A Documentary Biography
By Beaumont Glass
(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)
The Next Great Landmark
The Marschallin in London made Lotte a truly international star. From then on her career blossomed outward from its center in Vienna. Her seasons in London and Berlin became annual events. She sang in the Salzburg Festivals every summer from 1926 until 1937. Except for two seasons (1922/23, 1923/24), she remained loyal to Hamburg until 1929. There was also the Munich Festival of 1926, there were Budapest, Breslau, Prague. Paris was happy to be conquered in 1928, Stockholm and Brussels in 1929. She was the first German to sing in Belgium after the war; her triumph with three programs of German lieder (the first two at the Royal Theatre, the third at the Palace of Fine Arts) “was not only a great personal success but represented a significant step forward in establishing a better relationship between Belgium and Germany.” At the start of the first of her recitals in Brussels, the audience was decidedly cool. Memories of wartime devastation left great bitterness against the Germans in many Belgian hearts. But the Lehmann magic quickly worked its spell. One elderly Belgian lady said: “I can’t stand that language, but the singer sings so gloriously that I can’t help applauding.” (Both quotations are from the clipping in Lotte Lehmann’s press book of an unidentified newspaper report.) Finally, in 1930, the U.S.A. signed on.
During all this time she was also active in the recording studios. Arias, lieder (too often with wheezy salon orchestra accompaniments, but vocally lovely), religious songs, and some utterly delicious lighter music, like her irresistibly seductive version of Eine kleine Liebelei.
She returned to lucrative charmers like that whenever her parents’ medical bills started to bend her budget.
There were honors and decorations. Especially for her, Schalk revived the title of Kammersängerin (literally “Chamber Singer,” from the days of the monarchy when singers were honored by the appointment to sing for the emperor in his chamber, a sign of his highest esteem). Lotte was the first singer to receive that designation since the collapse of the monarchy. She officially became Frau Kammersängerin Lotte Lehmann on February 17, 1926. On September 26, 1928, she became an “Honor-Member of the Vienna State Opera.”
Lotte—called by Le Figaro “la reine de Paris”—was decorated by France, first with the Golden Palm, then on March 19, 1931, with the order of the Legion of Honor. At that time she was one of the very few women who had received that honor. Former Premier Jean Louis Barthou (who happened to be a great Lehmann fan) kissed her on both cheeks in traditional French style as part of the ceremony. Lotte was so moved she could only stammer out “Merci.” Barthou turned to the audience and said: “She is absolutely charming. I kiss her and she thanks me.”
The King of Sweden conferred upon her the golden medal Literis et Artibus after a performance of Fidelio in February 1929 (Maria Nemeth was similarly honored for her performance as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni). After a difficult crossing of the ice-bound Baltic, the Vienna Opera had come to Stockholm for a guest engagement. Lotte started back independently, before the rest of the company. Her ship was stuck fast in the ice for twenty-two hours.
Fidelio! The next great landmark in Lotte’s career after the Marschallin was the role of Leonore (“Fidelio”) in Beethoven’s only opera, the supreme test of her endurance as well as of her artistry. Lehmann often said that that role demanded every bit of physical and spiritual strength that she could muster. It was her farthest excursion into “high-dramatic” territory. When she fell to the floor of the prison after the great rescue quartet, she felt as if she were not just acting a collapse; then, however, the flaming ecstasy of the following duet filled her instantly with new energy and life. In My Many Lives she writes: “I found in [the role of Leonore] the most exalted moments of my opera career and was shaken by it to the depths of my being.”
Here, from that same book, are some of Lotte’s further thoughts:
The part of Leonore imposes greater dramatic problems than any other role: she must be convincing as a man, while she is actually the most feminine of women. It must be clear that it is only through her great love that Leonore is capable of enduring the torment of her disguise.
One must picture Leonore as she was before tragedy threatened to destroy her life: she was the beloved wife of a man of high position in the political world. She was adored and honored. Then, through the clever intrigue of Pizarro, her husband was lured into a trap: he disappeared—she did not know where they had taken him. She has only known that he must be suffering in some prison and that his bitterest opponent in the political field, Pizarro, must be involved in his disappearance. But Leonore has not been contented to weep and complain in helplessness as would have been the average woman of her time. Where others would have given up in despair she acted. An evil plot has robbed her of her husband, a clever plot must bring him back to her—that is her decision. She suspects which prison it is in which he is languishing. She knows the ways of Pizarro, she knows that he would only have taken him to the place from which there would be the least possibility of escape. She knows of a dark dungeon which would seem to be the most secure—no one could escape from it. Victims of political enmity—political “criminals”—have been thrown into this prison. How many innocent beings have suffered in this grave of the living! To reach it is Leonore’s goal. But how? A woman could never accomplish this, and even if she did succeed in doing so without being recognized she knows that she would never be admitted. So she must disguise herself as a man. Secretly she learns to walk as a man, to make movements which until now have been completely foreign to her nature. She must be convincing if she wants to succeed. And she must succeed for she must free her husband. She practices carrying herself like a man until her bearing becomes convincing and natural.
