A Documentary Biography
By Beaumont Glass
(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)
Wild Indians and Other Dangers
The new decade began auspiciously. Who, at that time, would have guessed that it would end in war and disaster? On January 1, 1930, Lotte Lehmann sang Fidelio at the Vienna Opera in a performance conducted by Richard Strauss. It was noted that his tempi were unusually fast; but the dungeon scene built to an exceptionally gripping climax:
…There one felt the dramatic fire of the composer of Elektra. The tragic storm exploded in lightning and thunder; one felt shivers down the spine. But this scene was brought to a climax also by the magnificent voice of Lotte Lehmann. One experienced something extraordinary. The warmth of this so tenderly human Leonore was transformed into heroic power. The moment became monumental. With every performance the Leonore of Lotte Lehmann becomes more remarkable, more gripping…. (E. B.)
Later that month there was a revival of Intermezzo. Lotte, of course, sang Christine. Her personal maid took another girl to hear the performance. The girl was horrified. “You mustn’t work for such a devil of a woman!” she said, “I’ll get you a different job.” The reaction would no doubt have been different had she seen her friend’s “Gnädige” (mistress) as the saintly Elisabeth, the lovable “Lotte” in Werther, Marguerite, Manon, Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, or Ariadne, the other roles that Lehmann was singing in Vienna around that time.
There were also lieder recitals in Vienna, Paris, and London. Lotte had, of course, been singing lieder since she first began to sing in public; and from the earliest days her audiences had responded with great enthusiasm. Critics had praised her lovely voice, her simplicity, her naturalness, her warmth of feeling. But, looking back later as a mistress of the form, Lehmann felt that her development as a lieder singer had been a long, gradual process that only reached full maturity as she was beginning to retire from the operatic stage.
Lotte wrote the following remarks as part of the preface to a book by her brother about German lieder:
Many years ago, at a time when the world of opera was my very own—and lieder a rather foreign territory for me—I sang my lieder recitals in blessed innocence. I remember that one day I said to my brother, Fritz Lehmann, “Singing lieder doesn’t make me very happy. They are melodies and any instrument will do them better justice than the human voice.” He answered that in his opinion each Lied has its own story, is created out of a very personal experience. That remark opened a door for me. Slowly I grew into the perception that a Lied, in a subtle way, is born from an experience, from a “story.”
After coming to Vienna, Lotte first had as her accompanist Professor Ferdinand Foll, who had been a friend of Hugo Wolf’s, as already noted. In an unpublished article about her various accompanists she wrote of him:
Artistically, my choice of programs—songs mixed with arias—must have caused him pain; but he was a shy man—and the only objection that he ever expressed came at the end of one of those recitals that were always so successful with the audience. He said: “You could be a really good lieder singer if you would only concentrate. But you always do everything much too quickly. You learn too hastily, you don’t take lieder seriously enough.” I was astonished! I found myself a very good lieder singer—wasn’t the audience shouting for joy? I did not stop to think that they loved me because of my work on the stage, and that it was only my voice that helped me to have such an easy victory….
In Midway in my Song Lotte Lehmann has more to say about Ferdinand Foll:
[Foll] gave me my first real idea of lieder style. I still sang too robustly, not intimately enough. With all his benevolence and sensitive understanding, he was only once satisfied with me—when I sang Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben” with him in Vienna. Perhaps it was very near to his way of thinking, for while we were going from the platform of the Musikvereinssaal back to the greenroom he said in his quiet way: “That was an experience for me. It was most beautiful….”
That was the first praise he had ever bestowed on my lieder singing and it made me shed proud and happy tears.
How often did he say to me: “You could be a quite great lieder-singer. But you must have patience and conquer this world for yourself, step by step; it is not a goal you can reach at the first onrush.”
