A Documentary Biography
By Beaumont Glass
(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)
Role Screams for Lehmann
The Habsburg Empire was falling apart. In April 1918 Clemenceau had revealed that Karl I had made secret negotiations for a separate peace. Germany, furious, forced him to surrender all independent power of action. The German armies suffered defeat in August. The Bulgarian front collapsed in September. The Poles declared their independence; Czechoslovakia was born as a republic; and Yugoslavia proclaimed as a state, all in October. The “dual monarchy” was dissolved by Hungary in November. The army disintegrated rapidly. On November 11 Emperor Karl renounced all share in the government but refused to abdicate, taking his titles with him to Switzerland. On November 12, 1918, the Republic of German-Austria was proclaimed.
There were violent revolutionary disturbances in Vienna. Austria, too, was starting to fall apart: Vorarlberg sought union with Switzerland; Tirol wanted to secede. Major concessions had to be made to hold the already shrunken country together. The new government was held responsible for war reparations. A four-year rampage of inflation began.
Yet the Vienna Opera continued to flourish. Only its name was changed. “Hofoper” became “Staatsoper.” The old Court Opera was now the new State Opera. And to many Viennese the battles of the Lehmannites with the Jeritzians were of far more consuming interest than the clashes between Socialist Democrats and Bolsheviks.
The last act of the last imperial Intendant (Baron Leopold Andrian) had been to appoint a new double directorate: Franz Schalk and Richard Strauss. The new era turned out to be a glorious one for the Vienna Opera, in spite of the ferocious political unrest raging outside the opera house. And in spite of enormous initial resistance to the appointment of Richard Strauss. The press fumed that their “poor city” could not afford such an expensive genius (at 80,000 crowns a year); did the Viennese want to see their new State Opera turned into a private showcase for Richard Strauss? Anti-Strauss partisans drummed up support for a letter of protest and managed to persuade nearly all the members of the company to sign, except for Selma Kurz and Jeritza. Yes, Lotte, too, was gullible, much as she loved singing Strauss.
Strauss himself relaxed at home in Garmisch, sanely biding his time, sure that the storm would blow over. Which, of course, it did. Schalk helped by saying publicly: “I am for Strauss….If there were more Strausses we’d have to hire them all!”
It was some months before Strauss actually took over his post. Meanwhile, Schalk gave Vienna a foretaste of high artistic events to come with the local première of Pfitzner’s Palestrina, an opera of deeply serious spiritual and philosophical content, as well as considerable musical beauty. Lotte was cast as Silla, another “pants part.”
Other new roles for her ever-growing repertoire were Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Friederike in Der Musikant by Julius Bittner.
Always there were numerous concerts and recitals as well. Often Lotte’s accompanist was Professor Ferdinand Foll, who had been a friend of Hugo Wolf’s and remained a champion of his wonderfully subtle songs.
Spring brought a whiff of romance. Lotte got herself engaged; then, three weeks later, dis-engaged. The briefly lucky man was Wilhelm Dessauer, a very talented, 36-year-old painter who happened to be doing her portrait as “Lotte” in Werther in pastels. His personal eccentricities, at first intriguingly attractive, showed up on better acquaintance as symptoms of a serious neurasthenia. Lotte’s parents had sensed that all along. Since he was a well-known banker’s son, and rich, and since she was the darling of press and public, it was only natural that photographers were following the couple everywhere. Lotte’s new role as blushing bride was rapidly losing its charm. The constant need to “keep smiling” in society and for the camera, while signs of neurosis were becoming ever clearer in her fiancé, went against Lotte’s characteristic openness. She broke the engagement. The noble way he took the disappointment helped to soothe her remorse at having to hurt him:
He accepted the break-up as only a truly extraordinary human being could do: by thanking me for a short time of happiness… Ashamed and confused I stand in awe of the simple bigness of his character—and at the same time I know that I did the right thing in freeing myself, for it was indeed a “freeing”…I felt as if released from heavy chains, though that feeling may seem quite unjustified—for what sort of chains are those, when it is a man whose self-appointed task is only to find everything I say wonderful and right?…Yes, we human beings are a great riddle, often most of all to ourselves. Needless to say the whole affair has aroused enormous attention in Vienna. That they found everything marvelous—both engagement and disengagement—also goes without saying…Here everyone is slippery as an eel [aalglatt].