She has the good fortune to be engaged as the helper of the prison master, Rocco. She has forged her way closer to her goal. But she has not found her husband among the prisoners to whom she must bring food. So, in her disguise, she serves here without really knowing whether her husband Florestan suffers within these dark walls. And now a distressing complication has arisen: Marzelline, Rocco’s young daughter, has fallen head over heels in love with this handsome youth who seems so different from the young men whom she knows. Different from Jaquino, Rocco’s helper, whose love until now had been quite welcome but now seems only a nuisance—for how could he compare with Fidelio’s beauty?
Leonore—or rather “Fidelio,” for this is the name under which she lives here in disguise—sees that Marzelline is a spoiled daughter and that her father, Rocco, would gladly do anything to make her happy. If Leonore should seem to reject Marzelline’s none too subtle indications of love, Rocco might in the end tell Fidelio that he must leave in order to save his daughter from a broken heart. That must be avoided! She must win Rocco’s confidence, his complete confidence. So she accepts Marzelline’s advances and plays the lover. It hurts her to deceive these harmless and simple people who have been so kind to her. In moments of depression she hates herself for being able to do this. But the rescue of Florestan is everything to her. It is worthwhile to play an apparently unworthy role in order to achieve this goal.
The portrayer of Leonore must have a deep understanding of this whole situation and must know what she is feeling the moment she enters the stage. She is returning from a mission which has been a torture to her: she has had to fetch new chains from the blacksmith and knows that they may perhaps be placed about her husband—to make certain that he will never escape. She has suffered from this torturing thought and has also suffered physically from the weight of the chains, for never before has she carried so heavy a burden.
So she enters the door almost upon the point of collapse spiritually and physically.
She is pale—there are deep shadows beneath her eyes. She leans for a moment against the frame of the door as if to gather strength. But her eyes search the faces of Rocco and Marzelline anxiously and questioningly: whenever she has been away she is fearful lest something might have betrayed her secret—she is always on guard, always anxious. But no—they both look at her with the same confidence as before…..
All of that before Leonore has uttered a word. That is typical of the way in which Lotte imaginatively reconstructed the background and prehistory of the characters she portrayed—with so much sensitive psychological insight, as in the following passage:
There are endless opportunities for subtle differentiations in acting Leonore: this very feminine woman must behave consciously as a man when she knows that she is under observation, but when she is alone she is feminine and soft. For example, the whole first part of the great aria (after the violently dramatic recitative at the beginning) should be sung with almost no movement—as if lost in prayer. Here she should be completely Leonore and not at all Fidelio. In the second part she is overwhelmed by the immensity of her task and is so completely under the spell of her desperate struggle that she becomes “Fidelio” from head to toe, even though she is alone. But she speaks of victory and success—and victory and success are dependent upon her own cleverness, her own skill in carrying out the plan which she has conceived: the excusable deception of these innocent people for the sake of her husband. With the fanfare of trumpets she again becomes the man who in her absorption had given place to the loving woman.
She sang the part for the first time on March 26, 1927, in a gala performance to celebrate the centennial of Beethoven’s death. There was a cast of stars: Piccaver as Florestan, Alfred Jerger as Pizarro, Mayr as Rocco, Schumann as Marzelline. Lotte Lehmann reached new heights and set a new standard. Franz Schalk, who had guided her through the rehearsals and conducted the performance, wrote to a friend: “A great, overwhelming, radiant festival, and our Lotte Lehmann was its brilliant center.” Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, a great singer of the previous generation, was in the audience. Her impressions of that night have been preserved:
After the great Leonore aria I was seized with terror: that was such a deeply human, thrilling scene, so natural and full of feeling, that I thought my pulse had stopped beating. Everything that the young singer had done before was as if swept away through this achievement, which will signify a landmark in Lehmann’s career. Her accomplishment is grander and more human, more detailed and well thought out than that of the great Lilli Lehmann.
The critics searched for new superlatives:
…Lotte Lehmann was an experience as Leonore. That is a Fidelio of whom they will still be singing in the most distant future. That is perfection.
…Lotte Lehmann, who in the last few years has risen to ever higher perfection, surpassed herself as Leonore, which she sang for the first time….
…Lotte Lehmann was simply glorious; more than that, hers was great singing and a moving womanly creation.
…One can hardly imagine another performer of Leonore like Frau Lehmann. Perhaps she lacks heroic volume. But out of her words, whether spoken or sung, the tones sound as if they come from the depths of the feminine heart. So speaks and so sings the purest love, which is infinite in its joy of giving, only giving, and asks nothing, expects nothing in return. That tone, true to nature, unaffected, unadorned with any fancy “nuances,” penetrates movingly to our hearts.