When Ferdinand Foll died, his successor was Leo Rosenek. More from the unrevised manuscript in which Lotte discussed her experiences with various accompanists:
Later, when I had started to go on concert tours, Rosenek was my accompanist. Today I know that he must have suffered, and I can’t understand why he didn’t reprimand me instead of tolerating programs in which songs and arias were carelessly mixed together. He was an extremely sensitive accompanist, accustomed to working with Elisabeth Schumann, the very model of what a lieder singer should be. I must have caused him many a headache, and I still feel bad about that today. When I say “sensitive,” I mean offstage as well. On a tour through Europe I had ample opportunity to observe that. There was scarcely a morning when he didn’t complain with a long face that he hadn’t slept a wink because of a dripping faucet, or a loud-voiced neighbor, or the squeal of a passing streetcar. I was still relatively young and rather oblivious of my environment. So for me his daily lament was a source of innocent merriment rather than compassion. I have often spoken with Elisabeth Schumann about the experiences of that concert tour, and we have both laughed our heads off at the many tragedies that were constantly erupting. [Elisabeth had Rosenek stories of her own to tell.] One morning she found a little, frightened mouse in her bathtub. In despair she called Rosenek, of all people; he stared at the mouse as if at a bitter enemy, totally helpless. The maid was called. She was ordered not to kill the mouse, but to let it go free outside. I don’t know what happened to the mouse. The maid promised to deal with it kindly; Elisabeth and Leo left the room, not to have to witness the drama. I catch myself finding the situation comical, whereas I would have acted just the same myself, for I share Elisabeth’s love and concern for animals.
Once…I had put Schubert’s “Frühlingsglaube” on my program. In the second verse I was singing “the world is becoming more beautiful every day, who knows what is yet to come….” Rosenek interrupted the rehearsal and said: “You can’t possibly sing that. The world is in miserable shape, and so are we. One can’t sing ‘the world is becoming more beautiful’—that would be tragi-comical!” Naturally I sang it anyway! Optimism, I find, is one of the most helpful attitudes on our way through life.
Certainly in the 1920’s most people thought of Lotte Lehmann as an opera singer, one of the very greatest. Her recitals were sold out, they were occasions. Her audiences were ecstatic, jubilant, delirious. But generally it was the odd aria on the program that carried them away. A typical program from that period of her career would include an aria from Oberon or Der Freischütz, “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser or Ariadne’s Monologue, “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca (in German, of course) or Maddalena’s aria from Andrea Chenier, the brilliant “Nun, eilt herbei” from Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (one of her most irresistible recordings), or Katharina’s solo scene from Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung. The lieder were generally familiar chestnuts. Even the most jaded critics had to admit, however, that she brought every one of them to new and exciting life. Still, it was years before she began to venture into the less-traveled regions of the Lied. It was often noted that she sang certain songs that were generally considered to be more suitable for a man than for a woman. Since that refrain reappears in reviews throughout her career, it may be well to consider the subject here.
The trousers role is an old tradition in opera. Mozart’s Cherubino, Verdi’s Oscar, Strauss’s Octavian were all written for the female voice. If a woman can pretend to be a man on the stage, why not in a song? Women have long been accepted in such roles as Orpheus, Romeo, even Julius Caesar. In the Nineteenth Century there were several female Otellos (in Rossini’s opera, not Verdi’s). Sarah Bernhardt and—not very long ago—Dame Judith Anderson played Hamlet. Quite apart from the customs of the stage, however, is the simple fact that most of the poems that were set to music by the great composers were written by men and express the point of view of a male poet as interpreted in music by a male composer. If one were to be pedantically consistent, logic would deprive a woman singer of the great majority of all the songs ever written, including some of the most charming and feminine. How poor we should be, for instance, if every serenade were denied to the female voice because the serenader is presumably a male. It would be a great loss if women were limited to lullabies and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. If a woman can feel the same emotions as a man, why should she not express them in a song? Imagination is the key. The reader may object that then men ought to be encouraged to sing the Schumann cycle just mentioned, A Woman’s Love and Life. Perhaps if we had male Susannas, Eurydices, and Marschallins they might. It would be hard to find a man who would dare to. But it was a man who imagined those sentiments, and another man who set them to music.