After her season in Vienna, Lotte went to Hamburg for her annual series of guest performances. Very weary from her strenuous schedule, she was looking forward to a complete rest at Westerland on the island of Sylt, where her brother, now married, had a house. Sylt is still a favorite spot for nude bathing in the North Sea. There she received an urgent message from Richard Strauss. But first the background:
One day a large package arrived unannounced. It turned out to be the piano score of Die Frau ohne Schatten [The Woman Without a Shadow, the new Strauss opera], along with a letter from Schalk, in which he implored me not to send it back by return of post, as was my custom (all my life I have suffered from an inferiority complex). That procedure would merely be a waste of time: I had to sing the role of the Dyer’s Wife, if for no other reason than that it had been written especially for me. There was absolutely no point in my being difficult and making him get down on his knees before I gave in and accepted. In other words, he concluded, make believe that this score has already been sent to you once before.
Lotte took a peek at the part. It terrified her. She turned it down (but kept the score). Then, barely settled down for her well-earned rest at Westerland, she received the following letter from Strauss, dated June 27, 1919:
My dear Fräulein!
The piled up work for the festival [Strauss was vigorously involved in the founding of the Salzburg Festival] has unfortunately almost totally forestalled the preliminary work with the solo cast members of Die Frau ohne Schatten. If the already announced date of the première, October 1, is to be met [it was not; the first performance took place on October 10], then the staging rehearsals must start on August 28. I therefore address to you the respectful request that during the vacation you apply yourself to studying the role of the Dyer’s Wife, who is the crucial figure in the external action, so that the part will be well memorized by the beginning of August; and I include the respectful question, whether you might not have the inclination and the time to come here in early August (about ten days before you travel to Vienna) and to study the role with me personally, to give it that last bit of polish.
Frau Weidt [cast as the Nurse] will do the same and it would be of great use to you and make your work much easier, if you could have your role ready here with me alone before your arrival for the last [musical] rehearsals [in Vienna].
If you come from the north, Garmisch is right on the way to Vienna (i.e., a couple of hours from Munich), this is a lovely place for a sojourn and my wife would be especially happy if she could receive you here, honored lady. She sends her very best greetings.
So please come around the 5th of August and gladden with your visit your sincerely devoted
Dr. Richard Strauss.
Lotte dashed back to Austria to find the score, which had also just settled down quite snugly for a restful vacation in her mother’s suitcase. By some miracle she managed to find in Gmunden (a lake-side resort between Salzburg and Linz) a pianist who could actually read the difficult music. She sweat blood over the score as she shed pounds at a sanatorium that specialized in weight-reduction. It was a strenuous summer. Drastic dieting (too much Viennese pastry in Lotte’s recent past). Wild rides on an electric horse. Going nowhere fast on a rowing machine. Excess flesh melted away; but her fear of the part refused to do the same. She feared for the health of her voice. The part seemed just too dangerous. She decided again to turn it down.
Schalk responded with a telegram that must have warmed the wires:
IMPLORE YOU OVERCOME HYSTERICAL STATE OF PANIC UPON FURTHER ACQUAINTANCE ALL TERRORS OF THE PART WILL FULLY DISAPPEAR AND SHEER JOY TAKE THEIR PLACE ROLE SCREAMS FOR LEHMANN AND ARTISTIC SPIRITUAL SALVATION ON TO GARMISCH SINCERELY SCHALK
Strauss, apprised of her latest rebellion, also sent a telegram. Lotte was still adamant:
I answered that I did not want to sing the part because I had no intention of establishing myself as a match-seller on the Kärtnerstrasse the day after the première….
The telegraph office in quiet little Gmunden was gradually going crazy. Here comes another telegram from Strauss!
DYER’S-WIFE-ROLE NEITHER LOW NOR HIGH NEITHER LONG NOR TAXING KEEP STUDYING AND 5 AUGUST COME HERE SO I CAN PERSONALLY CURE YOU OF THE STUDY-SICKNESS DIAGNOSED IN ALL SINGERS SINCE SALOME WITH TRIED AND TRUE REMEDY OF ALTERATIONS LETTER FOLLOWS GREETINGS RICHARD STRAUSS
Here is the letter (dated July 22) that followed:
My dear Fräulein!
