall in New York, of course; she had inspired enthusiasm in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and almost everywhere else in America. But none of that had come close to the response of Vienna.
From that year on, she went back to Europe for a visit every year. In 1956 she invited Marilyn Horne, who had been one of her students, to sit with her in her box at the Vienna Opera. Lotte helped her make important contacts at the very beginning of what turned out to be a remarkable career. She gave her a letter to Herbert von Karajan.
While in Vienna that year, Lotte went to Hinterbrühl, the house in the country she had bought for her parents, where she and Otto had often stayed when they were in Austria. All her furniture, silverware, valuable rugs, etc., had been confiscated by the Nazis. A friend had somehow salvaged some curtains and sent them to her. Otherwise, she had lost everything. She learned that her horses and dogs had been shot. She found the place like a “ghost house, terribly run down, dreadfully sad… the walnut tree which Papa planted is a giant now… It was all very strange and uncanny.”
She paid a visit to the grave of Franz Schalk, her fatherly friend and one of the great musical influences in her life. He had died exactly 25 years before.
After the war, Lotte had initiated what was to become an agonizingly long legal struggle to get back the pension to which she felt entitled as a long-time member of the Vienna State Opera. Her contract had specified that her pension would be based upon the top salary that she had been receiving. She had, of course, been making payments into her pension account during all her years as a member of the company. The Nazis annexed Austria in March 1938, while Lotte happened to be in America. She was afraid to return to Vienna, believing—ever since Göring’s angry letter—that she would be facing arrest and possible imprisonment if she set foot on German soil. But she had a legal representative in Vienna, a Dr. Alois Klee. First, since she was still under contract to the State Opera (theoretically until 1940), she had to be officially retired from that institution. That retirement became effective as of 31 August 1938. Pension payments to a special account began on the 1st of September. It was stipulated that the money could not be sent—or spent—outside the German Reich. Lotte’s lawyer evidently used it to pay the expenses of those of Otto’s relatives who were still living there. In August 1941 the payments stopped.
A few months later, America and Germany were at war. Lotte had first applied for U.S. citizenship in 1939; before that could be attained she had been declared an enemy alien. She had taken further steps toward citizenship in 1944, finally obtained it in June 1945.
As soon as the war was over, she made contact with the authorities in Austria and asked that her pension payments be resumed and that she receive the money owed to her since 1941. It seemed to be a simple, reasonable request. For the next eleven years she had to deal with totally unforeseen complications, frustrations, and delays. Her request was repeatedly turned down, for any number of reasons. First, because she was now an American citizen. Unlike such non-Austrian colleagues as Alfred Piccaver, it had not occurred to her to specify in the five-year contract she had signed in 1935 that she would be eligible for the pension even if she were to leave Austria. Then she—who was known as an outspoken foe of the Third Reich—was called upon to clear her name against suspicions of being a Nazi sympathizer (presumably because the Nazi officials in Vienna had authorized the payment of her pension between 1938 and 1941).
That upset Lotte more than anything. Here is her response to her lawyer in Vienna (the widow of her former representative):
How is it POSSIBLE that the Nazis paid my pension for a while??? They had forbidden me to perform in Germany… That is totally incomprehensible to me—and now unfortunately really catastrophic. Minister Kamitz said rather clearly that I am not receiving the pension because this suspicion has loomed over me. I feel now that it is not just for the pension but for my HONOR that this matter must be clarified….I have even heard that I am the ONLY one who has been denied a pension. Have I brought disgrace to the Opera with my art and my life?????
She had written to a senior civil servant on November 24th, 1955:
This frightful and at the same time grotesque suspicion that I have been a friend to the Nazis leaves me no peace…. I do not know if Mr. Tietjen “remembers”… Perhaps Margit Angerer would recall that she wrote to me that I should come back, that she had connections in high places and that I would “be forgiven.” I answered that I wouldn’t dream of coming back…. Nothing in my life has pierced my heart so deeply as this suspicion. Under its shadow I cannot live.
Bruno Walter stepped in as a character witness. Finally, Lotte was asked to justify her failure to fulfill her contract with the Vienna State Opera. She claimed that Göring had forbidden her to sing in German lands. She was challenged to prove that. The letter that had so intimidated her was lost during the war. But two of her colleagues had seen it and testified to the threatened Auftrittsverbot (performance-ban). The authorities declined to accept their testimony. Lotte wrote to Heinz Tietjen himself, who had personally passed the infamous letter on to her. Much to Lotte’s disgust and dismay, he denied that there had been an official ban, but he at least admitted that she might have construed the contents of the letter to mean that. Lotte was outraged by what she considered to be his two-faced treachery.
She forwarded Tietjen’s reply to the authorities on January 15th, 1956:
I am totally at a loss. Mr. Tietjen, who would “so gladly” like to help me, does not remember the letter. I have no proofs, the document no longer exists. I would say: let’s forget everything. But I cannot do that. For then I would have to be prepared to agree that I am a liar. What shall I do?… I can and will not let the grotesque suspicion that I was a friend of the Nazis rest on me. The thought I should be suspected of that in Vienna of all places drives me truly to despair….
For eleven years a seemingly endless series of letters and documents crossed and re-crossed the ocean. The matter was taken all the way up to the President of Austria, who, in February 1957, finally decided in Lotte’s favor. She generously assigned the first installment to the Hungarian Relief Fund.
The President himself conferred on Lotte the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class, when she was in Vienna in the spring of 1962.
During the 1950s arthritis was becoming more and more of a problem. Lotte had also had a painful operation on her foot. She discovered that the baths at Bad Gastein (in central Austria) offered some relief.
While in Gastein she heard about the death of a close personal friend, Noël Sullivan, for years an enthusiastic performer-patron at the Carmel Bach Festival. In a letter to Frances she expressed her fear of losing Toscanini too.
I am so deeply sad about Noël. I shall miss him very much. One of the few people I really loved! I think so much about him, and wonder if all his questions are now finding their answers. He wanted to die. He wanted to know if everything would be as he imagined. I hope he found the truth…. I have to be prepared to lose also Maestro very soon—something I dread more than I can say.
At the end of World War II, Lotte had learned that Baron Waldemar zu Putlitz, Konrad’s son and heir, had been shot by the Russians, the family estate that Lotte had so often visited in her youth had been expropriated, and all the servants had been strung up from the window frames. Erika’s three sons had all fallen in battle. During the war years the Gestapo had specifically forbidden the family to communicate with Lotte on the grounds that she was a spy.
In Frankfurt Lotte saw the granddaughter of her former benefactor.
She is a charming young woman, tall and slender and very good looking. She brought me flowers and kissed my hand. I would never have dreamed when I was a little protégée that that could ever happen!!!