Here are various reactions to Lotte’s recitals; first from Vienna:
…Then, strangely, from the profusion of available songs by Schubert and Schumann, she chose several which were composed for the male voice, “Der Doppelgänger,” “Der Erlkönig,” “Ich grolle nicht,” and “Frühlingsnacht,” probably more out of vocal considerations than because of the content to be expressed, which would justify sharper accents in these very songs. [It is interesting to note that Lehmann was later criticized for over-dramatizing some of those same lieder.] But this is just what is so special in Lotte Lehmann’s art: the noble harmony, the lovely evenness of moods, the comforting warmth, which are a part of her temperament and which her singing communicates to the listener in such a lovable way…. (E. B., February 10, 1930.)
At least three other critics also objected to her choice of Männerlieder in that program. Another review conveys an impression of honeyed blandness that is almost inconceivable to those who heard Lehmann sing lieder in later years, and—in that respect—utterly incompatible with many vivid memories:
…An evening of lieder by Lotte Lehmann is the loveliest, most precious treat for the ear. Mellifluous sweetness floods over the hearer and one does not grow tired of admiring the divine gift of this voice. Every tone is sent forth in its acoustic perfection with an additional spin from the heart, a sort of soul-vibrato. In such a way, every song becomes a tasty delicacy for the ear, which in turn wants nothing to disturb such egotistical enjoyment. Not even through the fact that any just demand for spiritual [as distinct from sensual], truly lieder-like interpretation of the individual songs is as good as totally unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the Lehmann voice is an exceptional case, and that must satisfy us. Even then, when everything that is actually characteristic and significant has been taken away from the fever-visions of “The Erlking” or the ghostly apparition of “Der Doppelgänger,”…such honeyed euphony, such cozy singing is welcome, even when, apparently quite inorganically, it is supposed to be coming from the spheres of the uncanny and the demonic…. (Heinrich Kralik, February 10, 1930.)
At least one reviewer found nothing to criticize at all:
…The voice of Lotte Lehmann is of such beauty that one should erect altars to it. That voice alone, even without the natural charm of her personality and a singing technique sublimated to the last degree of purity, would have to lead her to the highest summit of international fame. Brilliance emanates from her….Such mastery is hard to reach, harder still to maintain. But in one sense, Lotte Lehmann has it easy: she has only to sing a “Lehmann tone,” a “Lehmann phrase” in an old Italian aria or a German Lied, to let loose a storm. In summary one could say that her way of singing songs is the incarnation of German Innigkeit [warmth, tenderness, sincerity]…. (from an unidentified clipping on the same page of Lehmann’s scrapbook.)
Here are some of the reactions of London reviewers to her recital in Queen’s Hall, February 25, 1930:
…Seldom, if ever, do we hear a more glorious voice than Lotte Lehmann’s….Unfortunately her operatic trick of clipping her words short, though it can be dramatic enough when accompanied with a gesture on the stage, ill befits the singing of lieder. Perhaps she is aware of this, for she sang “Ich grolle nicht” badly in this respect, and then in response to the undiscriminating applause, sang it well again. But I wonder why she sang it at all….
Reading through reviews of Lehmann recitals over the years, one is struck by the frequency with which her interpretation of “Ich grolle nicht” seems to arouse either very positive or very negative responses in her listeners. Audiences as a whole were thrilled by her way with that song. It very often had to be repeated. She delivered it with enormous emotional intensity, building to a shattering climax on the word “elend” in the phrase, “Ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist,” achieved technically through an immense crescendo (starting after the high notes!), combined with a devastatingly effective, almost physically dangerous glottal attack on “elend” and a daringly, controversially broad ritardando.
A contrasting view of the same Lied, among others, at the same recital:
…Even such a song as Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht“—essentially a man’s song—was a perfect thing, for the quality of tone and expression leveled all differences….Every song revealed such complete mastery that it might have been mistaken for ease, and it is significant that in an age which prides itself on its cool, practical attitude towards all that stirred most deeply the conscience of the last generation, a simple, sentimental song like Beethoven’s “Wonne der Wehmut” should rouse an audience to enthusiasm. In different ways, every song bore evidence not only of Mme. Lehmann’s vocal art and gifts, but also to her genius as an interpreter…. (F. B.)