I would be far more horrified over your letter if Die Frau ohne Schatten were my first opera. As it happens, however, I have known that kind of letter, such as yours is, for fifteen years and the study-sickness, of which the symptoms are clearly recognizable in your words, has each time been cured before the première.
What ox, or let’s say, which of your opera-composing colleagues put the idea into your head that this role is too taxing? At the piano, while studying, when a couple of high-lying phrases need to be practised—how often certain things seem taxing that later, on the stage, practically sing themselves. For God’s sake, think of the frightful disgrace if you—the top young-dramatic soprano—could not sing the most beautiful young-dramatic role. If Frl. Jeritza had to take over your role because Frl. Lehmann couldn’t handle it. You surely don’t want to do that to yourself! That would really be suicide! And you don’t have to, either—the prescription for the remedy against this most harmless of all singers’ illnesses, the climax of which you seem to be presently suffering, is already available here. You only need to come as soon as possible; I promise you, in three days you’ll be healed, if you have gone through the lovely role with me (it is truly beautiful and fabulously grateful). If we have to we can change a few details, make a few alterations in the cut so that the dress will be a perfect fit!
Your refusal, therefore, is hereby most politely, but most firmly rejected—we expect you very soon, my wife asks you please to stay as our guest (have you not received my last letter?) and then:
[He sketches in four bars from Zerlina’s second aria in Don Giovanni; the words—not written—refer to a special remedy, unavailable through a pharmacist, which is sure to cure all ills.]
With cordial greetings! Your
For the time being still very indignant
Dr. Richard Strauss.
Apparently Lotte kept playing hard to get, for a few days later she received a letter from Ludwig Karpath that inluded these lines:
Strauss just telegraphed a third time: I am to drive to Gmunden, pack you into a trunk, and take you with me, so that you can’t get out of it. You can see how much importance he gives to your participation. To let such a world-première slip away from you would be a crime against yourself….
Perhaps Lotte was more afraid of stifling in a suitcase than of singing the role. In any case, she finally found the courage to agree. The weeks she spent with Strauss in Garmisch were among the most artistically productive in her life. He professed to be astonished and pleased at her thorough preparation and actually had very little to change or to correct. Mostly he concentrated on the phrasing. He seemed to approve of her interpretation and made very few suggestions. Sometimes there seemed to be tears in his eyes. They worked long and hard every morning, more intensively than Lotte had ever thought possible. In the evening he accompanied Lotte in his lieder, a special joy for both of them, and also for his wife, Pauline, for whom most of them had been composed. There would be nostalgic tears and affectionate embraces and Lotte understood what few who knew the Strausses ever understood: that this marriage was a truly happy one after all. To the world in general Frau Pauline was the most notorious shrew since Xantippe, not excluding Shakespeare’s Kate. If a picnic had been planned and it started to rain, Strauss would get the blame. If Lotte objected that he could hardly be expected to stop the rain, Strauss would say: “Don’t defend me—that always makes it worse.” Her tantrums in public made everyone shudder but Strauss. She often claimed that she had married beneath her. She complained to Lotte that she could have been the wife of a dashing young hussar. Lotte laughed and said she could not work up much sympathy for the wife of the world’s greatest living composer. A typical response from Pauline would be that Massenet and Lehár wrote far better music than her husband. Yet Strauss adored her and had already immortalized her in such orchestral works as Ein Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica; now, in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Lotte’s role, the Dyer’s wife, had been partly modeled on Pauline by Strauss’s great collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Later, as we shall see, Strauss was his own librettist for an opera entirely about Pauline (Intermezzo). Strauss had a placid nature and claimed that he needed the goading of his wife to stimulate his inspiration. “Believe me,” he said to Lotte one day, “the admiration of the whole world is less dear to me than one of Pauline’s fits.” Fortunately for Lotte, Pauline took a great liking to her. They did strenuous calisthenics together every day, on the floor, for Pauline felt that the sanatorium at Gmunden had not quite finished the job of transforming Lotte into a sylph.
