A Documentary Biography


By Beaumont Glass

(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)


Like Flying in a Dream

Lotte’s second season in Hamburg was again dominated by page boys, fourteen times in Tannhäuser and ten times in Lohengrin, apprentices in Die Meistersinger (eight times) and a choirboy in The Prophet, plus such new variations as one of the Friedensboten (Messengers of Peace) in Rienzi and—a promotion!—the First instead of the Second Boy in Die Zauberflöte (five times). To the Sandman was added the Dew-Man (Hänsel und Gretel). Petticoats replaced the pants for repeats of Jungfer Anna and Agathe. On October 14th she sang the attractive role of May in Das Heimchen am Herd by Carl Goldmark (based on The Cricket on the Hearth by Dickens), opposite Elisabeth Schumann as “Heimchen,” to quite gratifying reviews, such as: “Frl. Lehmann was a lovely May.”

But the really special event of her second season took place the very next day. Lotte sang Eurydice in Orpheus (Gluck) on a double bill with Caruso in Pagliacci. Caruso stood in the wings to hear her and was obviously very much impressed. He came up to her afterwards, saying, “Brava, brava!  Che bella, magnifica voce!  Una voce italiana!” At supper later she was seated next to the great divo; he signed his name on her fan and drew her a caricature of himself, later sending her a photograph inscribed: à Mlle Lotte Lehmann (la charmante et jolie Euridice) très sincèrement Enrico Caruso Hamburg 1911. In Lotte’s presence he promptly asked the theatre management to cast her as Micaëla opposite his Don José in the next performance of Carmen. Since she had not yet sung the role and there was no time for rehearsals, that request had to be denied; but when he asked that she be his Mimì in Leoncavallo’s version of La Boheme the following season, the assistant general manager gave his promise (which, by the way, was never kept).

Lotte described her first impressions of Caruso’s art in Midway in My Song:

Unforgettable was that darling of the gods—Caruso. I first heard him as Don José. Thrilling as an actor, quite apart from his singing, he was a revelation to me. Trembling with emotion I followed the destiny that was being enacted before me with overpowering realism. His complete abandonment to his part communicated itself to his audience, breathless under the spell, and I am sure that many who had only come “because one must have been there” forgot about sensation and remembered only Caruso….

…I stood in the wings during Pagliacci, watching and listening to him with all my eyes and ears. I choked for breath when he tore off the clown’s cap with a wild gesture and wiped the paint from his face and sang: “Non sono più Pagliaccio.” Tears ran down his face and at the end of the performance he was exhausted to the point of collapse.

The miracle of this great grace of getting away from yourself and being another person, of being reborn—for hours shaping another strange destiny—and then of emerging unscathed from the whirling vortex of vivid experience into a calmer existence: all this was revealed to me more powerfully, more stirringly than ever before.

I felt that I would find the way to this grace—in spite of all obstacles.

There is a piquant epilogue to Lotte’s contact with Caruso:

The next day I received a telegram from his secretary: Signor Commendatore Enrico Caruso invited me to have supper with him at his hotel after the Carmen performance. I sat with the wire before me, frozen with terror.

I was just a great baby and imagined that temptation had come to me in the guise of the loveliest voice in the world….So I fetched my French dictionary and wrote a polite refusal. Quickly, before I could regret it, I took it round myself to the hotel. On the way there I passed the theatre and heard Hindermann saying to Fleischer-Edel: “Will you be at Caruso’s after the performance tonight?” I stopped and asked whether Caruso was giving a party today. Yes! an enormous dinner at his hotel….Oh, what luck that I had found out in time! So it was not for me alone—my dark yet dangerously alluring presentiments of a chambre separé were quite unjustified.  My letter of refusal fluttered to the ground in little pieces!

The part of Micaëla finally did come her way, but only after Caruso had left.

At the end of Lotte’s second season Bachur retired and a new director, Dr. Hans Loewenfeld, took his place, bringing with him Felix von Weingartner as his first conductor. Along with Weingartner came his wife, Lucille Marcel, as star soprano.  Brecher and Walker were gone. Klemperer, fortunately, was still there and had persistent faith in Lotte’s voice. Loewenfeld, on the other hand, soon lost interest in her. He was a well-known stage director, primarily concerned with the dramatic side of his productions. As an actress, Lotte failed to meet his expectations in her new role as Martha in Der Evangelimann by Wilhelm Kienzl. Furthermore, he was not particularly impressed with her voice, which he found lovely in quality but not quite big enough. Lotte had already decided to do some work on her voice, having had almost daily lessons with Katharina Fleischer-Edel, one of the singers at the Hamburg Opera whom she most admired. Then she went to a teacher, Alma Schadow, who, though not the artist that Mallinger had been, was noted as a brilliant technician and voice builder. During the summer vacation before her third season, she worked very intensively with Frau Schadow, following her teacher to a lakeside resort, where she took her singing lessons in a bathing suit. Lotte was thrilled with her progress.