After Lotte’s Carnegie Hall recital on November 28, 1932, a reviewer wrote that “Ich grolle nicht,” one of her encores, went much better than it had in the previous season since “the final phrases were not distorted because of excessive feeling, and the voice was under perfect control,” unlike the last time he had heard her sing the song.
Here, from More Than Singing, is Lotte Lehmann’s personal interpretation of “Ich grolle nicht” from the song cycle Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann:
Now for the first time, you tell her clearly how deeply you are aware of the true nature of your beloved. Make the situation clear to yourself, consider what has happened which has resulted in this song: there must have been a disagreement between you. Hard words have been used, confessions made, which have destroyed every bond that had remained between you. She is “forever lost” for you (“ewig verlor’nes Lieb”)—so you say and so you feel, there can be no question about it… But she, who has wounded you so deeply, so incurably, believes that with a sweet and friendly—“Don’t be cross,” she can make everything all right again. You look up, with a bitter smile, you reject her idea that you are only “cross.” Sing “ich grolle nicht” [“I am not angry”] broadly, with bitterness, with pride and austerity.
Change the quality of your voice, which has been dark and flowing, at “Wie du auch strahlst in Diamantenpracht” [“However brightly you may gleam in the splendor of diamonds”]. Sing with a bright tone, disparagingly and ironically, as if you were saying: “But don’t think that I don’t see through you! The splendor with which you surround yourself is all on the outside—don’t think you can fool me, that you can make me forget what you really are!” Sing broadly, with sorrowful accentuation—“das weiss ich längst” [“I have known that for a long time”].
I have always sung the second verse piano. Turning away from your beloved, still trembling from your outburst of bitterness, you now speak more to yourself. For the first time you have told her clearly that you have seen through her, perhaps for the first time you have clearly admitted it to yourself… Now completely absorbed with yourself you repeat, trembling—“Ich grolle nicht”… Beginning this verse with a restrained piano will also give a stronger effect in building up the dramatic climax of the song.
Sing “Ich sah dich ja im Traume” [“I saw you in a dream”] in a whispered piano, as one would whisper a shocking secret… Build up the crescendo with grandeur until “die dir am Herzen frisst” [“(and saw the snake) that is feeding on your heart”]… and be careful that “Herzen” isn’t thrust out to the extent of losing its connection with the preceding words. Even this violent outburst must not overstep the limits of tonal beauty. Sing the following phrase—“ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist” [“I saw, my love, how very wretched you are”] broadly, each syllable sforzato. These words, these tones are like the blows of a hammer which crushes to earth the glamorous picture of outward splendor… The repetitions of “ich grolle nicht” should be strong, with deep emotion as if through tears.
…The exquisite art of Lotte Lehmann was manifestly enjoyed by her large audience….Listening to her opening group—all over-familiar, if vocally beautiful solos—one fervently wished that all the budding soprani who meditate including [in their recitals] either (or all) “Caro mio ben,” “Lasciatemi morire,” or “O del mio dolce ardor” might be present to hear how really expressive they can be when beautifully sung, instead of (as generally happens) being converted into particularly dreary, punctilious examples of “the classics”….The spirituelle beauty of “Du bist wie eine Blume” still lingers in the memory, like the mystic ecstasy, the crystallization of all that has ever been held to symbolize springtime’s magic which this great singer infused (or rather re-created, for the composer has captured it within his inspiration) into “Frühlingsnacht”….