During Lotte’s visits to Europe, some already famous singers, such as Hilde Güden and Rita Streich, came to her for coaching.
In London to arrange the details of her master classes, Lotte happened to see Alec Guinness in Hotel Paradiso and went backstage to meet him after the play. She was quite smitten with his “handsomeness, elegance, and gracious manners,” she wrote Frances. “A true gentleman!” in person and “wonderful” on the stage.
She loved drama in all its forms. Opera, theatre, movies—even television soap operas! She rarely missed Edge of Night. Once she had the chance to meet the cast on the set. She was as thrilled as a fan can be. When she found out that John Larkin, who played “Mike,” had some of her records, she was doubly delighted. She managed to worm out of the actors all the up-coming twists in the plot. She naturally told them what she thought ought to happen.
In 1956, at the suggestion of Dame Judith Anderson, Lotte tried something very new to her: she made her first recording as a reciter of poetry. That maiden voyage, for Caedmon Records, consisted of the poems—without the music—that had inspired the Winterreise and Dichterliebe cycles and some of the Hugo Wolf settings of Goethe and Mörike, as well as the Marschallin’s monologue, entirely spoken instead of sung. Later, in 1961, a second record was released; this time, Lotte attempted poetry that was new to her, by Rainer Maria Rilke. She was thrilled when Paula Wessely, a famous actress of the German-language theatre, called to rave about the Rilke record. “She said she had always known what a great singing actress I had been,” Lotte reported to Frances, “but that this record is something which no actress of the legitimate stage could do as beautifully as I have done…she praised my technique of breathing (!!!) and the clarity of the words.” Lotte confessed to Bruno Walter that she hoped to be an actress in the next life; “it is freer…and never mind the rhythm!!!”
On January 16, 1957, Toscanini died at Riverdale, in his ninetieth year. Lotte had dreaded that moment. She wrote a moving tribute:
It should be a great consolation for all those who loved Arturo Toscanini, to know that he wanted to die! I last saw him at the end of October, a tired, very gentle old man, the fire extinguished in those wonderful dark eyes—eyes which had failed him completely, turning his world into shadows. He complained bitterly about the deterioration of his capacities and said that as he awakened each morning he only regretted that his life had not ended during the night.
Again and again he talked about his loss of memory and I shall never forget the expression of pain in his face when he said: “You see, I just don’t remember any more….” He who had been famous for his fabulous memory could scarcely understand what was happening to him. I left him with the silent prayer that his wish might be granted before age should completely conquer his noble spirit.
But heart and mind sometimes speak different languages. I should only feel gratitude for his release from mortal fetters—and yet a deep sadness pervades my whole being in realizing that this supreme artist, this noble and lovable human being has passed away…. But beyond this personal feeling are memories which death cannot destroy. Memories of those unforgettable hours of working with him, singing under his baton, feeling the world vanish and soaring above it on the wings of music which never sounded more heavenly, more passionate than under the spell of his fiery command….
We can be endlessly grateful for the treasure of recordings which has been saved for the world! Through them his glowing spirit will live on.
Records were his last and only joy because he was spared the loss of his hearing….
A great man has died. But his soul cannot leave us entirely because its eternal language has been captured and will make him immortal.
Lotte’s creative energy seemed inexhaustible. When she was not working on a new book or writing articles for publication, she was painting, sketching, sculpturing, or making mosaics. “There is no hobby that is safe from me,” she used to say. When she was away from home she wrote daily letters to Fritz and Frances.
For relaxation there were her animals and birds. There was even a monkey, for one brief but messy stay.
The first time that Dame Judith Anderson came to call, she was astonished to see Lotte put bread-crumbs on top of her head as they were sitting on the terrace. The reason appeared soon enough: a beautiful blue jay (named Oscar) flew over to Lotte and perched on her head to eat his lunch.
Guests soon became accustomed to the begging dogs at the table. Much against Frances’s wishes, Lotte would slip them bits of her dinner, and encourage her guests to do the same. She could not resist those luminous, pleading eyes.
Lotte had an hilarious recording of a dog barking the tune of “Way down upon the Swanee River,” almost perfectly on pitch, with piano accompaniment. If Lotte played a record for friends, it was more likely to be that dog, “singing,” than any record of her own.
She once had a rooster named Wotan. One day he went wild and flew straight into Lotte’s face, as if he wanted to peck at her eyes. Someone had to kill him—behind Lotte’s back, of course. When his remains were served for dinner even Frances—who is not a sentimental type—lost her appetite.
Lotte loved her life at home in California. Much as she enjoyed her annual visits to Europe now, she was happy to be a citizen of the U.S.A. and was glad to do what she could for her new country. She recorded three interviews which were broadcast abroad for the “Voice of America” in 1958.
In 1961, Lotte retired as Honorary President of the Music Academy of the West; but she occasionally returned for a series of lieder classes. She chose Fidelio as her farewell production. She gave a great deal of thought to the problem of the spoken dialogue, difficult enough for our unsentimental era in the original German, however truncated, with its pathos at least familiar and hallowed by tradition, but more difficult still when delivered in English by American singers for American audiences. It was a question of finding a convincing style, the best balance between naturalism and heightened expression. She turned to her old mentor, Bruno Walter, for reassurance that her instincts had been reliable:
I am so glad that the Zweigs told you how good the performance was. It was a beautiful close to my work at the Academy….
I have often thought about how to make the dialogue in Fidelio “realistic” without robbing it of the tragic line. I find (and hope that I am right!) that if Fidelio is made to speak naturalistically, that is, in an everyday sort of tone, then the character herself and in fact the whole story becomes so improbable that the effect is COMICAL. A certain “pathos” belongs to Fidelio. Am I right? The other characters can speak without pathos (excepting Florestan—no, Pizarro too must have pathos); the others are ordinary, everyday types, Rocco, Marzelline, Jaquino, average human beings. Fidelio’s cry, “Two years, you say!”—for example—MUST come from another plane, don’t you agree? I thought of that sentence like this: that Leonore forgets herself for a moment; then, when she sees that Rocco and Marzelline are looking at her strangely, she catches herself and says with a somewhat exaggerated expression, dictated by her confusion: “Oh, he must be a terrible criminal!!” Am I right? In the dungeon scene, her outcries must of course be considered an inner voice speaking.
Once I had a conversation with [Max] Reinhardt about this question, and he said something quite astonishing: he said that if he would ever stage Fidelio he would have the dialogue done in a sort of “singsong,” half sung, so that the idea of reality would absolutely disappear. But how could one achieve deep expression in singsong??????? There is still so much I have to learn. But now there’s no time left. Why do we only recognize that when it is actually too late???