A reporter from Paris wrote:
…Mme. Lotte Lehmann, who is the purest and most magnificent soprano of the Vienna Opera, absolutely surpassed herself, vocally and histrionically, in her dramatic rendition of Leonore. A delirious audience showered her with unending applause.
Another critic reported in English:
…Lotte Lehmann, whose talent seemingly has no limitations, as she triumphed recently in two such different parts as Puccini’s Turandot and the Frau Storch of Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo, was an admirable Leonore….
And still another in English:
…And Lotte Lehmann created just that same indelible impression which she had made here [in England, in other roles]. She was lifted out of herself, it seemed….
Two months later Lotte sang Fidelio in Hamburg to similar acclaim:
…She is one of the few who have realized the mysterious something which this opera contains; she is in tune with the magical things in the Beethoven language, she has come inwardly near to the soul of Fidelio in an astonishing process of artistic travail. For years we have experienced no Leonore in Hamburg who reached so deeply into our hearts….In acting as in song this Leonore was the glowing flame of the evening. Histrionically an accomplishment polished to the last degree, wherein technical mastery could be taken for granted. Feeling was everything, guided vocally by powerful impulses, yet under emotions of the highest kind. A sound-miracle [ein Klangwunder].
Berlin was equally ecstatic:
…In a performance filled by Bruno Walter with the spirit of Beethoven, Lotte Lehmann sings Leonore, frees that image of the Ideal from the bonds of tradition. Intuitively conceived out of the fullness of a strong, individual femininity, a Leonore of pure human greatness emerges, to whom conventional operatic pathos and masculinized heroics are equally foreign. A womanly nature of pensive inner simplicity which does not give up its natural manner even in masculine dress, a true heroine of the heart, whose heroism has its source in feminine soul-power and the self-sacrificing love of a devoted wife. This Leonore moves us and stirs us because she alone is fundamentally the genuinely felt Leonore of Beethoven….She sings her great aria, technically masterfully articulated, with moving sentiment, an outpouring of purest feeling. In the prison scene she finds just the tone of voice, the very gesture for the strongest possible dramatic accentuation. “Kill first his wife!” how deeply stirring that sounds from her mouth….
Berlin had a rich diet of Fidelio that season. All three of its companies were offering that opera: with Lotte and Bruno Walter at the Städische Oper Charlottenburg, with Frida Leider and Erich Kleiber at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, and with Rose Pauly and Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Oper.
Leo Slezak sang Florestan to Lotte’s Leonore in some of her later performances in Vienna, and had this to say about her in his autobiography:
Lotte Lehmann was my favorite of the many Leonores with whom I have sung. She had the secret, the only secret we have—the heart. When the heart begins to speak, it affects everything else, the understanding, the voice, the most consummate vocal art, and the most expert routine. The tone that comes from the heart goes to the heart of the listener, who may not even realize what it is that makes him so glad.
The production of Fidelio with Lehmann as Leonore was taken to Paris in 1928 and to Stockholm, as we have seen, in 1929. During the guest performances of the Vienna Opera in Paris, Lotte also sang her Marschallin and Sieglinde. The composer Reynaldo Hahn (whose songs she loved to sing) summarized his impressions of the season for one of the Paris papers:
Let me be permitted, before finishing with the Viennese season, to render an exceptional hommage to the great talent of Mme. Lotte Lehmann. In roles offering the most absolute contrasts, first under the boyish cap of Fidelio, then under the powdered wig of the Marschallin von Werdenberg, calm, sad, stoically smiling, and at last under the cascading mane of Sieglinde, she has appeared to us as one of the most complete artists one has ever been able to see in the theatre. With a refined expertise [science], with admirable nobility and justness of expression, she molded, shaped, and adapted, to the most delicate nuances of feeling, the precious material of a voice rich in timbre, moving and pure. Her acting is worthy of her singing: clean, well-balanced [sobre], distinguished, without a gesture too much, and always in perfect harmony with the music. She understands when it is necessary to become carried away, ardent, and as if heedless of any risk. Mme. Lehmann offers to the astonished spectator an absolutely perfect combination of the musical and dramatic elements, and it is she who constitutes the most important revelation of the Vienna Opera.
Other Paris critics wrote: “Whoever has had the good fortune to see Mme. Lotte Lehmann in Fidelio knows that she is unique,” and “I believe it is not possible to possess to a higher degree the art of singing.”
To meet the vocal challenge of Fidelio, Lotte had studied with the distinguished teacher, Felicia Kaszowska, with whom she had also faced the stratospheric flights of the title role in Turandot. Puccini died before he had finished this, the last, grandest, most ambitious of his works. The opera was completed by Franco Alfano, using the composer’s sketches. Vienna gave Turandot a double première. The first night featured Viennese bel canto and subtle acting with well-established favorites Lotte Lehmann and Leo Slezak in the leading rôles; the second “première” starred Maria Nemeth and a new Polish tenor, Jan Kiepura, both of whom made a sensation with their viscerally thrilling, powerful high notes. Nemeth made a name as one of the major Turandots; but Lotte also made her mark in the part, and had a fine success with it in Berlin as well as in Vienna. The following review comes from Berlin:
…I confess, I anticipated Lehmann’s high notes with some trepidation. A more pleasant surprise is scarcely imaginable! This unbelievably difficult role, difficult because one has to sing almost constantly in the highest register, was as good as totally conquered by the artist. Unforced, free, clear, warm, her voice purled forth, and one could even understand the words of the riddles—if one knew them. Those riddles are the trickiest part of the role. So brava, bravissima! It was a top performance. And figure, makeup, and acting supported the effect in the best way.