…The thing one would like to do, if it were possible, would be to coax, cajole, harry, coerce all the bad singers of London—without having to tell them how bad, exactly, they were—into one of Madame Lehmann’s recitals: those, namely, who “know all about” legato singing, messa di voce, the right kind of vibrato, colour, diction, enunciation, pronunciation, temperament, except how to do them; and to let them hear how these things sound when there has been time to forget all about how they are done. Of all these virtues we would take Madame Lehmann’s legato for special commendation….It prevents such an old warhorse as “Caro mio ben” seeming jaded; it binds together the successive floods of ecstasy of such a song as “Frühlingsnacht.”
The Parisians were treated to two concerts and a song recital in March. Only praise flowed from the critical pen:
…Ovations on top of ovations for Lotte Lehmann who triumphed at the Salle Pleyel….What tranquil mastery! And how sweet it is to listen to a perfect voice that gives the impression of being a force of nature, which seems born out of the good will of the elements, like the melody of the breeze or of the waves….
…It is always a pure joy, an intoxication, to listen to her! At first one is amazed at the instrumental beauty of her singing. There is not a mediocre note from top to bottom. And what nobility of phrasing! …What caresses in the poems of Wagner! We have, alas! all too few singers in France to place opposite this lady from Vienna. Where has technique disappeared to, here?…Can’t someone send a mission to Austria to recover the principles?…
Two days after her Paris recital, Lotte sang Sieglinde in a new staging of Die Walküre in Vienna. Then back across the continent two days later for an Elsa in Antwerp, followed soon by Eva in Die Meistersinger for the opening of the Covent Garden season (Elisabeth Schumann shared the role with her that year). The novelty, for Lotte as well as for London, was a production, in German, of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. The idea of an operetta at the Royal Opera House, especially sandwiched between a Siegfried and a Parsifal, was somewhat startling. A typical headline was “FRIVOLITY AT COVENT GARDEN.” King George V and Queen Mary lent the luster of royalty to one of the “Fledermice,” the first time “in many years” (presumably since the war) that they had attended a performance of anything in German. An Austrian reporter sent the following description of their majesties back to Vienna: “The king is friendly and human, as always….The queen, tall as a giantess, tightly corseted, with a diadem of diamonds in her hair, looks unapproachably regal, like the royalty of pre-war days. She smiles, but her smile has iron in it.” (Two years later, incidentally, the royal couple again attended a Lotte Lehmann performance, this time Tannhäuser, dining during the interval in the retiring room at the back of the royal box; the linen, cutlery, and table decorations, as well as the food, had all been brought over from Buckingham Palace.)
The Londoners loved Fledermaus and they found Lehmann’s Rosalinde “delicious.”
Just before one of the later performances Lotte lost her voice. At five p.m. she could not sing a note. A famous laryngologist, Sir Milsom Rees, was urgently summoned. At six the leading lady was still voiceless. No one else could be found to sing the part. Wild consternation. At seven the audience began to fill the auditorium. Too late for a change of program. At 7:30 Sir Milson’s ministrations seemed to be reviving the recalcitrant larynx. Lotte agreed to risk it. It was decided to cut the Csárdás, but otherwise she sang the whole role—”superbly,” according to the press. The headline was “A `MIRACLE!'”
Neither Lotte nor Elisabeth Schumann, the Adele, was able to match her London success when, at the end of May, Die Fledermaus was presented at the Vienna Opera. The style was too “German”—that is German-German—for the Viennese. They considered themselves, with good reason, the last authority where operetta was concerned, and found most of the singers (not just Lotte and Elisabeth) too heavily operatic. They missed “das Wienerische.” It did not take Lotte long, however, to capture that style, too, to their complete satisfaction. A few months later she was starred at the Staatsoper in another Viennese operetta, The Opera Ball, by Heuberger. Angèle was a part she had sung sixteen years earlier in Hamburg, when the public wanted a little escapism during dark days of the first world war.
June brought “her Grace, the Marschallin,” to Graz:
…Among the guests, Frau Lotte Lehmann, who was appearing for the first time in Graz, was resplendent as the Marschallin. She portrayed with moving poetry the last glow of a noble woman’s heart. Rococo magic blossomed around her figure. Every gesture, every tone testified to a wonderful mellowness and wisdom. The way in which Frau Lotte Lehmann spins her tones is incomparable. Her Feldmarschallin is one single song of beauty, free of “effects,” and free of any attempt to “shine” in the conventional sense. It is not too much to say that through Lotte Lehmann art becomes ennobled.