Here is Bruno Walter’s reply, dated September 2, 1961:
I wish I could answer your dear letter of the 24th as fully as it deserves. But the mountain of correspondence which every day piles up anew on my desk makes that impossible for me. Therefore just the following bits: [the conductor Maurice] Abravanel was here recently and told me about [your] Fidelio [which he had conducted]: it is good—and so glorious—that you have concluded your activity at the Academy with this most noble work. Certainly the dialogue is a problem, but one which can readily be solved with a feeling for what is genuine and true. Leonore and Florestan articulate exalted feelings—therefore with the appropriately noble expression; Pizarro speaks with the—suppressed—intensity of hate; the other persons speak with the folksy naturalness of their characters. You notice that I avoid words like “pathos” or “average human beings”—all speak naturally within their characters. And that is exactly how you handled the dialogue. Reinhardt’s “sing-song” would have proven unsuitable even to him if he had directed the piece….
Your old friend Bruno
Lotte was invited by the Metropolitan Opera to stage a production of Rosenkavalier in 1962, with Régine Crespin as the Marschallin.
Constance Hope, characteristically, had the original idea. Here is what she wrote to Rudolf Bing on November 15, 1961:
I heard, by the grapevine, that you are considering Rosenkavalier for next season. If so, you will forgive me for being a bulldog, and suggesting once again the possibility of Lotte Lehmann directing it (dramatically, of course). I know that you are aware of her dramatic instincts and feel sure that she could make it a really exciting performance and that she would also inspire all the artists participating. It also happens that the next year she will be seventy-five and that it could be made a kind of diamond jubilee for her. Naturally, I have not mentioned this to her, as I had no idea what your reaction would be, but if you would agree that it was a good idea I believe it could further be capitalized from a publicity standpoint. I feel sure she would be most interested in doing it even though she is withdrawing from many of her teaching activities in Santa Barbara.
Lotte was horrified. This is her response to Mr. Bing’s invitation:
Poor Constance! She will feel so frustrated that I do not agree with her so well meant idea. Of course, it would have been better if she had informed me before writing to you. I believe she remembers too much the much younger woman who always first said “no” to her and then did what she wanted. But in the meantime I have grown away from a world that was my own for so long. Thank you for even considering the idea of my staging Rosenkavalier! It is very flattering and I am grateful. But there is a great difference between directing an opera here with students of the Music Academy and townspeople for the chorus, and directing artists to whom perhaps I would have nothing to say. I am not so conceited as to imagine that mature artists would change their conception of a role because I say so. Constance loves me, I believe, very much, as I love her and always will. But this time she did not know me at all…. Thank you again for your willingness to put my conception of Rosenkavalier above those of artists to whom the present belongs, not the past.
John Gutman of the Met, a born diplomat, penned suave, persuasive words in a letter congratulating Lotte on her seventy-fourth birthday. He reassured her that all the artists in the cast had expressed delight at the idea of working with her and that Mme. Crespin, who was already well known for the role, was especially enthusiastic. A compromise was reached: Lotte would work with the principals and Ralph Herbert would see to the rest of the staging. With trepidation, Lotte gave her assent to that lesser responsibility. The very next day, she wrote to Mr. Bing:
Yes, I agree to your propositions about Rosenkavalier. Would it not be better if my name were in second place? The stage director will certainly be more important than I am. I would not DARE, for instance, to suggest anything to [Otto] Edelmann, whom I saw as Ochs and who is very, very good. So my work will be concentrated mostly on the three ladies. The stage director will have so much more work than I—and I hate to take honors that perhaps I don’t deserve.
I hope very much that he will agree to one change: I did not like at all the very first scene at the Met performances—the Marschallin in bed. Now I really am not a “stuffed shirt” (my whole life I have more than proved that!!!), but it honestly embarrassed me. It is too obvious, too unsubtle. One should leave something to the imagination. So I hope very much that he will agree…. Thank you also for your good birthday wishes. Seventy-four years old!!! Isn’t it terrible? It seems like yesterday that I sang in Vienna—and yet as if it happened on another star.
As usual Lotte became more and more nervous as the time approached. She had been stage director for many student performances by now; but the Metropolitan Opera?! By August she was scared to death. She wrote Rudolf Bing a desperate letter, begging to be released from her contract:
Please don’t think that I am crazy. Perhaps I am—but I would not like to hear it confirmed. I would be very grateful if you would cancel my contract for helping to direct Rosenkavalier. The whole idea lies before me like the Himalaya mountain and I am unable to climb it!!! Please believe me that I simply CANNOT do it. My first reaction was to say no. Then John Gutman so very beautifully persuaded me—and I am a weak character and could seldom say “no” in my life (which is a dangerous confession!!!) But I know myself: if you don’t free me of my contract I will get in such a state of nerves that I shall have a dreadful nervous breakdown at the last moment and then it is so much more unpleasant to cancel. Please believe me, dear Mr. Bing. I CANNOT DO IT. I would appreciate it if you would advise me very quickly, so that I can breathe freely again. I am in a kind of panic. I don’t know what you will say to the newspapers. Perhaps for reasons of health? I don’t care. I want nothing more from life, only privacy. Forgive me….
Once more the soothing touch of Mr. Gutman worked its wonders. Here is Lotte’s reply to him:
…I promise not to get panicky again—and I want you to know why I suddenly lost my belief in myself that I could be able to do anything for those accomplished artists: I found in a quite wonderful book, called “Prima Donna” (a Swiss edition), among other “prima donnas,” including myself, the picture of Régine Crespin as the Marschallin. It says in the article: “‘Fast so herrlich wie Lotte Lehmann’ sagten jene, denen der Rosenkavalier ein Stück ihres Lebens bedeutete, während jene, die ihnen vorwerfen, stets in der Vergangenheit zu leben, mit Überzeugung betonten, dass sie grösser als die Lehmann sei.”* You will understand that I got the shock of my life! Not that somebody would be better than I ever was as the Marschallin, but that I would have the audacity to try to TEACH this woman something. I am still very frightened, but I will come and will try to do my best. Hoping that Régine Crespin will not think me impertinent. I wanted you to know this, because I hate you to think that I am kind of hysterical!!!
Lotte’s contract called for her to be in New York for three weeks and offered her $1,000 plus first-class air fare.
Her flight was scheduled for a date at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when the world seemed on the verge of nuclear war. On October 22nd the United States served notice that it was prepared to take any necessary step to force the Soviet Union to remove its offensive weapons from Cuban soil. The tension was tremendous. On October 26th Lotte, frightened but brave, wrote to John Gutman:
I have postponed my trip to the 30th of this month. The world may not look better then—but it seemed as if just on the day of my departure the horrible “showdown” would happen. And if I have to die I prefer to do so at home. Now it seems as if it will be a long-lasting, nervewracking time till one can realize that we live in a world of promise and not of destruction…. So I take my heart into both hands and fly to New York.
