A Documentary Biography
By Beaumont Glass
(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)
A Pair of Miracles
What to do now? Lotte and Fritz searched the want ads. Perhaps she could be a companion to some older lady and sing to her now and then. At least her voice would be good enough for that. Papa enrolled Lotte in the next starting session of a commercial course. Lotte rallied from her depression and rebelled. She poured out her troubles and hopes in a desperate letter to Mathilde Mallinger, begging for a chance to study with her. Mallinger had been Richard Wagner’s first Eva in Die Meistersinger—she had even helped him “compose” it, having playfully added a trill to the phrase that closes the ensemble at the end of the Prize Song (Wagner was delighted and wrote that trill into his score). King Ludwig II of Bavaria called her his “immortal Elsa.” She had been a star in Berlin and Bayreuth. Now she had a singing class in Berlin. Lotte put her whole heart and soul into that letter.
Papa had never been so angry. How could she be so stubborn? Did she think that all those experts were wrong? Such a letter would surely be the waste of a stamp. Lotte made up her mind that if this letter failed to help, she would never ask her father to invest another penny in her voice. The letter—to the “Royal Prussian Kammersängerin and Professor Mathilde Mallinger”—was dated January 9, l909.
There were long weeks of suspense. Lotte shuddered as the deadline for the commercial school drew near. Finally there came a reply, written on February 18th; it was brief, simple, and offered to hear Lotte and “get acquainted.”
Mallinger was a kind of miracle. Lotte’s voice began to blossom and grow. She felt free. That was the way she had always dreamed that singing could be. Mallinger had lots of temperament; when impatient with Lotte she was quite capable of throwing things around—she was after all a prima donna. One day she shouted: “Learn how to darn socks, you silly goose! You’re totally untalented!” But her annoyance was never more than momentary. On other days, her praise would be equally exaggerated. Basically she was very kind and motherly. Lotte loved her dearly and thought of her always with deep gratitude.
Mallinger taught Lotte that expression must come from inside, that the heart must participate in the art of singing. She was far in advance of her era, actually very modern in her concept of acting, in her disdain for stereotypical gestures and poses.
Decades later, in an interview for The Étude, Lotte recalled her work with Mme. Mallinger:
Under her freer and more natural methods of instruction, my voice developed, my inhibitions left me, and I found my way into a career. I do not presume to say even now that the Gerster studio methods were “wrong” and Mallinger’s “right.” I say only that they were “wrong” and “right,” respectively, for me. And that experience made me extremely wary about expressing an opinion as to the absolute value of any “system.”
Mme. Mallinger’s art lay in presenting the work in the way that was most understandable, not to her, but to the pupil. You see the difference? A teacher may have a fixed goal in mind and she herself may approach it in a very definite way. But that does not mean that her way is the only way. She must be mentally flexible enough to think up a number of ways of approaching the same goal. Mme. Mallinger did that. In teaching me, for instance, she soon saw that I became confused by a too frequent “don’t” or “you must not,” while I learned quickly where the goal was presented to me in such a way that I could visualize it as a finished whole. For example, she never said to me, “Raise your right arm,” or “sing forte,” or “take three steps to the left.” No. That made me at once turn to stone. She would say, “The character wishes at this point to give extra emphasis to her words. How will she do it?” And I would answer, “By a gesture.” And then I’d make that gesture in my own way. Or she would say, “Here the emotion becomes more intense. How would you normally give voice to greater intensity?” And, as a matter of simple reasoning, I would sing forte.
Personally, I believe that this is the only way to work. Indeed, if a singer cannot accustom herself to plotting her own effects, based on her own conception of human values, she is out of her sphere in dramatic art. I always work from the inside out. In coaching with my accompanist, I proceed as Mme. Mallinger did, never touching on material results, but trying always to make such material results the only natural outcome of human feeling. After all, it is not especially important for a singer to wax forte in one place or to raise her arm in another. The important thing is to express the emotions of the song or the part. And the fortes and the gestures must come as the natural result of your personal delineations of a character.
Baron Konrad zu Putlitz paid for the lessons, another “miracle.” Her letter thanking “his Excellency” led to an invitation from his wife to meet the family at their home. Thus began a close relationship with the Putlitz family that was to play an important part in Lotte’s life. The baroness became a sort of second mother, advising Lotte on appropriate clothes and many such matters and guiding her through the intricate social codes of the day. Lotte made friends with the two daughters, Erika—who was about Lotte’s age—and Elisabeth. As for the baron, Lotte wrote of him as “goodness personified, always a little vague and absent-minded—for he had a poet’s nature.“
Erika recalled their first meeting with Lotte:
…So Lotte came promptly to tea at our home, and my sister and I were very eager and very curious to meet this new protégée of our parents. Now Fräulein Lehmann was standing there in front of us in her simple white blouse and dark skirt. Her blond braids were twined around her head and tied in front with a little black ribbon. Her big blue eyes looked at us shyly, almost frightened, and her movements were uncertain and inhibited. I was only a bit younger than our guest; I believe Lotte was about twenty years old. Immediately I felt drawn to Fräulein Lehmann, and so began our friendship, which has been such a blessing in both of our lives. At the tea table everything was discussed…
Baron Konrad zu Putlitz agreed to pay for a year of study with Mathilde Mallinger and then to help Lotte find an engagement at one of Germany’s opera houses.