Der Rosenkavalier was repeated at the Salzburg Festival, and Lotte sang one performance, the first of three. The role of the Marschallin was then taken over by Viorica Ursuleac, who was the mistress, later the wife, of the conductor, Clemens Krauss, since September 1929 the new director of the Vienna Opera. Lotte’s relationship with Krauss was—and remained—extremely strained. She strongly suspected that he was trying to ease her out of her well-established position as star of the Vienna Opera, in favor of the lady he loved. Ursuleac joined the roster of the Vienna Opera immediately after her Salzburg appearances. Lehmann’s international prestige and her popularity with the Viennese public were unassailable; but except for the first nights of Arabella in 1933 and Eugene Onegin in 1934 (the latter at the special wish of Bruno Walter), there were few Lehmann premières in Vienna during the régime of Clemens Krauss.
Meanwhile Lotte’s single Marschallin and her two Fidelios were undisputed highlights of the Salzburg Festival that year. First, Rosenkavalier:
…Glorious, unforgettable, transfigured in every respect is Frau Lotte Lehmann as the Marschallin. Highest effectiveness, noblest art.
…With Lehmann the ending of the first act becomes one of the purest, most precious impressions which any opera stage can offer today.
…Lotte Lehmann…a princess in appearance, a queen of song, and as a woman—a human being….
…The nature of this God-gifted woman is humble fulfillment and boundless devotion. In holy exaltation she gives herself to the character she is to portray, serves the idea of the work to be interpreted. Leonore’s tremendous destiny: to have to love, to be able to suffer—idea and impulse, affliction and freedom—can not be embodied more gloriously; her simple nobility: womanly dignity and active faithfulness can not be interpreted more tenderly; the melody of her soul: hope, hope…can not be voiced in purer sound than as it is realized by this great artist. And the triumphant radiance of her voice—truly “it penetrates into the depths of one’s heart” [a quotation from the dialogue of the dungeon scene].
…The Fidelio of Lotte Lehmann, a perfection, a probably unsurpassable accomplishment, uplifting and deeply stirring…filled with truly Beethovenesque transfiguration.
Wherever she sang, Lotte Lehmann seemed to inspire the critics to soaring flights of poetic fancy, such as one seldom reads anywhere else in the newspapers of our prosaic century. Back in Vienna, in October, after a Tannhäuser, they might have been minnesingers competing for the hand of her Elisabeth in a Contest of Song:
…Her singing was a living miracle, more beautiful than in the legend, “The Rose-Miracle of Saint Elisabeth.” The extraordinary, the unique thing about this vision of an artist, her incomparable voice and her genius for acting, can scarcely be put into words. The experience of hearing her and seeing her, as on this Tannhäuser-Sunday, reveals mysterious secrets of eternal beauty, which will remain in memory, inextinguishable, indescribable…. (D.)
…In every respect a perfect accomplishment. The gentle radiance of the wondrously moving voice glows like a halo around her appearance. Lovelier than ever, more heartfelt in power and sweetness, is this blessed voice. The Elisabeth of Lotte Lehmann is a saint with a strong feminine nature, earthly and heavenly at the same time. In her being and in her appearance Lotte Lehmann embodies an ideal form of Wagner’s Elisabeth. She gives poetry to the expression of the words, there is poetry in every gesture, down to the graceful play of her hands. The soul-drama of the loving Elisabeth, full of faith and capable of total self-surrender, is fully revealed in the impersonation of Lotte Lehmann…..
…The Elisabeth of Lotte Lehmann cast a radiance over the whole Tannhäuser performance. Already after her entrance aria there was colossal applause. Of course. But that was just a preamble to what was still to come, which, at the finale of the act, surpassed by far everything of beauty that Lehmann has given us up until now….The Elisabeth of Lotte Lehmann is now the best Elisabeth of all the opera stages on earth…. (R. K.)