Her letters to Frances during the rehearsal period are full of self-doubt:
Today I just sat there from 11:30 to 3:00. Ralph Herbert is such an excellent “overall stage director” that I couldn’t think of a word to say… I feel embarrassed just to sit and listen. Crespin is very good in the last act; I had precious little to say and felt like a fool. Ach, all this is so horrible….
Her self-confidence was soon regained, however, and with it her usual inspiration. She found plenty to say to the cast, after all.
Régine Crespin was a magnificent Marschallin. Never did I hear the beginning of the trio in the last act sung so divinely, with the most tender of pianissimos, almost unearthly in its silvery beauty. Perhaps my help proved valuable to Régine. In the beginning she seemed rather French, full of charm and grace, perfectly delightful except that the character she was supposed to represent happened to be Viennese… By the time of the première, it was a typical Viennese woman who was singing. To work with that great artist was sheer joy from beginning to end….
According to Lotte, the Octavian, Hertha Töpper, offered resistance to her advice. That was her one disappointment in that short-lived “third career.”
A writer for the New York Post attended a rehearsal:
Gray-haired, portly, nearing seventy-five, she sat just behind the footlights, an elbow planted on a dingy table, one hand gesturing delicately as she offered suggestions to stars too young to have heard her anywhere but on records….
In the breaks between scenes she would beckon the women to her, one at a time, and they would come with a little rush, kneeling beside her to confer in whispers….
To the Octavian, Austria’s handsome Herta Töpper, who is making her début in the Rosenkavalier revival…Lehmann said softly: “You cannot do it like zat. You must be brighter….”
She rose to demonstrate what she wanted, an old lady in black with a blue chiffon scarf looped around her throat. Then, suddenly, Lehmann vanished: there was Octavian, striding across the stage, lithe and impetuous, in the springtime of life.
Lotte, who could not bear to see an animal in distress, asked Mr. Bing to substitute a fake bird for the live canary brought on by the Animal Vendor in the Levée Scene. She had no objection to the live dog; he seemed to enjoy his time in the spotlight (and never did what the trickling downward scale in the orchestration was slyly suggesting).
John Gutman had sent Lotte a list of questions, intending to use her answers in the program booklet. He added a few remarks of his own to the end of the printed article:
…Lotte Lehmann will forgive me one final indiscretion. The letter in which she so kindly answered my questions ended thus: “Forgive the many mistakes in my typing, but since my next career will not be that of a secretary I do not worry….”
No, your next career, dear Lotte Lehmann, is obviously that of a stage director, and that is where we don’t worry. We are happy to have you with us again, full of life, full of the old enthusiasm, full of love for that insane, improbable, and yet utterly real phantasmagoria that goes by the name of “opera.”
The first performance took place on November 19, 1962.
A few months later Lotte was devastated by an Associated Press report that had misquoted her remarks about the experience. She wrote Mr. Gutman a letter of explanation:
The other day a reporter came here and asked me a lot of questions. I have just seen in several papers what he wrote, and I am rather embarrassed that you must think me very ungrateful and unpleasant. I said that I did not feel that my efforts at Rosenkavalier at the Met were really worthwhile. It was not a new production, and during the stage rehearsals there was scarcely time for important changes. You know what he wrote? It was not a success. I am devastatingly honest, but not stupid. I would never say that!!! Then I said that the Vienna Opera was my real musical home and that at the Metropolitan performances we just always met those colleagues with whom one sang in European Festivals. It was not a real ensemble as in Vienna (which is true). He wrote that I have no feeling at all for the Met. Then I said that certainly it is a pity to abandon the old house with its traditions, but that of course it is too old-fashioned and I am happy about the new house. He just wrote that I am glad that the old house will be abandoned. Why do I bother you with all this? Because I don’t want you to think that I would say anything unfriendly about the good old Met…. Thinking back at my helping with Rosenkavalier…I would never do anything like that again. I am too honest with myself. I know that the wonderful reception I got from the audience was for Lotte Lehmann the former singer, not the so-called stage director…at the best I was a coach. Those artists had sung their roles a hundred times, they really did not need me at all. I hate to get praise for something I did not do….
During the rehearsal period for that Metropolitan Rosenkavalier, there was a curious reunion: Lotte Lehmann and Maria Jeritza, two bitter rivals in the past, sat down at a table together to record an interview with the ever-diplomatic Mr. Gutman. Lotte made a cartoon in colors to commemorate the earth-shaking event. Her picture shows long, bushy cats’ tails waving out from under the skirts of the two purring divas.
Champagne seems to have broken the ice. Some nuggets:
Lotte had just related the story of how she was given the role of the Composer in the premiere of Ariadne II, when Jeritza interrupted to claim the credit:
Lottchen, where come I in? Don’t you remember? You were standing… [giddy giggles] Lottchen, you were standing there, and I said: “There’s a born Composer standing right in the first wing, with the most beautiful voice. Why don’t you take her?” And you started right away there and then in the rehearsal to take Gutheil-Schoder’s place. She was ill, she had laryngitis, and she couldn’t attend, and without any warning she stayed home. And Strauss said: “Now what will we do without the Composer? We cannot…” And I said: “Here is the understudy: she has a wonderful voice.” And she started to sing, and conquered. And the premiere was assigned to her.”
Lotte’s response, drenched in irony:
Wonderful, Mizzi! And thank you after all these years!
Jeritza burst into peals of laughter. Later, when John Gutman, the moderator, suggested that Strauss had an eye for the ladies, both Lotte and Maria—in a rare unison—moaned “O-o-o-oh no-o-o-o!” Jeritza: “With his wife on the side?—she would have killed us all!” Gutman: “I’ve never yet known that a husband is prevented by a wife from being a ladies-lover.” Lehmann: “He adored her.” Jeritza: “They had a wonderful marriage!”
Gutman went on to discuss the Prologue of Ariadne, mentioning that the libretto had some unflattering things to convey about sopranos and tenors. Lehmann: “It rips the masks from our faces.” Jeritza (giggling): “Wait a minute! Do we have such a mask?… I think that the whole Vorspiel is a mockery. It has nothing to do with the opera.” Lotte strongly disagrees, knowing that the Prologue was created especially to clarify the deeper meaning of the Ariadne myth as portrayed by Hofmannsthal.