A letter to Baroness Putlitz gives Lotte’s impressions while they were still fresh:
Those were very interesting and wonderful days which I spent in his delightful villa. We studied very much and in between I took “air baths” with the very earthy Frau Pauline Strauss…. There was a lot of fun and a lot of amazement, that I must say!! But I like her, she is such a character [sie ist so originell]. And she loves me ardently. I am on very friendly terms with her and “her Richardl.” Back in Vienna, work poured down on me, so to speak; in the stupid heat of late summer we had unspeakably exhausting stage rehearsals from ten to three every day….
Lehmann had much to say about Strauss in several of her books. She was asked about him in every interview. Here is an excerpt from one of her unpublished papers:
The time spent at his house brought me nearer to him. But it would be an exaggeration if I said we were friends…one was simply not his friend: he drew a wall about himself and his family—and his works were the children of his spirit. Therefore I find it so wrong when people say he was too much the “businessman” and always only thinking about the royalties his operas would bring in…No, he was like a father who naturally wanted to see his children admired and famous. Is that so wrong? That he happened to have a good sense for business has nothing to do, I find, with the ideal side of his genius….
I always honored Strauss very much, also as a human being. And when in the terrible Nazi times most people did not understand him, I nevertheless always knew: he could not have been a Nazi. For political fanaticism was absolutely foreign to his nature. But if a member of his family was in danger, he would do anything to protect his loved ones [Strauss’s daughter-in-law was Jewish].
After all: who has the right to pry into the character of someone who has given so much beauty to the world?
I have always honored him…I think with gratitude of the glorious genius which gave so much richness to my life as a singer through his operas and through his songs.
Die Frau ohne Schatten makes enormous demands upon all the resources of a leading theatre. It received a lavish production, in spite of the miserable state of the economy. Then, as always, the opera was a symbol of all that was great in Austria’s heritage. Almost everyone considered it worth every penny. The ingenious, magnificent sets were by Alfred Roller. Jeritza sang the Empress, Aagard-Oestwig the Emperor, Richard Mayr was Barak, Lucie Weidt the Nurse.
Incidentally, Lotte had always been told that the role of the Dyer’s wife had been written for her (as in the letter from Schalk, above). It was something of a shock for her to read a magazine article many decades later in which Jeritza was quoted as saying that the part had originally been offered to her, but that Strauss had changed his mind when he realized that the Empress was the more grateful role. Be that as it may, the subject came up in the vastly entertaining double interview that reunited the two arch-rivals during the intermission of a Metropolitan Opera broadcast. That will be covered later in this book.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the author of the libretto, had not been in favor of casting Lotte in the opera. At the time he still considered her too “bourgeois,” too “sober.” In a letter to Strauss, he doubted that she could fulfill the spiritual dimensions of “the most important character in the whole piece.” He never became one of her fans.
The première was a glorious success, one of the most brilliant ever. Many critics felt that this was Richard Strauss’s most beautiful, richly-textured opera (Strauss himself considered it his masterpiece). Everyone rejoiced in the exceptional cast of stars, all at their very brightest, and in the sumptuous settings and special, magical effects. Franz Schalk, who conducted, brought out all the beauties of the complex score.
Lotte’s role was especially challenging because at first glance the Dyer’s Wife seems rather unlikable (as mentioned above, she was inspired partly by Hofmannsthal’s impressions of Pauline). The character is a discontented, embittered young woman who seems sullen and selfish, forever reproaching her kindly, patient husband (Barak) and utterly lacking in any appreciation of his noble nature, let alone any feelings of gratitude for his understanding love. At least, that is how she appears in the first two-thirds of the opera. Lotte managed to win the sympathy of the audience for this poor, frustrated creature, and thereby to justify Barak’s great love and add stature to the story, by discovering the jewel deeply buried under layers of grime. That is what Schalk knew she could do and what he meant in his telegram by “salvation.” He saw that the part cried out for the sort of spiritual dimension she alone could find in it.
The rehearsals and performances presented a number of technical problems that had to be solved. Some of them are discussed in Lotte’s book about the Strauss operas.