Her Manon, four days later, was less rapturously received. It had been one of Lotte’s most popular parts. But now there was some talk that after her many Fidelios and other heavy roles her voice had become too dramatic for the light, charmingly frivolous character of Manon.
Lotte was about to make her first trip to North America. She had a contract with the Chicago Opera. She had long hoped to hear from the Metropolitan, but as long as Maria Jeritza was there, there was little hope that Lotte Lehmann would be invited. The Met was not big enough to hold both of them, as far as Jeritza was concerned. Now the Viennese were afraid that America, which had monopolized Maria, would keep their geliebte Lotte too.
The trip to America meant another separation from Mama. That was as painful to Lotte as it was to her mother, who again worried about all the wild Indians and other new-world dangers. But this time, of course, Otto would be there to protect Lotte from those Chicago gangsters one had read about. There was a “farewell” recital in Paris, all lieder, before the sailing of the Europa on October 17 from Cherbourg.
For two days the ship was tossed about by a truly Wagnerian storm. Everybody was horribly sick. But when the sea was smooth again, Lotte loved the adventure of shipboard life, now that she had Otto beside her, as well as many favorite colleagues who were also headed for Chicago. She especially loved the big swimming pool, glamorously illuminated at night with blue lights under the water.
The first sight of the New York skyline was very impressive. Later she and Otto went to the top of the Empire State Building to marvel at the lights of the city spread out so magically before them down below. But first they had to pass through customs. Fidelio’s boots were searched for booze. The officials rummaged for rum in the nun’s habit that Elisabeth wears in the third act of Tannhäuser. This was Prohibition! An old friend, Mia Hecht, a loyal fan from earliest Hamburg days, met the ship and joined Lotte and Otto again in Chicago. She was now living in Atlanta. Her daughter, named Mia-Lotte, was Lotte’s godchild.
There was a little time for sight-seeing; then onto the sleeper for Chicago!
America’s over-heated hotel rooms are always something of a shock to European singers. The dried-out air is dangerous to vocal cords. On the other hand, when Lotte rushed to open the windows, she was met by a blast of polar cold. The U.S. seemed to be a land of extremes.
Lotte’s North American debut took place on October 28, 1930. She sang Sieglinde in Die Walküre. It was called “one of the most significant American debuts in the history of Chicago opera.” Elsa came next, on November 9, and Elisabeth six days later. Altogether there were nine performances. The reviewers knew that this was something special:
…Her Sieglinde is perfection itself—perfection of voice and action…. (Musical Courier.)
…She has one of the loveliest voices ever heard on the Civic Opera stage. It is of a freedom and purity seldom discovered in American singers and employed with an eloquence and artistry that moved the audience to a great demonstration…. (Musical America.)
…The texture and the luster of her tone are so distinctive, so quick to reflect each shade of feeling, so potent in moments of Wagnerian orchestral drama, so responsive in the softer expressive inflections, that she must take her place quite unchallenged in the operatic Valhalla….
…In musical perception, in vocal beauty, in histrionic intelligence, Mme. Lehmann was at once a lesson and a reproach to most of her colleagues who specialize in the Bayreuth master’s works.
…Mme. Lehmann was the ideal Elisabeth. Her singing is the acme of art, and she gives a more complete picture than any of her predecessors. She invests the character with an individuality that is absolutely new. Here is one of the great artists of the century.
Such reviews make it hard to understand how Lehmann could have felt that her American debut had been merely “a good average success—nothing more,” which is how she described it in her autobiography.