Tensions at home had not diminished. It was decided that Lotte would get a room of her own, across the street from the theatre, and that her parents would also move, into another apartment. Mama was sick, as usual; moving was a strain; and again, as usual, there were money problems and messages of distress to Fritz, who always tried to help as best he could, though it invariably meant stinting on his own needs. Lotte asked for an advance on her salary; it was refused. Then she tried to borrow from a bank; but none of her colleagues was willing to co-sign the loan. Once again the baron saved the day. And again he also sent sacks of potatoes, fruit, and vegetables. Lotte, by the way, became expert at sewing her own clothes at this time.

The third season offered another round of page boys (the last!), with five times each in Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. More gratefully, there were also several Annas, Agathes, and Micaëlas (though not with Caruso). Soon a Rheinmaiden, two Valkyries, and the Shepherd Boy in Tannhäuser were added to her chores, the last bringing her some nice reviews. But Lotte was ambitious and yearned for the opportunity to grow as an artist through the chance to perform more challenging parts. Klemperer advised her to try to get an engagement at a smaller theatre, where she would regularly be able to sing the leading roles that belong to her Fach. Since she was under contract, that meant getting a release from Loewenfeld. Lotte suspected he would be only too glad to be rid of her. In rehearsals, he was constantly picking on her. She was scheduled, finally, to sing Sophie in Rosenkavalier, with Elisabeth Schumann as Octavian. Klemperer had arranged for the director of the Wiesbaden Opera to come and hear Lotte in the performance. Her agent also sent her provisional contracts with several theatres (Königsberg, Düsseldorf, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, and Freiburg) and told her she could sign whichever one she preferred. Suddenly Loewenberg, who had agreed to let her go, changed his mind and refused to release her. Unconsciously, she had pulled off an age-old theatre-trick: if you want something from the director ask for your dismissal. No doubt Loewenfeld was impressed that those other five theatres were interested in her. He offered to work on the acting of Elsa with her, and spoke of later giving her Eva as well. Now her prospects began to look a little brighter.

The Rosenkavalier went very well for Lotte, with mostly very decent reviews (though Schumann fared rather poorly in the papers).

…Fräulein Lehmann sang and played “die Fräulein Faninal” very delightfully—the high notes were of an unbelievable lightness and ease, with blinding brilliance…. (Hamburgischer Correspondent)

…The young singer, Frl. Lehmann, stood out all the more sympathetically, who, through the gracefulness of her appearance as well as her clear soprano, gave to the character of Sophie, along with a light hint of cloister incense, all the charm and all the sweetness of her being…. (Hamburger Nachrichten)

There was one negative one too:

…Frl. Lehmann is still too stuck in beginner’s diapers to have grown into a Sophie, in spite of relatively beautiful vocal resources. That was a casting mistake which should be rectified in repeat performances….

And then came THE  BREAK-THROUGH!!!

One day Klemperer called me….”Do you think you could manage to take on Elsa’s part? You’d only have a week….we’re in a fix. I’ve persuaded Dr. Loewenfeld to let you risk it. Well—do you think you can do it?”

Did I think I could do it!

I had, of course, studied Elsa’s part by myself and came proudly to the rehearsal. But if I thought I knew the part, I realized my mistake after the first five minutes. Klemperer sat at the piano like an evil spirit, thumping on it with long hands like tiger’s claws, dragging my terrified voice into the fiery vortex of his fanatical will. Elsa’s dreamy serenity became a rapturous ecstasy, her anxious pleading a challenging demand. For the first time I felt my nervous inhibitions fall from me, and I sank into the flame of inner experience. I had always wanted to sing like this—it was like flying in a dream: a bodiless gliding through blissful eternity….But usually one wakens from this lovely kind of dream with the terror of falling. And so I was dragged back from those ecstasies by Klemperer’s voice saying: “No idea of the part. We must work hard if you’re to manage it.”

I managed it.

I sang Elsa in spite of the indignant looks of Pennarini, my Lohengrin, in spite of the producer’s shrugged shoulders, in spite of Klemperer’s discouraging interpolations at the orchestral rehearsal….

Theo Drill-Orridge was singing Ortrud on a visiting engagement, and her eyes grew wider as she noticed at the rehearsal how simply everyone was against me—even Klemperer, who grew furious every time I forgot anything, seemed to lose all confidence in me and shouted up: “What’s the matter?  Has the big part gone to your head…?”