She recorded Turandot’s two arias, at the first of her recording sessions to use the electric method (which had come rather late to Odeon). The second aria, “del primo pianto” (“Die ersten Tränen” in German), includes material missing from the standard Ricordi score and only recently rediscovered and performed.
Turandot and Leonore were followed by the title role in Das Wunder der Heliane by Korngold. Lotte’s recording of the soaring aria, “Ich ging zu ihm,” was one of her favorites. Jan Kiepura was her partner. He played a young man unjustly imprisoned who begs to see her unveiled beauty before he has to die. The critics were impressed with the tasteful way in which she gave the illusion of disrobing while preserving the essential purity of the character.
…Lotte Lehmann does not act Heliane, she is Heliane. In the incomparable timbre of her voice there is the quiet radiance of a chastity which ennobles her every movement and her standing still and which speaks forcefully and movingly out of every manifestation of her feminine heroism, out of sorrow and compassion, love and self-sacrifice. Lotte Lehmann has deeply understood and captured the nature of Heliane, the magic of a naïve loveliness, an innocence threatened by the sweet torments of erotic arousal. Her first entrance, bathed in light, ethereal in appearance and expression, is unforgettable. The way in which she unbinds her hair, uncovers her feet, her body, that cannot be acted more movingly or at the same time with more purity. The aria in which she later defends herself before the court [the aria she recorded] comes out of burning emotion. It is masterfully expounded, building in intensity of feeling, without pose or exaggeration. The language of the heart, which is as shattering as the aria itself. Lotte Lehmann may place Heliane among her gallery of saints, which extends from Wagner’s Elisabeth to Beethoven’s Leonore.
…Lotte Lehmann, perfection itself, was Heliane. Grandiose in poetic conception, unsurpassable in song….
Years later Lotte remembered Heliane in a letter:
The rehearsal time of Wunder der Heliane is in my memory as a very happy one. I recall that it was rather difficult for me to appear in the first act almost naked, in the scene where, following the wishes of the tenor, I have to shed my garments—but it was done so discreetly, that I do not think anybody could have been shocked. Nowadays it would be no cause for blushing anymore!….I also think that Heliane should have been given to the very young and lovely Margit Angerer. I have never ceased to be objective with myself—and now in retrospect I cannot understand that I accepted parts which were really not right for me.
That sort of self-criticism was often typical of Lotte. As her dear friend, Frances Holden, said, “she was always putting herself down.”
A letter, from the time of the Heliane rehearsals, to Mia Hecht, Lotte’s faithful fan from Hamburg days, tells much about her attitude to her life as an artist:
You, my dear Mia, would like to spare me the cares of every day. Oh, my child, who can do that? Lucky are they who can raise themselves for a time above those cares; and I belong to those who are blest in that way. Edyth Walker was right: we have to be thankful for that, we have to be good. I try to be. In the past, in my early youth, I did many things for which I now have to make up. Today, going through life more “consciously,” every wrong deed would weigh doubly heavily…. If only I could be more patient with Mama! My nerves so often let me down.
Lotte’s next premiere in Vienna was Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew) by Hermann Goetz. Marie Gutheil-Schoder had sung Lotte’s part, Katharina (Kate, the “shrew”), with great success three decades earlier; now, having just retired as a singer, she was engaged to be the stage director. Lotte had always been in awe of Gutheil-Schoder’s remarkable technique as an actress. She was anxious to please her former idol and tried to do exactly what was asked of her. That turned out to be very inhibiting to Lotte’s spontaneous, instinctive way of acting. Gutheil wanted to show her every tiny move. Lotte felt hamstrung:
It was the only role in which I was really bad. Since I absolutely worshiped Gutheil-Schoder, I slavishly imitated everything she did. Now, what she did was all very great and wonderful for her own portrayal, but not for mine. I remember that I was to place my hand on the arm of a chair, and she explained to me long and exhaustively what I had to do with each of my fingers.
My friend, Bella Paalen, sat out in the auditorium and watched the rehearsal. Finally she came up onto the stage and said to me: “Lotte, for God’s sake don’t do that! You are Gutheil-Schoder and not yourself.” But I was so under the spell of that woman that I did everything she wanted me to. After a rehearsal Strauss [who had returned to the Vienna Opera as guest conductor] came up to me and said: “Say, have you gone crazy? What’s wrong with you? You are Gutheil and not Lotte Lehmann. That doesn’t suit you. Forget as fast as you can everything that’s been drummed into you. You’re already `tamed’ and don’t need this piece to do that to you.”