Nevertheless, her manager, Francis Coppicus, was disappointed. He had hoped for the kind of sensation that would help him to “sell” her—Lotte hated that expression in America!—to lots of other cities at high fees. As it was, only Minneapolis seemed to take an interest. Her only recital in America that season took place there and was very warmly received. But Coppicus decided to wait with Lotte’s first New York recital until her next visit, a little over one year later. Lotte managed a trip to Atlanta to see her godchild. She surprised and delighted her fellow-guests by singing at a party while she was there. Otto had had to return to Europe for business reasons before Lotte’s Minneapolis recital. She told the press that he had instructed her friend, Mia Hecht, to spank her if she cried too much. The interviewers were charmed by her accent and the quaint syntax of what Lotte—meaning to be politely apologetic—naïvely called her “English-English, not American-English.”
On December 5 Lotte boarded the S.S. Europa to return to Europe. On her way back to Vienna she sang a recital in Paris. She also sang a Sieglinde at the Opéra in German, while the rest of the cast sang in French. Reunion in Vienna was celebrated with another Tannhäuser-Elisabeth, just before a Christmas with her loved ones.
The new year brought a concert in Bucharest, attended by Queen Marie, and a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. In February and March there were concerts and recitals in Vienna (a radio broadcast), Paris, and Monte Carlo, as well as Fidelio and Elisabeth in Antwerp. The critics were completely under her spell, as usual:
…A singer? More than that! A soul that sings! [Une âme qui chante] Song incarnate!…The infinite variety of her singing!… (Paris.)
Fidelio returned to Vienna for April but the Marschallin was needed to open the London season with her special glamour before the end of the month, to the applause of the Duke and Duchess of York (the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth). Elsa, Sieglinde, and Rosalinde were also welcomed back. It was Bruno Walter’s last season of opera in London.
After more performances in Vienna, Lotte spent her vacation on Sylt, riding and swimming with Otto and storing up strength for the season ahead.
At Salzburg, besides two Marschallins (the first performance was sung by Ursuleac), Lotte sang two Fidelios, both operas with Krauss as conductor. “Her Fidelio represents the zenith of German opera.” “An absolute summit of the music drama.” Such were the critical comments.
An Ariadne in Vienna in June turned out to be the last performance that Lotte sang with her beloved Franz Schalk, who was failing fast ever since he lost the directorship of the Vienna Opera. He died on September 3, 1931, and Lotte walked behind his coffin to the cemetery. That evening, at the opera house, Clemens Krauss conducted Siegfried’s Funeral March before a memorial performance of Die Meistersinger. Lotte was the Eva. She recalls how deeply she was moved, in Midway in my Song:
In the last act the chorus, “Awake!” [“Wach’ auf!“], recalled to my mind the familiar figure at the desk….I closed my eyes, and it was as if he were there again—surrendered to the waves of music: “Awake! The dawn of day draws near….” An uncontrollable fit of weeping shook me, and my colleagues quickly formed a protecting wall round me so that no one might see my tears….
On December 8, 1931, there was a special concert in memory of Franz Schalk. Two great orchestras, the chorus of the Vienna Opera, and many leading soloists were involved. Bruno Walter conducted and Lotte sang Mahler’s magnificent song, “Um Mitternacht,” with its hint of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. The stirring words addressed to the “Lord over Life and Death” climaxed a deeply moving experience for the performers as well as for the audience.
The Fall of 1931 brought a new role into the Lehmann repertoire, Georgette (Giorgetta) in Der Mantel, the German version of Il tabarro, the first of the three one-act operas that make up Puccini’s Trittico. The restless, sensual young wife of the captain of a barge on the Seine, who finds the corpse of her lover, a dock-worker, murdered by her husband, under the “cloak” of the title, is a world away from the gentle nun, Sister Angelica, in the second piece. Lotte sang both roles on the same evening, an interesting study in contrasts.
There were recitals in Paris, Vienna, Prague, Brussels, and Athens (where she was accompanied by Dimitri Mitropoulos by candlelight, after a power failure). Paris heard her also as Elsa, Sieglinde, and Elisabeth, all performances sold out, and in two more orchestral concerts. As usual, the reviews were especially fantastic in Paris. “This famous singer is, all by herself, an entire School of Singing.”
The time had come to attempt again the conquest of America.