Then came the performance. Lotte’s letter to Baroness Putlitz captures her elation:

Now, I believe, much has been reached. The Elsa was such a great and unusual success, the audience applauded in a frenzy and kept calling “Elsa,” there were about eighteen curtain calls! Dr. Loewenfeld, Weingartner, everyone expressed appreciation. Naturally now there is no more talk of any engagement elsewhere. I believe that it was the most beautiful day of my life. It was as if I had drunk too much wine, everything was spinning around before my eyes. Wherever I looked there were hands reaching out to me in congratulation, all I could hear were voices shouting “bravo.” There is something very special about applause.

And that the role was Elsa! I sang with such enjoyment! The nervousness melted away in a few minutes—I forgot the stage and the audience. How remarkable that was, as I was coming down the steps on my way to the cathedral and everyone was singing “Hail to thee, Elsa of Brabant!” That was so festive and so beautiful. It was a great day.

The critics confirmed her success:

…At last an Elsa who was only Elsa and could not just as well have been Ortrud. To many it may have seemed a risk to entrust this great role to the young, inexperienced Lotte Lehmann. And it was a risk; but not an experiment, for the basic prerequisites, which offered at least the possibility of success, were in this case present. The swan knights we have known here have seldom rushed to rescue a more enchanting, more tender Elsa, so touched with romantic magic, as she was outwardly portrayed by Frl. Lehmann. An Elsa without the excesses of the usual prima donna, an Elsa who was all innocence and guilelessness. Artistically too, Frl. Lehmann fulfills her task for the present in a way that is entirely her own. She forgets most of what she had planned and what others have prompted her to do; she gives herself up completely to the impressions of the moment and to the dramatic situation. That is very good, for in that way she keeps for her Elsa a perfect, almost touching unaffectedness; in that way she is not tempted to make what is already complicated appear to be even more so than it really is, and in that way she avoids any farfetched philosophical obscurities and any false theatricality. Perhaps this lovely unaffectedness springs from her ignorance of Elsa’s nature. In that case one would like to wish that she retain such ignorance for a good long time…. (Hamburger Fremdenblatt)

…That new Elsa was Fräulein Lotte Lehmann. Outwardly a picture that could assure sympathy and support for the role she was to portray, through the warmth of her feelings and through the profusion of youthfully fresh, beautiful tones at her disposal, at least as much as through her appearance. A slight nervousness that was noticeable at the very beginning—understandable in the heavy reponsibility of a first appearance in a leading role—was soon suppressed. Thus the careful treatment of the text and that of the melodic line came into their own, no less the agreeable evenness of her vocal resources…. (Neue Hamburger Zeitung)

…When one considers what it means for such a young singer to be suddenly at the center of interest, her performance was of astounding assurance. The voice of Frl. Lehmann has such a pure, heartfelt sound, her emission of tone is so steady and finely cultivated, that the songs of Elsa breathed all the sweetness of youthful innocence…. (Hamburger Neueste Nachrichten)

…An Elsa…of touching grace in her appearance and in her singing….An Elsa so human, so unpretentious, such as one does not often get to see and hear…. They will tell her that this or that must be done differently, they will try to instill in her all the experiences of all the Elsas who ever stood on a stage. If she relies entirely upon her own experiences, she will be the Elsa that Elsa should be and must be…. (Hamburgischer Correspondent)

The next performance of Lohengrin created a sensation of a different sort. It was the day after Christmas and Lotte was again the Elsa. The husband of Elisabeth Schumann was sitting in the first row, directly behind Klemperer, who had just finished conducting the last measures. Schumann’s husband shouted: “Klemperer, turn around!” and struck him across the face with a riding crop so forcefully that he was knocked to the ground. Klemperer picked himself up, turned to the audience, and said: “Herr Puritz struck me because I am in love with his wife.” The incident became a famous theatre scandal. Here is the background, as Lotte reported it to her baroness:

After the performance [Lotte’s first Elsa] Klemperer ran away with [Elisabeth] Schumann! She leaves a splendid position, a nice, kind husband who worships her, to whom she owes her operatic training, who bought her everything, her trousseau, her furniture. She was married for six months and everyone thought that she loved him sincerely. As an architect he had a good social position, earned about 30,000 marks a year. And she takes off into the blue with a man who has nothing but his genius, which however goes hand in hand with a nervousness that borders on madness. He wooed her for a long, long time with stubborn persistence. Three months ago she said to me: “This can’t go on. Klemperer pursues me in a very compromising way. I love my husband and do not want Klemperer to come between us.” And then the day before her flight she said to our mutual singing teacher: “I love Klemperer to the point of madness. I have to leave my husband. Even if I am destroyed, I must go with Klemperer.” I feel so sorry for her that I almost forget her lack of conscience where her husband is concerned….