The reviews were good, of course. In Vienna Lehmann could do no wrong. But one gets the impression nevertheless that she was more lovably mischievous than ferociously shrewish.
On the day of the dress rehearsal there was a most unpleasant confrontation. Lotte was summoned to the office of General Director Franz Schneiderhan, informed that she would not receive the raise she had requested, and told that if she wished to leave Vienna no one would prevent her. Those were blunt words, and very hurtful. Almost immediately startling headlines hit the streets:
THE STATE OPERA DOES WITHOUT LOTTE LEHMANN—
FLAT REFUSAL TO MEET HER SALARY DEMANDS
LOTTE LEHMANN WANTS TO LEAVE THE STATE OPERA
LOTTE LEHMANN TIRED OF STATE OPERA
The Viennese were in a state of shock when they read their newspapers. It was unthinkable. Lehmann was their brightest, most beloved star.
There was pandemonium at the première. Everyone was shouting: “Long live Lehmann! Stay! Don’t leave us!” Here is the background. Austria was in a bad economic situation. Furthermore, the state-supported theatres had run up an unusually large deficit. The directors of the Berlin, Dresden, and Vienna opera houses had made a gentlemen’s agreement not to enter into any new contracts that would pay solo singers more than 1000 marks (1700 Austrian schillings) per performance. Lotte Lehmann’s contract was about to expire (at the end of that season). She had asked Schalk for a raise of 300 schillings, to bring her fee up to 2000 schillings. Kiepura, on his still valid contract, was receiving 4000. Jeritza, when she sang in Vienna, got even more. Even 2000 would have been about sixty per cent less than what Lotte was currently earning in Berlin and London. Lotte assumed that her reasonable request for a raise—a matter of professional prestige—would be granted and that the contract only lacked the necessary signatures. It was a great shock to her to be told by Schneiderhan that her “demands” had been rejected and that her services were no longer indispensable to the Vienna Opera. The implication, or so it seemed to her, was that she was not, in effect, worth as much to the opera house as certain singers who were receiving much higher fees. Schneiderhan wanted, of course, to take a stand, as a warning to all the other artists (many of whom were also dissatisfied with their pay), by making an example out of his most prominent and important star.
Deeply offended, Lotte announced to the press her decision to leave Vienna. There was consternation everywhere, as she certainly knew there would be. Eventually, with the help of her husband, a mutually acceptable compromise was worked out so that neither party would be forced to lose face. Instead of the usual eight months’ commitment to Vienna, she agreed to six. That meant fewer guaranteed performances, therefore a financial saving for the theatre, but at the fee she had requested. Lotte now would have two more months for guest engagements elsewhere.
And she was in demand everywhere. A second Paris season (in 1929) brought even more adulation. She sang Elsa in German while the rest of the cast addressed her in French. Then she gave a lieder recital at the Opéra. It created a sensation:
…This admirable priestess of bel canto is perfection itself….
…What power, what articulation in the singing, and what inner flame!…A rare mastery.
The New York Herald Tribune (February 2, 1929) was no less enthusiastic in its report:
…The recital given by Mme. Lotte Lehmann at the Opéra on Thursday was not merely a success, but a veritable triumph. It must be said that the art of the great Viennese singer has attained such a point of perfection that…singing becomes, or rather seems to become, so easy that everybody could practice it. But what is Mme. Lehmann’s very own is the simplicity of her art. No aiming at effect…Such a soirée is a festival for musicians; it is also a lesson.
There was, however, a dissenting voice. Mme. Emma Eames, great diva of the “Golden Age,” turned to her companion after the first group of songs and said: “What is so remarkable? In my day, she would have been in the chorus.”
Lotte, like all theatre people, had her pet superstitions. Before singing she always went through the ritual of kissing photos of her mother, her father, her husband, her grandmother, and her brother. Although she was not then a Catholic, she had learned in Vienna also to cross herself. In an interview she tells about a missing good-luck charm:
I am very superstitious! Always, since the very beginning of my stage career, I carry a little chimney sweep around with me. The head is broken, one leg no less, but—it is my talisman. This spring, while I was here in Paris, I missed that little doll. My maid tearfully confessed that she had forgotten to pack it! When she noticed her error, she ran all over the city to find a similar one, hoping through an amputation or two to make it look like the old one….She couldn’t find one….I thought about the forgotten talisman just before my entrance. But somehow I had luck anyway. Quite a lot, in fact!