I had been giving some thought to the problem of what I could possibly do [during the long, serene, and very beautiful musical interlude expressing the goodness of Barak]. The last preceding phrase that I had sung consisted of a violent outburst against Barak, and immediately after the interlude I was to resume the same pitch of undiminished fury. Dramatically I felt somewhat at sea, and I asked Strauss what he thought I ought to do. “Do?” he asked in turn. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all. Why must you be doing something? After all, in real life people don’t keep running back and forth all the time, do they? Just stand there quietly and think yourself into the meaning of your role. I’m sure you’ll find the right sort of expression.”
Strauss’s simple explanation actually contained a valuable hint as to the nature of acting. One must have the courage to stand still, to “act” without “action,” and one’s thoughts must be so wholly concentrated and lucidly powerful as to be perceptibly convincing. To me, this was a revelation. [Yet, as we have seen, a critic in Hamburg praised Lotte’s Octavian for that very quality.]
Then there were the quick changes. In one scene the Dyer’s Wife is offered seductive temptations through magic.
This particular scene was staged with striking effect in Vienna. A huge glass platform rose out of the pit, with girls in slave costumes on it; multicolored lights played on it from below, and the vision was absolutely ravishing. The transformation [of the poor Dyer’s Wife into a glamorous siren] came about after the brief moment of darkness which had to suffice for my change of costume. Two dressers stood by, ready and waiting; they quickly wrapped me in a brocade coat and fastened the diadem in my hair. Every movement had been practiced to perfection, and my sudden reappearance as a queen must have been a rather impressive sight. A huge gold mirror was held up by the slave girls, and I stepped in front of it, kneeling slowly….
Then, after the vision of a handsome, half-naked young man, the Dyer’s Wife is returned to her rags.
Once again…a brief moment of darkness and a change of costume accomplished in desperate haste. Somehow this race against time always came off without a hitch, but it invariably left me trembling from head to foot.
Lotte garnered lots of glorious reviews for Papa’s scrapbook.
…It is not possible to portray a female creature more movingly, more compassionately, or more winsomely. With her seriously, sadly sung words, “You have not made me a mother. My craving for that I have had to put down,” she casts a clarifying light over the riddles of the entire opera…. (Dr. Elsa Bienenfeld, Neues Wiener Journal, October 11, 1919.)
…Lotte Lehmann was the Dyer’s Wife. Already in appearance a magnificent, naturalistic character-study, her acting achieved rich nuances. Her vocal organ takes the complicated Straussian passages with effortless ease. The voice seems fuller and healthier…. (Armand Erdös, Wiener Mittags Zeitung, October 11, 1919.)
Outside of the theatre, times were hard for everyone. The new republic had been cut off from most of its former food and fuel supplies. A kilo of butter cost 180 crowns, sugar 65. Lotte and her aging parents needed servants. It was simply too expensive for them all to live together in the city. Lotte was receiving 50,000 crowns a year (Strauss as co-director 80,000). But, thanks to galloping inflation, that was just enough to house and feed one person. Though she had more than enough to do at the Opera, she had to accept as many guest engagements and sing as many concerts as possible to take care of her parents. She scored a great success in Prague. Both Berlin and Dresden offered her long-term contracts—but she preferred to stay in Vienna—“where Strauss is.” A popular variety theatre offered her 120,000 crowns to sing every evening in a thirty-minute operetta to be composed especially for her by Franz Lehár. She fought for that with both directors, Schalk and Strauss, but they refused their permission. “Did she intend to sing while the customers were eating goulash?” They did not want a star of their opera to appear in cabaret (shades of Rudolf Bing and Helen Traubel, years later at the Met). Lotte answered one question with another: “Did they intend to compensate her for the 120,000 crowns?”
In spite of glowing outer successes, Lotte was deeply depressed and very nervous. She confided her feelings to the baroness:
Money seems to trickle away through my fingers. I have gone through weeks of a terrible depression that I can’t seem to shake off. I have withdrawn from every social contact….I am always alone. Yesterday I gave in to the urging of a colleague and went to a supper at his house. Lots of people, champagne, happy chatter, laughter….I sat among them like a stranger. I can’t enjoy myself like that any more, or laugh so lightheartedly. I hope this will soon pass. How rarely a performance at the theatre makes me really happy. I am so nervous that I suffer stage-fright as never before….
To make matters worse, her father seemed to be failing and she had trouble getting along with him.