Lotte is asked to explain the opening situation of the opera, which she attempts to do in all seriousness. But Jeritza constantly interrupts, contradicting Lotte and generally creating total confusion. One wonders if she herself ever really understood the role she had created in both versions. Gutman: “Mme. Jeritza, I really think you should have sung Zerbinetta, the way you talk!… She [the frivolous Zerbinetta] says [to the serious, heart-broken Ariadne]: ‘Don’t tell me any stories! You’re not waiting for death, you’re just waiting for a new boyfriend!’”
Jeritza managed to get in a dig at Lotte’s main weakness, her acknowledged shortness of breath. Speaking of a phrase “as long as from here to Brooklyn” in one of Ariadne’s early solos, she said she had complained to Strauss that she would choke to death on such an endless phrase. He had told her, she said, that she must sing it exactly as he had composed it. So she worked at it for three weeks and mastered it. She ridiculed those sopranos—unnamed, of course—who had broken it with an unauthorized breath, repeating the word “Schönes” in the beautiful phrase “Ein Schönes war.” Lotte pleaded guilty. One up for Mme. Jeritza! Lotte’s good-natured response: “I really never had a very perfect technique, you see; and I learned to breathe sometimes and to give an expression to that breath: it was really a swindle what I did!”
Gutman: “Did Strauss himself conduct for you in Vienna?” Jeritza: “And how he conducted! It was impossible to be wrong with Strauss…” Lehmann: “Oh, I sometimes succeeded!… [but] Strauss was the most lenient of all the conductors with whom I have sung.” She told how she had once forgotten to sing a line in Ariadne, momentarily under the impression that the tenor should have sung it. Strauss told her later that her penalty would be to sing it twice the next time.
Lotte mentioned how beautiful Maria had been in the role of the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Jeritza to Lehmann: “I don’t think I have so much time on the radio to tell all the nice things I think about you! You wouldn’t believe it!” Lehmann: “No, I wouldn’t.”
Maria made it clear that Strauss had always wanted her to have the better of the two leading soprano roles in the opera. She was his first choice for the Dyer’s Wife—in spite of what Schalk had told Lotte—until he changed his mind and decided that the role of the Empress was really the more grateful one, since she would dominate the final act.
Gutman: “I know, Mme. Jeritza, that you were very prominently connected also with Salome, which I think Mme. Lehmann was not.” Jeritza: “She [Lotte] was not a sinful woman!” Gutman: “I don’t know whether that is a compliment or not.” Lehmann (laughing): “No, I don’t take it as such.”
The taped interview was discreetly edited for broadcast during an intermission in the Ariadne auf Naxos Saturday matinee.
Here is Lotte’s version of the historic encounter, as she wrote about it in Singing with Richard Strauss:
…Jeritza had sung Ariadne at the Vienna premiere, at which I sang the Composer; therefore the interviewer naturally asked us some questions concerning that first performance. We both must have sounded rather foolish in our replies, for the memories we shared made us laugh and giggle so much that the actual purpose of the interview became completely submerged by our unseemly high spirits. Several times I made futile attempts to formulate my answers on a more appropriately exalted intellectual level, but they invariably ended in chaotic frivolity. In the most amiable fashion, Maria and I exchanged remarks that in our youth would have been cause for blistering hostility or open battle; in retrospect, those rivalries of the past all seemed childish and unimportant.
Maria Jeritza is still a striking-looking woman, her hair still blonde, her face—or as much of it as is visible behind the brim of that huge hat of hers and the dark glasses she affects—retains its former fresh vigor. She wears her hair as she always did, and her mouth has not yet forgotten its laughter. Next to her I felt a thousand years old.
[Editor’s note: according to her birth certificate, found after her death, Jeritza was born in 1882, not 1887 as she always claimed, was six years older than Lotte.]
It was indeed a gay encounter; we were even served champagne, which I sipped with delight while Maria, in an astonishing display of abstemiousness, confined herself to ginger ale. Which, perhaps, was all to the good, for there is no way of telling what she would have said or done if the champagne had gone to her head.
The Marschallin looked into the mirror and saw the marks of time. But she made up her mind to face the future gallantly. Her monologue concludes with the words, “Und in dem ‘wie,’ da liegt der ganze Unterschied” (“And how we bear it makes all the difference”).
In an otherwise beautiful tribute to Lotte Lehmann that appeared in New York magazine on August 15, 1977, the record reviewer surmised that she conceived of the Marschallin “as a genuinely tragic figure, witnessing the end of her romantic life…and terribly sad.” Those who actually saw her play the role cherish a quite different impression. At the end of Act I, where other Marschallins burst into tears, Lehmann mastered her melancholy with dignity and noblesse. With the last chord she lifted her face, and one could see determination and courage in her eyes. That was the image as the curtain fell. It was not sad. It was positive, a lesson in wisdom.
When she taught that scene to her students, she used to talk them through the postlude, helping them to imagine what the Marschallin’s thoughts might be. At the very end, her words were these: “I have made a vow to let go in the right way…lightly…. And… [raising her eyes, breathing in, slowly, and sitting back in her chair, with the soft hint of a smile] …I will!”
Lotte, too, tried to prepare herself to face the inevitable. Her letters to Bruno Walter show the drift of her thoughts, as she attempts to come to terms with death. He often shared with Lotte his views on the continuing life of the soul. She wanted badly to believe.
Here, for instance, is her letter to Bruno Walter, dated June 14, 1961:
Oh, I often feel my seventy-three years very keenly. Life seems just to glide away—all my activities and ever new tasks cannot hold it back…. Now that my evening is nearing its end—even though that may still be some years off—I begin to be anxious…. I have done so many foolish things in my life…. One can never fully make up for some things that were wrong. How can one overcome??? I want to believe, but I feel only doubts arising. Then I say to myself: “Who am I, for heaven’s sake, that I am not capable of believing what other and highly spiritual people believe with all their hearts???
Walter gave great thought to his answer, written on June 19. It is the most deeply serious letter in their entire correspondence:
Dearest Lotte! How happy—but also how wise—I would be, if I could answer your letter about your doubts and your search in any simple way that would help you find inner peace. In any case, through your thinking about death you are spiritually and morally superior to the many thoughtless people who don’t want to hear anything about it, who go toward that all-decisive trial, that is waiting for everyone, fully unprepared. Your question then is actually: “How do I prepare myself?” or, as you express it: “How can one overcome?”—Well, that is, of course, not one question, but rather contains within it a multitude of crucial questions…. It is absolutely impossible to prepare oneself inwardly for death with only a light exertion.
I am sending you a little book, however, in which a thoroughly cultured woman, Anna Gertrud Huber…has published a collection of the statements of wise men and women from antiquity to the present day about immortality and reincarnation; and I can recommend to you, further, Goethe’s famous utterance about immortality in Goethe’s Conversations, published by Biedermann (Conversation No. 268, with J. D. Falk). I am sure that those statements can help you to useful insights, for they go far beyond mere questions of faith—of blind faith.