Even the chimney sweep could not always help. A singer is not a machine. There are better days and bad days. No other type of performer is so handicapped by a cold. Lotte was never one to pamper herself. She believed like many Germans that the best way to prevent illness was to toughen oneself up through, as she put it, “familiarity with wind and rain and weather.” She loved to swim, no matter how cold the water. Sometimes, in her youth, she was the only bather at the seaside resort. Years later, in California, she would go swimming in the Pacific all year round. But even so, be the outer body tough or not, there is no way to toughen those delicate membranes upon which the art (not to mention the bank account) of a singer depends. During Lotte’s earlier years in Vienna a very tiny nodule, smaller than a pinhead, was discovered on one of her vocal cords. Her doctor wanted to remove it; but her parents were against any operation that might alter the unique sound of her voice. It was left alone and in a few years there was no more trace of it. During one of those examinations, while the doctor was spraying Lotte’s throat, she accidentally swallowed the spray-nozzle. After it had passed through her safely, she gave it back to him. He wore it proudly as a watch-fob, boasting to everyone about its journey through Lotte Lehmann.
No one is immune to the demands of the body. During a particularly dramatic moment in a Lehmann performance of Madame Butterfly, the child who played her baby suddenly broke up the whole performance by loudly announcing: “Frau Butterfly, I have to go pee-pee.”
That was not Lotte’s only worry in that opera. After the scene in which she learns that Pinkerton has left her for another wife, she could not help crying, really crying; and that made it almost impossible for her to sing the very emotional, very demanding aria of farewell to her child, just before she commits ritual suicide. Schalk scolded her. “You forget that you are an actress and a singer; you need more self-discipline!” Lotte explained that she was always so carried away at that point that she simply forgot. “I’ll remind you the next time, just before we get to that passage,” he promised her. At the next performance, she noticed, subliminally, that he was making all sorts of peculiar signals in her direction and wondered what kind of frightful musical mistake she must be making. Before she had time to remember the reason, however, she had as usual started to cry. That last aria always came out choked with tears.
Her fear of a conductor’s wrath led her to turn down a very special offer. La Scala had invited her to sing Eva in Die Meistersinger, in Italian, at the special request of Arturo Toscanini, who would be conducting. She had heard harrowing tales of his fanatical obsession with precision. Since her conscience was never totally spotless where musical accuracy was concerned, she was afraid of becoming a target for his tempestuous temper. Later she regretted immensely the missed opportunity. It was many years before she had another chance to sing with him; and, when she finally did, their collaboration became one of the incomparable artistic highlights of her life.
Meanwhile, Lotte was making musical history at Salzburg. Her name will be forever associated with the Salzburg Festivals of the 1920’s and 30’s. Her first appearance there, in 1926, was as Ariadne, for just one performance (the first of three that season; the other two were sung by Claire Born). Clemens Krauss was the conductor. The following year she returned to sing four Fidelios, under Schalk, with the Vienna cast. In 1928 there were three more Fidelios. Then, in 1929, besides Fidelio, she sang the Marschallin. From then on, those two roles were rarely missing from her Salzburg repertoire (Fidelio only in 1933, the Marschallin only in ’36). Strangely enough she never sang any of her Mozart roles in the Mozart City. Her homage to Salzburg’s greatest native son was expressed through her passion for the famous Mozartkugel, a local chocolate specialty. Her whole life was a constant struggle between a desire, as a conscientious actress, to look her part, and a dangerous fondness for the sort of delicacy that practically precluded a delicate figure.
In that she was not alone. Plenty of glamorous prima donnas kept her company. Nevertheless, she was offered the part of Helen of Troy (and turned it down). Strauss and Hofmannsthal both knew that Maria Jeritza would be the ideal Helen for the première (in 1928) of their opera, Die Aegyptische Helena (Helen in Egypt, or “the Egyptian Helen”). She had the seductive charisma, the physical magnetism that the literally part obviously called for. But, although she cabled her willingness to sing the première, either in Dresden or Vienna, her fee as a Metropolitan super-star had become exorbitant. Lotte was the obvious choice, after Jeritza. She had created leading roles in the last three Strauss premières (Ariadne, Frau ohne Schatten, and Intermezzo). She was at that time Strauss’s favorite singer. He had already declared her Marschallin to be the finest of all.
But Hugo von Hofmannsthal was less enthusiastic:
Pondering the Vienna performance of Helena, I am beset by grave doubts in case Jeritza were to refuse finally. We are left in that case with [Margit] Schenker[-Angerer], a beginner whose voice is apparently not without blemish….Should we not in that case try after all to conciliate L[ehmann]—as an actress she is certainly not what we want, not by a long chalk, but of course the voice too means a great deal….
Strauss replied two days later:
Mme. L is already fully pacified…and is only waiting for Jeritza’s refusal to take over Helen at once. She is today still preferable to Mme. Schenker who, I am afraid, will never quite outgrow a certain amateurishness as a singer. She looks very fresh and youthful and has a pleasant talent. But Lehmann is now right at the top, both in singing and in acting. Ariadne was excellent. Of course: Jeritza is irreplaceable in her appearance! No reply from her yet!