The following August, while Frau Mallinger was on vacation on Starnberg Lake, Lotte was invited to Gross-Pankow, the Putlitz family estate at Retzin-Prignitz.
It was a glorious, merry summer. Lotte soon had copper-red cheeks and a peeling nose. So mother insisted that she should wear a big straw hat to protect her beautiful skin. Mother also took care to provide appropriate clothes for her….
In Midway in My Song, Lotte luxuriates in memories of that long-ago summer:
The whole milieu of the castle was again quite new to me. There was, I believe, no better housekeeper than Baroness Putlitz. The whole day was mapped out, and who would not have gladly submitted to the dear maternal severity of those eyes? Oh how good this precise division of time was for me, slightly spoiled by an overindulgent mother and generally arranging things as I though good. But here it was 7 a.m., Morning Prayers. Everyone, including the entire staff of servants, had to be assembled punctually to the minute. Those summer weeks, followed later by others every year, made me an early riser, for it was a very bad thing indeed to come in late! The look the contrite sinner got prevented him from repeating it ever again…. And then came the morning tasks: when the weather was good, we had to work in the garden, pull up weeds, pick currants, fetch flowers for vases and strip lavender, which was then put in linen bags and perfumed every cupboard. When it was wet, there was always sewing on the veranda…. But again how shaming it was when the Baroness with a reproving look picked up some discarded cotton and carefully used it up to the last little shred.
In the afternoons we would drive through the fields with the Baron himself at the reins, and it was the greatest honor to be allowed to sit beside him on the driver’s seat and be put through a cross-examination. —“What are those?” —“Oats.” —“Wrong: barley. You’ll never learn, I’m afraid. You’ll only be able to sing. You’ll never know anything about the cultivation and uses of lupines, but you’ll always go into raptures over the sweet perfume of their lovely yellow flowers, won’t you?”
“Perhaps Lotte will soon be all perfumed herself,” Erika prophesied. “She will powder the nose that shines in the sun today and will go rustling about in silk petticoats.”
The Baroness cast me a look of motherly solicitude. “Thank Heaven she won’t get very high fees to start with. So that will cut out any rustling for a while,” she said vigorously. I laughed and promised neither to rustle nor to use perfume or powder.
The other Baron Putlitz, Konrad’s brother Joachim (the Intendant of the Stuttgart Court Theatre for whom Lotte had auditioned while still at the Etelka Gerster School), happened to be there as well, with his wife and daughters, Dora and Adrianna. One morning he asked her to sing for him again and specifically requested the piece that had so impressed him before, Agathe’s aria from Der Freischütz. Lotte’s heart sank. She hadn’t looked at that music for months. Here is her description of that day as she wrote it to her family:
I sat there totally turned to stone and stared at him in horror. He immediately turned a degree or two cooler and asked: “Don’t you want to?” I stammered something about being “unprepared.” But the Baron [Konrad] was making anxious signals at me from the background, so I quickly added “yes.” I felt as if I were condemned to death. I was dreadfully sure that all would now be over, because how could I get up and sing the great Freischütz aria, knowing it would be all rusty and full of mistakes? I went inside to practice feverishly. The Putlitzes were touchingly kind. Baron Konrad comforted me by saying that the Intendant is actually quite unmusical, that he can only hear through experience whether a voice is effective or not. Little mistakes slip by him completely unnoticed. If I had refused to sing for him I would have ruined his impression of me forever. By evening I was half dead from fear. Both daughters of the Intendant were charming to me. Dora, the one who is sick, is especially delightful. She kept holding my hand for a whole half hour, saying, “the main thing is that you become calm.” Erika gave me a glass of heavy, old Malaga, and that had its effect too. I sang exceptionally well, without an atom of anxiety. Everyone was enthusiastic. Especially the wife and daughters of the Intendant. Erika told me in confidence that they are the actual “Intendant“…well, I have them entirely on my side. Dora gave me a picture of herself, she’s enormously fond of me. The other one, Adrianna, threw her arms around me, and as we were getting ready to drive home she wrapped me so snugly in covers that I could scarcely breathe.
Lotte’s vocal progress soon reached the point where she was encouraged to start learning entire operatic roles. Her first was Agathe in Der Freischütz, the very prototype of a German heavy lyric soprano (called jugendlich-dramatisch, young-dramatic, Lotte Lehmann’s voice type throughout her career). Her coach for repertoire was Arthur Arndt, who also provided help and advice along the way. Lotte gave singing lessons herself to two or three pupils. That way she could earn a little pocket money (at one mark a lesson).