An apartment with a veranda and a garden was found for Mama and Papa in a villa in Baden, near the park. It turned out to be less expensive for them to take their main meal at a restaurant than to have it prepared at home. Mama was able to make breakfast, Jause (afternoon coffee snack), and Abendbrot (a simple supper) herself. Lotte moved into a Pension.
Next for Lotte came three Puccini operas in a row, the first in her career. Mimì in La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, and, in October 1920, Sister Angelica. Within a few years she also added Tosca, Manon Lescaut, and Turandot. Puccini himself came to Vienna to oversee the première of his Trittico, three one-act operas that had in common the theme of death, violent, transcendent, or satirical.
He was accompanied, as usual, by his old friend, Riccardo Schnabel-Rossi [who served also as his interpreter]. Puccini was not satisfied with the casting of the female role in Der Mantel [Il tabarro]—impatiently and in a sour mood he said to Riccardo, “Please go to the Angelica rehearsal and listen to the singer. Probably someone impossible, since I never heard of this Lehmann….” Riccardo told me that after five minutes of my piano-rehearsal he dashed back to Puccini, crying: “She is great!”
“Oh, you with your partiality for anybody that happens to be singing in Vienna!” was the maestro’s answer.
The role in Der Mantel was then given to Jeritza and it is quite unnecessary to mention how enthusiastic Puccini was about the change. I too found him grateful and very delighted with my Angelica. I have a very flattering letter from him, and a picture…with the lovely inscription: “A la indimenticabile Angelica di Vienna.”
While he was in Vienna we also gave La Bohème. I sang Mimì….After the performance he came to my dressing room, and when I asked him if he was satisfied with me, he answered: “Look into my eyes—there you see tears of gratitude….”
Suor Angelica was given in Vienna at a memorial performance after Puccini’s death, and my voice and my soul gave a greeting to the great master of cantilena. Perhaps they soared to those regions of light to which he was carried away.
Among his operas, Suor Angelica was Puccini’s child of sorrows. Soon after the world première at the Metropolitan Opera, that centerpiece of the Triptych had been detached from the side-panels. The nun whose sin for love was forgiven by the Virgin was left to languish in semi-oblivion until Lotte Lehmann revealed what could be done with the part. For this, Puccini, who had never lost faith in his opera, was infinitely grateful. To those critics who belittled Suor Angelica he had this to say: “Go to Vienna!” According to his friend and sometime librettist, Giovacchino Forzano, Puccini felt he had found a successor to his beloved Rosina Storchio in Lotte Lehmann who had “absolutely realized” his conception.
To his friend Sybil Seligmann he wrote:
…Lehmann [is] a fine, delicate artist—simple and without any of the airs of a prima donna, with a voice as sweet as honey.
Puccini came to Lotte’s dressing room after a performance of La Bohème with tears in his eyes. They communicated partly in broken English; his wife Elvira knew some German and helped out as interpreter.
There are three letters from Puccini in the Lotte Lehmann Archive of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The first was written after he heard that she had canceled her first scheduled performance as Manon Lescaut; apparently she had expressed the fear he might be annoyed with her.
Gentile e cara Sigina Lehmann
How can I be angry with my soavissima [utterly lovely] Suor Angelica? With much sorrow I heard that you gave up the part of Manon because of illness. I asked about you, but they told me you were not in Vienna.
Be assured of my esteem for I recognize and appreciate your great qualities as an artist. You will sing Manon on some other occasion and I am absolutely certain that you will have a triumphant success.
With best wishes and affectionate greetings
Lotte finally did sing in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, three years after her first Suor Angelica, and once again the composer came to Vienna, this time especially to hear her.
19. X. 23
Dear Signorina Lehmann
I want to tell you how happy I am with your interpretation of Manon—your art, full of sentiment, together with your beautiful voice have given to my Manon a great vividness [un grande rilievo] and I thank you cordially and am very happy for the great success you have had. — A rivederci — with best greetings
Two months later she received a postcard from Italy:
Many good wishes and greetings to the gentle and exquisite Manon from G. Puccini
Less than a year later Puccini was dead. He never heard her Tosca, but he told Forzano he could well imagine that she would bring to the role “more womanliness” than other singers and through that quality make Tosca more believable.
When Lotte, then in her eighties, happened to read what Puccini had said about her, she burst into tears.