In November the problem was still unsolved. Strauss to Hofmannsthal:
You know that Mme. Lehmann has perfidiously let me down; the other Helen du premier ordre [Jeritza] is singing in America; that leaves only Mme. Schenker who won’t dare tackle the part just yet. A hopeless business!
Hofmannsthal to Strauss:
…I have heard something which is probably the true explanation of Lehmann’s attitude and why she is frightened of so beautiful and inviting a part. It relates to certain real or imaginary risks in the vocalization which make her fear for her voice which is indeed at present perhaps the most beautiful and least strained in Europe. She is said to have in mind a few, not many passages that could be dealt with by what is called “rephrasing.” To ask you to do that, however, requires too much courage and for this reason it is said she prefers to refuse the part outright. I pass this on to you for what it is worth. For the time being the line you have taken is the only dignified and correct one; in the long run, however, her singing would be the only effective way to keep this beautiful opera going….
A few days later:
My indiscreet information concerning Mme. Lehmann was obviously inaccurate; the point is not a few high notes or anything like that; the reason why she does not want to sing the part is resentment over Jeritza. For three weeks [Karl] Alwin [conductor of the Vienna Opera (and husband of Elisabeth Schumann at the time)] has exerted all his great tenacity (to the point of self-abasement, as he himself says) in an all-out effort to win her over.
But Lotte was immersed in another project, dear to her heart: she was learning Isolde, much to Strauss’s chagrin, as is clear from the following correspondence between him and Ludwig Karpath, the Viennese critic and one of his friends. First, Karpath to Strauss, October 17, 1928:
Strictly confidentially I have to tell you that Lotte does not want to learn Helena. She has taken it into her head to sing Isolde and wants to work on that part. I told her quite frankly that she is heading toward her ruin, but nothing can take her away from Isolde….
Then, from Strauss to Karpath:
It is a pity that poor Lehmann is so blind! Too bad for that beautiful talent and that rare and precious voice! But there is nothing we can do about it!…
Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior both urgently advised Lotte not to attempt Isolde, her dream role. On the other hand, both Franz Schalk and Bruno Walter were willing to risk it with her, promising to hold down the orchestra and to cast as her partner one of the more lyrical Tristans. Caution eventually won out. But she never lost a sense of regret that that dream remained a dream.
Her consolation was the chance to sing the Liebestod in concerts and on a recording, and the satisfaction of being acclaimed as supreme in so many other roles. Every year she could count on a rapturous reception from her fans in London. In 1925 for Eva: “all the spontaneous impulse of girlhood joined to maturity of voice and style, the Eva of our dreams”; the Marschallin again; and Elsa, “sung and acted as it had not been perhaps for twenty years.”
Other London reviews from this period may be found in Appendix ???
[move the following three reviews to the Appendix???]
…Last night the spirit of poetry singled out the Elsa, and rather ignored her supernatural lover [Karl Peron]. This Elsa was Mme. Lotte Lehmann, and she will be long remembered. Her singing was lovely. And there was more still—true impersonation, living and touching. Her prayer for a savior in the first act quite transcended the Elsas of convention. It could not have been more beautiful….
…Tonight’s performance was redeemed from mediocrity by Lotte Lehmann, her Elsa being a completely perfect interpretation. This fine singer and actress was at her very best, and her singing of the restrained phrases of the first act, and her wonderful dramatic intensity were an extraordinary illustration and realization of the combined arts….
…Mme. Lehmann is an exquisite singer, perfect in phrasing and diction, and her Elsa was inimitable in its tenderness, poignancy and charm.
In 1926, in London, it was the Countess (in German), Donna Elvira and Desdemona (in Italian), a Sieglinde, and another Eva.
…Lotte Lehmann was a perfect Desdemona, in fact the best I can recall—Albani, Eames, Melba, I have heard them repeatedly in that role, but I place Lehmann first.
…Frau Lotte Lehmann was a surpassingly fair Sieglinde, singing with rare beauty and acting with still rarer charm. One of the thrills of the evening was her great cry of exultation when Brünnhilde announced to her the future coming of Siegfried.
Jeritza, incidentally, shared with Lotte the role of Sieglinde in London that year and was torn apart for having “vamped” Siegmund à la Thaïs.
That same season Lotte gave two recitals at the enormous Royal Albert Hall, with Bruno Walter at the piano. Besides two arias by Weber, she sang lieder by Brahms and Strauss in the first recital; in the second, “Dich, teure Halle,” the Wesendonck Lieder, and, of all things, with Walter again at the piano, the final scene from Salome. (Many years later, in Santa Barbara, Lotte staged that scene for a young dramatic soprano, using a copy of Napoleon’s death mask for the head of John the Baptist on a silver tray.)
The following, however, refers to the first of those two Royal Albert Hall programs:
…A performance that can be described as the perfection of singing. She is a complete mistress of the almost neglected art of phrasing. The quality of her voice never deteriorates, and she does not sing lieder in the lugubrious manner so much affected by some singers… (J. A. F.)