Forgive my boldness, if I advise you, further, to try to make good, as far as possible, any wrong of which you are conscious in your personal actions or attitudes—as we all must do (even beyond death, with the sincere striving of our souls).
In any case: take your thoughts on death as seriously as they demand and deserve to be taken, and take all good wishes from your old friend
Lotte responded with frankness and humility:
Dear, beloved Bruno — I knew you would show me the way! Thank you, a thousand times. The book is wonderful and gives me the courage to believe what had seemed unbelievable to me. But you have now confirmed it—and therefore I wouldn’t actually need any book, for what you say is law to me.
I ought to “make good.” Yes, I shall try, and I believe that I have rescued myself from the thoughtlessness which I never really tried to overcome during my whole, long life. I am certainly a better human being, although that isn’t saying much, when I think about the past. I followed my impulses, careless of right or wrong…. Making good, now, is very difficult! Our life would be much more blest, if we would only remember!!! If we could learn from the previous life. As it is, we constantly make the same mistakes, and always realize too late what is good and what is bad….
There is much confusion in me, but clarity will come, I know it.
Then she enclosed one of her poems:
Ich glaube, eines Engels Hand,
Sind wir von dem was einst gewesen.
Genesen von vielen Menschenleben
Müssen, im Aufwärtsstreben,
Auf’s Neu’ und Aberneue wir ersteh’n,
Bis wir verweh’n
In jenem Morgenrot,
Das golden in mein Fenster loht —
Im Wind — in Meereswogen —
Im Sternenstrahl — im Regenbogen —
Im Lächeln Gottes, das du leuchten siehst,
Wenn Abendgold im Meer zerfliesst.
Perhaps it is an angel’s hand
That grants oblivion;
For we are turned aside
From what has been before.
Though healed from many human lives,
We must be born, and ever born again,
Until we fade away
Into that golden dawn
That now is glowing through my window,
One with the wind — the waves —
The starlight — and the rainbow —
One with the smile of God,
That lights the sky
When golden sunsets melt into the sea.
Lehmann the artist felt that vision. She had sensed it in her singing. But in everyday life the doubts refused to be dismissed. Always very honest with herself, she wrote Bruno Walter again:
Beloved, honored Bruno — I haven’t progressed very far in my longing for eternal truth…. I am still standing on the wrong side of the threshold…. I think I am too earth-bound and cannot force myself to rise from the ground. Perhaps—I hope so!—I shall still learn some day.
On August 7, 1961, she shared with Walter the deep feelings that flooded over her as she ran across some old reviews:
Dear, beloved Bruno,
You will understand that this letter was not prompted by idiotic vanity. On the contrary, what I feel is the greatest humility and gratitude.
A friend had kept scrapbooks of all my reviews and recently sent them to me. I had thought they were lost [in the wartime bombings]. I was looking through them, trying to find the date of a performance…. I cannot tell you how overwhelmed I was at the realization that I had actually forgotten what my career must have meant, really forgotten!!! That is the honest truth. My tears were streaming as I read. The past became so alive again, all that I learned from you, my greatest teacher, all the success that was granted to me—such a different kind of success from the sort one has today: now it is all “sensation,” à la Jeritza. I quietly went my own way as an artist and harvested so much love and recognition. And do you know what came to my mind most deeply? “Könnt’ ich klagen, könnt ich zagen, irre sein an Dir und mir?” [“Could I complain, could I despair, be confused about Thee and me?” from Schubert’s song, “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”)]. No, my rich, wonderful life, which had so much fulfillment, that is for me the greatest proof of God’s existence. I of all people have no right ever to doubt. God will forgive me for any doubts in the past. He has much to forgive; but my life would not have been blessed with so much grace if He had rejected me.
I had to tell you all this, because I know that you understand me….
Bruno Walter died a few months later, on February 17, 1962. Lotte’s tribute to him, which appeared in Opera News, ended with these words:
What I have tried to give the young singers who have entrusted their artistic development to me has its source in the wisdom with which Bruno Walter guided me. He was a great teacher, a noble man, a beloved friend.
Fritz Lehmann died on April 26, l963. Brother and sister had always had a close and loving, but often tumultuous relationship. There had been many storms, many misunderstandings. But their last visit together, at Lotte’s home, had been an unusually serene and happy one for both of them. They had shared with each other some charmed memories of the past. Fritz sat beside his wife, Theresia, in the car, ready to be driven home. He told her how much he had enjoyed the rapport with Lotte, how happy he felt. Then he lay his head on her shoulder and stopped living.
Theresia died on December 17, 1999, aged ninety-three, at her home in Santa Barbara, surrounded by mementos of her beloved Fritz and his famous sister.
During her retirement Lotte produced three more books: in 1964, Five Operas and Richard Strauss (in England: Singing With Richard Strauss); in 1969, Gedichte (Poems); and, in 1971, Eighteen Song Cycles.
Each had its particular birth pangs, described in daily letters to Frances:
[September 1960] I doubt that I start the book. I know so little really! It is like a mountain before me.
[May 1962, from Semmering, Austria] It is strange how much I enjoy the solitude here. I don’t speak to anyone, am in my room and read and write. I have written the foreword to my book and am waiting for the librettos of Intermezzo and Arabella.
[June 1962, from Bad Gastein] Sorry, I don’t think I shall finish my book. I have a real repulsion from writing, and there is no sense in trying to force myself.
[June 1964, Bad Gastein] In spite of bad weather I get up early every morning with pleasure and start to write. I am very happy to do this colorful book [of more or less random impressions and memories, as yet unpublished] and I scarcely can write quickly enough to keep up with my thoughts.
[October 1964, from Evanston, Illinois] Of course I am disappointed about the German edition of my [Strauss] book, but I understand it. All Germans know the stories of the operas; it was stupid of me not to see that. But I am disappointed. The book will never be printed in German. So what.
[May 1965, from Bad Gastein] My book will not get better. I can only do things intuitively. I cannot rewrite.
Here are some excerpts from Singing with Richard Strauss:
Times have changed. Today the stage director seems to be the star…. To me opera is always living drama. The more the singer, man or woman, can act and so bring a role to life, the more he or she has fulfilled the purpose of opera singing and acting. Even if the libretto shows little opportunity to make the plot and the acting plausible—even then it should be the foremost task to try to be human.
Of course I know that nowadays people have very different ideas about stage settings. One can no longer do things in the same style as in Richard Wagner’s lifetime. One has to modify, to simplify. But this kind of “objective art” which seems to be the new way is to me lifeless and cold. It almost seems to be old-fashioned instead of new: the singers sing and don’t act. Everything is stripped of humanity, becoming symbolic, stark, and without charm.