After a few days Schumann and Klemperer came back together and moved into a hotel.

Her husband then took her away by force, had her committed to a hospital for observation of her mental condition. After fourteen days she was declared to be healthy, released and—went back to Klemperer. Her husband sent him a challenge to a duel, which he rejected.

There follows the story of the notorious Lohengrin incident; then the aftermath:

For me it was an unforgettably horrifying evening. Klemperer has now been dismissed and yesterday evening he ran away with Schumann. She was supposed to be dismissed as well, but at the pleading of her husband her dismissal was changed to four weeks’ leave of absence. He maintains that she is sick. And when she comes back to her senses he wants to take her back!! Whether Dr. Loewenfeld will ever let her perform here again, however, is very questionable. Isn’t it all frightful? I feel sorry for all three in my heart. I cannot condemn Schumann, as so many do. This sort of thing, after all, is not exactly child’s play. She must have honestly struggled against her feelings. Oh, the awakening will be terrible for her.

Fritz’s widow, Theresia Lehmann, recalls a final vignette, as he described it: Lotte, dusting herself off onstage after her final swoon, had heard the commotion out in the audience; she could not resist peeking out to satisfy her curiosity. Fritz (who had been in Hamburg for Christmas) never forgot the sight of Elsa’s blond head, crown and all, thrust between the curtains, nor her look of stunned amazement at the pandemonium that was rocking the opera house.

Baron Konrad zu Putlitz attended one of the performances of Lohengrin. After seeing Lotte on the stage, his feelings for her became less fatherly and she was forced to see him in a different, rather disillusioning light.

To dispel a misunderstanding in Alan Jefferson’s biography of Lehmann, the baron’s grandson, Bernhard von Barsewisch, wrote the following clarification to the Lotte Lehmann Foundation:

When Lotte was singing at the opera house in Hamburg, her earliest triumph was “Elsa.” My grandfather Baron Konrad zu Putlitz had sponsored lessons with Mme. Mallinger which enabled Lotte to start her splendid career. My grandfather, travelling through Hamburg, saw Lotte on the stage and fell intensely in love with her. Lotte desperately tried to convince him that he was infatuated with “Elsa” and not with the human being Lotte Lehmann, but all in vain. When they sat down to dine he gave her a piece of paper with a poem he had written for her and asked her to read it to him. She was so excited that she had to lean her arms against the table to hide how much she was shivering. For her it was as if a god-like figure had descended from heaven and acted like a very mortal elderly gentleman. The only words she could think were “the baron and his protégée”…and Mr. Jefferson made this the title of the poem! No, Lotte found it terrifying that the situation resembled the typical cliché of a wealthy man supporting a young girl. Lotte remained firm, my grandfather returned extremely thoughtful to his home in Groß Pankow, not without sending some love letters to Hamburg. These and the poem had to be burned by demand of my austere grandmother. So the poem is lost, the title remains a mystery forever, but certainly it was nothing so clumsy as Mr. Jefferson had misunderstood.

Brother Fritz stoutly maintained that Lotte was too conservative at that time and far too moral to consider an adulterous liaison, and that her respect for her benefactor and her sense of gratitude outweighed her disappointment in discovering that her all-too-human idol had feet of clay. Nothing should jeopardize her warm friendship with his daughters and the baroness.

The success of Lotte’s Elsa insured that she would generally be cast in grateful leading roles. Besides such smaller parts as the Mermaid in Oberon and Echo in Ariadne auf Naxos, for both of which she received very favorable mention in the press, she appeared as Irene in Wagner’s Rienzi, Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann (to use the familiar English title), and Dorabella in Così fan tutte before the season was over. When the Berlin Court Opera suddenly needed an Echo for their production of Ariadne, Lotte was able to “jump in” and save the show.

Besides the success of her own achievements, luck was on her side in another way as well: the woman who had been engaged as “first” young-dramatic soprano had a fiasco. Her failure meant that Lotte could move up a notch. “Thus one rises up over others,” she ruefully wrote to the baroness, “and unlearns compassion and thinks only of one’s own advantage.”

  She began to prepare Elisabeth and Sieglinde, two roles that would soon become highlights of her repertoire and remain so throughout her career. She started to accumulate a following. There were requests for interviews, then disappointed reporters who had hoped for something sensational or spicy in her story. But audiences were falling in love with Lotte. Her star was rising. She was most definitely on her way.