On October 24, 1909, Lotte sang in a charity concert in Perleberg. It was the first time she had returned to her old hometown since the family had moved to Berlin. She sang eleven numbers, including two excerpts from Lohengrin and two Schubert lieder. Already in this first recital the reviewers mentioned the warmth of feeling for which she was later so famous:
…Miss Lotte Lehmann develops more and more into an exceptionally promising artist. As a result of the noble timbre of her voice, which is pleasing to the ear even in the highest register, she was able not only to interest us outwardly but to touch us more deeply through her warmly felt interpretations, which are always kept within the limits of artistic discipline and refined taste.
Although the reviewer was on the staff of a provincial newspaper, his observations foreshadow the impressions of many a leading critic in the future.
After about a year Mallinger sent Lotte around to the agents. Accustomed to singing teachers’ recommendations, they tended to ignore her. Mallinger told her she should put on a few prima donna airs. Lotte was too natural and down-to-earth to even think of trying to bring that off.
Meanwhile she needed dramatic training. Mallinger sent her to Felix Dahn, stage director at the Royal Opera House in Berlin. With him she studied the role of Agathe from the actor’s point of view. The part includes a good deal of spoken dialogue. Lotte, who had always loved reciting plays in her elocution classes with the text in front of her, felt naked and clumsy without the book in her hand. Then there was the visual, the physical side of acting. “Here I stood helpless in an empty space and suddenly had two arms too many and two legs getting in my way.” Lotte always thought of herself as having been terribly awkward and self-conscious during her early efforts to act. If there was a step or two on the stage she felt sure she would stumble. Yet her efforts must finally have been pleasing to Herr Dahn, for he wrote to a number of theatres on her behalf and recommended her to Carl Harder, director of the very important E. Drenker Theatrical Agency.
Frau Mallinger and Herr Dahn considered Lotte to be ready now for a first engagement. Baron Konrad zu Putlitz advised her against accepting his brother’s offer of a beginner’s contract at Stuttgart. Her colleagues would suspect favoritism, in view of her friendship with the family of the Intendant, and would resent her. The theatre at Rostock expressed an interest; but Lotte would have had to supply her own costumes, and they would have been too expensive, considering the more than modest salary she would receive there.
Suddenly an exciting prospect materialized. An entrepreneur with grandiose ideas and—as it turned out—shaky financial support, a certain Max Halpern, arranged to take a company of German singers on tour to Romania and Bulgaria to present a series of German operas for the first time in those countries. Among the singers were two stars, Rudolf Berger, from the Royal Opera of Berlin, and Marie Rappold, from the Metropolitan in New York. Lotte would be engaged to sing small roles; but Halpern was so taken with her that he spoke of the possibility of Marguerite and Micaëla as well! Dahn was responsible for this offer. Both he and Mallinger were strongly in favor of accepting it. Papa, on the other hand, was not so sure. Understandably, he wanted assurance that his inexperienced young daughter would be safe in far-off lands among free-and-easy theatrical types (whose wives would probably be left back home). Lotte tried to convince him and the baron that this would be a fabulous opportunity to make up for her lack of ensemble training, and to get stage experience singing with an orchestra among seasoned professionals. The baron wrote to the German ambassador in Bucharest, who made inquiries as to suitable, safe lodgings for a young lady there. Finally Papa asked the conductor, Edmund von Strauss, who had been signed for the tour, whether on his honor as a father he would give his consent to his own daughter. At that gentleman’s “decided negative” everyone in the family but Lotte breathed a long sigh of relief. And a good thing too. The entire enterprise collapsed in Sofia. The death of King Edward VII of England put the other courts of Europe into official mourning and kept influential society out of the theatres. Without their patronage neither Bucharest nor Sofia was large enough to support a season of foreign opera. The tour ended in scandal and ruin. Lotte would have found herself out of funds and stranded far from home.
There was an audition in June with the director of the Hamburg opera, Herr Geheimrat (Privy Counselor) Max Bachur. In July came the signed contract, her first ever. A landmark. It was of course a beginner’s contract. That meant small roles and corresponding pay (three years at 200 marks a month the first year, increasing by 100 each of the next two years).
Many years later, the accompanist of that audition, Carl Gotthardt, recalled the sound of her voice:
She had a voice that could send chills down one’s back. A timbre of rare beauty. So silken, so lovely, so like a zephyr. It was not a powerful voice, definitely not. But then very large voices are not always beautiful—and the voice of Lotte Lehmann was simply beautiful. One can find no other word. How that was only someone who has heard her sing can judge. And in her youth. Later, in her maturity, her singing was more voluminous, more womanly, more sensual. But in those early days a young-girl freshness, an absolute naïvet??? and innocence emanated from her singing.
Her parents would not dream of letting her live in Hamburg all alone. They had heard hair-raising tales of the pitfalls of theatrical life. It was decided that Papa would retire—although that meant a sacrifice of part of the pension that had been his goal throughout his working life—and that the family would move with her to Hamburg. Only Fritz would have to stay behind in Berlin for the sake of his job. He moved into shabby quarters, always ready to put Lotte first, to sacrifice his own ambitions for what he recognized to be her greater talent. No one appreciated her achievements and her successes more than Fritz. No one was happier about her freshly launched career.