When I came back from Bayreuth some years ago, I was quite confused. I said to my very revered friend Bruno Walter: “If this is the new way, then I should stop teaching. Because I feel everything so differently. What could can it be for my students if they learn to act as I see it—and then, joining opera houses in Europe, they are suddenly confronted with such a different conception that it must deeply confuse them?” Bruno Walter answered—and reassured me: “This so-called modern way of acting can only be a phase which will vanish. What you teach is based on tradition. Let the students learn this tradition under your guidance—it will be for them a good basis on which to build up their own conception.”
That made me continue to teach.
One ought not to exaggerate the role of the stage director. Someone once pointed out to me that if the director plotted every movement and position in advance, then everything the singers would do by way of acting would become mere imitation, the sole originally creative person being the director. This is sheer nonsense. No two people ever do exactly the same thing, and a truly gifted performer will always stand out in any pattern. He may take advice from the director, may even let himself be persuaded or influenced, but within the rigid framework of the preconceived pattern he will always stand out and go his own way.
Whoever wholly identifies himself with someone else’s ideas is not a personality in his own right.
Toscanini, Bruno Walter, and Strauss left a performer free to be himself so long as this freedom was based on art. It would be counter to the very essence of art to enslave what needs freedom to unfold.
Some master classes in Vienna, in 1964, were exhausting and the quality of the students (with two or three important exceptions) was disappointing; but the response of the audience was exhilarating. “Perhaps I am mostly a `showwoman,'” she confided to Frances. “Oh, it is my world: applause, creation…. It exhausts me deeply but it is good for me!”
My wife, Evangeline Noël, participated in those Vienna master classes, singing “Cäcilie” and “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” from Frauenliebe und -leben, and playing the Marschallin in several excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier, including the opening and closing scenes of Act I with Octavian and the Trio from Act III. She was also assigned the duet with Rocco from Fidelio and Tatiana’s first confrontation with Onegin. Paul Ulanowsky had come to Vienna especially to accompany the Lehmann master classes. Lotte often rose from her chair, stage left, to demonstrate how a scene should be played. It was an unforgettable thrill for Evangeline to play the Marschallin to Lotte’s ardent, incredibly youthful Quinquin.
Maria Olszewska, the Octavian on the famous recording, was in the audience. “That young woman lacks charm,” she proclaimed loudly; “Lotte, you had charm.” To my delight, Lotte staunchly defended my wife: “Evangeline, don’t listen to her! You have lots of charm!” Then the two old colleagues let down their hair and had a cozy public chat. Mme. Olszewska told everyone in the room that she had buried her husband with a portrait of his inamorata and then spit into his grave. Lotte confided that she had been faithful to Otto for five full years after their marriage. The confession was capped with a wicked giggle.
In May of 1964, while I was coaching Evangeline in the Rosenkavalier scenes, I was puzzled by an apparent ambiguity at the beginning of the famous “Time Monologue.” First, the Marschallin seems to be saying “time changes nothing”; then she proceeds to tell Octavian that time slowly but surely alters everything. I wrote to Lotte and asked her how she understood the passage in question. Here, in its endearing entirety, is her prompt answer, dated May 16th, 1964:
Dearest Beau — of course I didn’t find any rest before finding the solution of “Die Zeit im Grunde, Quinquin,” and so on. First she means it quite “allumfassend” [comprehensively]: Time is so-to-speak and paradoxically so timeless… Mountains and oceans are not moved by it (if one does not think of millions of years, but why should we?). But then there comes the very personal thought: and one has to add an “aber”: aber die Zeit, die man nicht beachtet, frisst in uns unser Leben auf, Tag für Tag [but the passage of time that one doesn’t notice devours the very life within us, day after day]. Don’t you think that this is the right description? Funny that it never occurred to me to see that! Thank you for drawing my attention to it. And thanks again for all your help.
Here it is beautiful and peaceful. Snow-covered mountain peaks—hills with beautiful trees and flowers everywhere. The hotel first class. Much love to you both. Your friend Lotte.
Many famous artists came to visit Lotte at Hope Ranch. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau left her a photo with the inscription: Dem leuchtenden Vorbild in grosser Verehrung—”To the shining example, in great veneration.” (“Vorbild“—”before-image”—suggests more than an “example”; it implies a model which one strives to emulate.)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the most famous Marschallin after Lehmann, came to Santa Barbara to talk with Lotte about the role. She graciously gave her predecessor in the part the credit for having called her attention to the crucial importance of the “Viennese” element in the Marschallin’s personality.
After Lehmann’s retirement as a recitalist, those two great artists, Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf, soon rose to pre-eminence in the realm of the Lied.
Lotte also admired Hermann Prey for the warmth and spontaneity of his lieder singing.
Another favorite—and dear friend—was Gérard Souzay, the French baritone who was equally at home in the mélodies of France and the lieder of Germany. He and his superb accompanist, Dalton Baldwin, were frequent visitors at Orplid. Lotte sent Souzay some suggestions for his program. “I cherish the list,” he wrote her. After hearing him in recital in 1955, she wrote out for him detailed comments on his German groups. His photo is inscribed (in French) “to Madame Lotte Lehmann, the most inspired and the most inspiring of the great singers, in homage of fervent and total admiration.”
Many years later, when they met again in Europe, Mr. Baldwin wrote to Frances a rather perceptive remark about Lotte: “She still glows with that strange force of gravity that attracts but does not allow you to pass a certain barrier.” That quality of hers, that several close friends had complained of, is seen there in a special light.
In 1965, in Munich, she heard Souzay sing a “celestially beautiful” recital. His first encore was dedicated to her and the “colossal ovation” she received from the audience thrilled and amazed her, for she had not expected to be so well remembered in Munich.
That same summer there was a reunion in Berlin with an old colleague:
Frida Leider and I had so many memories it was really wonderful. We drove around with a guide. The Wall is so terrible that words cannot describe it. The destruction all around it you cannot imagine. I was in tears. I really felt sick. I don’t recognize anything—it is a foreign city with impressive new buildings, wide spaces of nothing and innumerable ruins of houses. Nonetheless I don’t regret having come here: one should know what these poor people have lived through! I do not find Berlin so gay. It is as if they built a fantastic city on a cemetery—such a mixture of horror and progress. I am glad I saw it all —but never again….
Other, rather different memories of Berlin, must have flooded over Lotte when—after so many years—she met again an old flame from the past, Willi Hilke, her one-time fiancé. He and his wife came to Bad Gastein to visit her.