At one of those recitals Lotte met royalty in a rather disconcerting way:
I was giving a recital with Bruno Walter, and in the interval a very nice-looking young man, whose face was vaguely familiar to me, although I had no idea who he was, came into the greenroom. I went on looking through my music and paid no attention to him. With one ear I heard Walter calling him “Your Majesty,” but I thought it must be a nickname, because this “Majesty” spoke with all the enthusiasm of a devotee addressing his idol….He also paid some charming compliments which I acknowledged with an absent-minded nod. It was only when he took his leave and I saw Walter’s ceremonial bow and noticed the manager’s deference that it began to dawn on me that I had behaved in an unbecoming manner….
“Who was that?” I asked in astonishment.
“That was King Manoel II of Portugal—and you treated him as if he had been a student from the top gallery….”
Later the ex-king accompanied her on the organ at his castle.
In 1927 she opened the Covent Garden season with her Marschallin, rarely absent from her seasons in London, and again sang a Sieglinde:
…Her performances last year and again last week led us to expect great things. But, however well prepared, one does not come in contact with such most admirable art without feeling the thrill and the wonder as of a perfect thing. She sang not a phrase that was not as perfect as a good voice and an unerring taste could make it, and she spoke not a word that was not pronounced so as to carry the full weight and significance it was meant to carry. And how well her histrionic genius filled in those long silences….Such a performance cannot but have its effect on all who share in it….
After their first collaboration in London, Bruno Walter had invited Lotte Lehmann to sing in Berlin at the Städtische Oper (the Civic, as distinct from the State Opera), Charlottenburg, which was now under his musical direction. There, in 1925, she performed with him Eva, Elsa, and Lisa in The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky, returning regularly in subsequent seasons to sing most of her major roles there. Working with Bruno Walter was always a special learning experience for Lotte. If she was nervous he knew exactly how to put her at ease and guide her to the perfect artistic results. As Eva, for instance, she was always understandably nervous before the great quintet, one of the truly sublime moments in the opera. The singing is exposed; the phrases are long and very sustained; the beginning, sung by Eva alone, calls for a dreamy, ethereal pianissimo; the last seven bars—which seem to last forever—are one long, powerful crescendo in a mercilessly high tessitura, capped with a climactic B flat. Furthermore, to give the singer plenty of time to get nervous, there is a very long, very slow, very soft orchestral introduction during which absolutely nothing happens on stage. The way in which Bruno Walter helped her through that interlude was such a revelation to her, that she later passed it on to all her students; for the same approach he used in that particular scene can be applied, with a little bit of imagination, to any number of situations on the stage. He took her mind off her nervousness by focusing her thoughts as Eva:
Just be Eva, think as Eva, and forget all about Lotte Lehmann. Just think this way: “Hans Sachs wants me to make a speech. I don’t quite know what I’m expected to do, I’ve never had to say anything quite so important in a formal context, and I wonder how I’m going to find the right words; but on the other hand, why should it be so hard? After all, I’m among friends. There is Sachs, whom I respect so highly. There is Walter von Stolzing, to whom my heart belongs. It ought to be easy to express such deep happiness….”
And those thoughts led her serenely into the opening words.
The critics singled out that dreaded quintet for special praise. All in all it had been a magnificent performance under Bruno Walter’s inspired direction. But Lotte got the best reviews:
…The most perfect interpretation of Wagner’s conception. And her precious voice is the consummate expressive medium for every impulse—its bloom, its melting loveliness, the model phrasing, all culminate in the quintet. The soul-filled tone, the full splendor of the fresh, floating sound, rise here to a climax, elevating the extraordinary to the level of the unique.
…She is a magnificent Evchen and leads the quintet—the highlight of the evening—more beautifully than one has ever heard before….
…Lotte Lehmann, the one and only, caught the style, unerringly, with the instinct of genius. This Evchen was the crown of the performance, attractive and lovely to look at, dignified and genuine in every gesture. And what a treat, that glorious voice! A radiation of most golden splendor not only in the quintet; even in the slightest interjections, like those in the second act from the linden bower, every tone “sat,” every syllable was clearly understandable.
…Lotte Lehmann as Eva was the triumph of the Meistersinger evening, unequaled in beauty of voice or clarity of expression….
Die Meistersinger was an especially brilliant opening for the season. But Lotte’s other roles were just as warmly admired in Berlin.
…Lotte Lehmann’s Elsa can be called absolutely perfect, lifted far above the standards of any usual evening at the opera.
…The incomparable Lotte Lehmann [was] Lisa [in The Queen of Spades]….Her great scene by the river is one of the most glorious operatic moments one has ever heard. The music is radiant in her, she lifts it far above its niveau, she colors it in a personal way, so that it becomes triumphant in itself, apart from any drama on the stage, so that in that moment it seems to become a real experience, not a performance but reality itself.
That was one of Lotte’s special attributes: she gave her audience, every time, a real, inner experience. Each of her roles became a living reality, each of her songs a glimpse into a life.