…The Hilkes were here for dinner. It is disturbing that he stares at me as if I were in a zoo and he were trying to make out what kind of animal I am…. Imagine—I would have married him!!!
Others expressed only admiration in their glances;
…With everyone saying I look younger every year I shall soon be in my teens.
After reading Leider’s autobiography, Lotte had more to say to Frances:
Frida Leider gave me her book of memoirs. I always thought I was an artist but I am like a bloody dilettante in comparison to her determination, her incredible diligence and devotion. It makes me feel very inferior….
In Playing My Part Frida Leider wrote this about her friend:
Lotte and I used to meet like comets whose paths cross briefly as they tear across the universe. As a most promising young singer, she had left Hamburg very early to join the Vienna State Opera, and together with Elisabeth Schumann, she had won the hearts of the Viennese public. They idolized Lotte in Vienna, and her Manon, with Alfred Piccaver as Des Grieux, must be one of the dearest memories of Viennese opera lovers.
There were melancholy moments, when Lotte was all alone with her arthritis. In June, at Bad Gastein:
It is really strange that people don’t recognize me at all. Today was the first time that a lady did. She wept when she saw me! Of course, she really didn’t weep on account of me; but I brought back her past, I suppose….
On April 16, 1966, there was a “Gala Farewell” performance in the “Old Met.” That wonderful old building on Broadway, between 39th and 40th Streets, where most of the greatest voices of the century had sung, would soon be a victim of the wrecker’s ball. A New Met was ready at Lincoln Center. On that last night in the old house, besides the ghosts of the glorious past, most of the former stars who were still alive were assembled, to hear the stars of the present sing their last notes on that stage. “When Lotte Lehmann, proudly erect beneath her years, came forward, everybody stood up.”
Lotte was constantly showered with honors. She became a doctor many times over. In May 1963 she received the Ring of Honor of the City of Vienna. In 1969 the University of California in Santa Barbara dedicated a new concert hall, named for her. In the same year Berndt Wessling brought out a book of tributes to her, in Salzburg. Many of her recordings were reissued to celebrate first her 75th, then her 80th birthday. Telegrams poured in from all over the world, many of them from heads of state. Some letters found their way to her with no more address than “Lotte Lehmann, Santa Barbara.” In 1970 a street in Salzburg was named for her, “Lotte Lehmann Promenade.”
It was really very beautiful. The Promenade is lovely and in the most expensive and beautiful part of Salzburg-Aigen. It was a very happy occasion but I paid for it with pain…. [from a letter to Frances.]
Lotte’s last years were marked by a long and painful struggle with increasingly crippling arthritis. Nearly every summer she would return to Bad Gastein for the baths, which often seemed to bring her some short-term relief. But traveling was becoming more and more of a strain, and she missed Frances and home and the animals.
“Never again” became an annual refrain. Yet after a few months of peace and harmony in the opulent nature that surrounded Orplid, Lotte would again become restless. Europe met a need that was not fully satisfied in Santa Barbara. People over there remembered her greatness. Everywhere she was met with awe and adulation. That could be a nuisance sometimes, when she was tired and—momentarily—wished for the quiet of anonymity (“If only people would leave me alone! I am sick of being beloved…”). But something in Lotte needed that recognition, thrived on the stimulation of applause (“The whirl around me is right for me…it is like old times. ‘Frau Kammersängerin’—I like it!).
During her sojourns in Europe, Lotte wrote to Frances every day. Vienna was always stimulating (“I am fine, only so excited I cannot sleep”); in Bad Gastein the atmosphere was more peaceful. There was time to read and reflect.
Some friends gave me a book about the Vienna Opera. There you can see what Jeritza means to Vienna…. I was and am such a bourgeoise in comparison with her. She is really the real artist, not I. I feel in comparison to her quite mediocre. You have to understand that I always admired her—reluctantly, but I had to. She had that something which made her a prima donna and me—what? I am disgusted with myself.
I have heard very interesting things about the past. Oh, I understand now better Strauss’s friendship with Krauss and Ursuleac: it was to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law. Krauss and Ursuleac were thick friends with Göring…. Strauss was a very frightened old man and could not have acted otherwise than he did.
Wherever she went, whether in Europe or America, Lotte was constantly in demand for radio and television interviews, many of which have been preserved on tape. Wit, wisdom, charm, and eloquence were hers as long as she lived. The inevitable physical decline never seemed to touch those qualities of mind and personality when there was the stimulation of an occasion. Privately, though, she could confess to Frances her moments of discouragement:
[May 1970, from Bad Gastein] Here the people look at me with pity. I am not accustomed to be pitied, I am accustomed to be admired. You will not understand how hard this is for me…. The trip was a great mistake….
The following year was even more of a trial.
Am trying to get used to crutches….
Few old friends and colleagues were still alive in 1973.
Lotte Klemperer telephoned yesterday. She wanted to prepare me: her father apparently is at last going to die. He had a collapse, as she called it…. It is a kind of shock to me. The last of the great ones! With him dies an era….
In 1974 she made her very last trip to Europe. The baths at Gastein were no more help to her. She did not know it, but colon cancer was spreading inside of her.
I really am only alive to wait for my death. I never want to be a burden to you….
Lotte Lehmann died in her sleep at her home in Santa Barbara, early in the morning of August 26, 1976, at the age of eighty-eight. She had been more than usually exhausted by a visit the evening before. When she did not call for her breakfast in the morning, Frances went to the door of her room, which was always locked. Having a key, Frances entered. Since Lotte appeared to be still asleep, she slipped out again. A little later she returned. Lotte was still asleep. The third time one of the dogs came into the room with Frances and began to bark. There was no response. When Frances lifted Lotte’s arm it fell back down.
She phoned the doctor, who wanted her to call an ambulance and take Lotte to the hospital. Frances insisted instead that he come to the house. When he arrived it was already too late.
It was nine years after Lotte’s death before Frances could bear to play her records. Later, however, Lotte’s voice was always there beside her. There have been few such friendships. In Frances’s own words:
Our relationship was a very unusual one. Neither of us ever indulged in any physical expression of affection; but I think we both felt a very deep devotion to each other, and a feeling of closeness we had never felt with anyone else. Lotte perhaps had this feeling for her husband; she certainly felt lost when he died. But he died seventeen years after she first met him and we shared our lives for thirty-seven years.
The Vienna State Opera arranged for Lotte Lehmann’s ashes to be buried in the Honor Section of the Central Cemetery of Vienna, not far from the final resting place of so many of the great composers whose music had been the very substance of her life.
A phrase that Strauss had said of her was carved upon the stone:
Sie hat gesungen, dass es Sterne rührte.
When she sang, she moved the stars.