During a long and prolific lifetime (1888-1976), soprano Lotte Lehmann brought the joy and exultation of the singer's art to countless millions of music-lovers; and few artists have been held in such high international esteem.
She sang a vast gamut of roles, from lyric to dramatic, from Mozart to Wagner, from Puccini to Beethoven. She was a singer's singer and a composer's singer, admired by Puccini and Richard Strauss, who wrote more than one role with her in mind. "When she sang, she moved the stars," said Strauss. "The greatest artist in the world," said Toscanini, who conceived for her one of his brief, intense passions.In her native Germany, she first sang at the Hamburg Opera; thence to the Vienna State Opera, for many starring seasons. From 1926 to 1937 she was a headliner at the Salzburg Festival under Toscanini and Bruno Walter.
A popular fixture in the opera houses of the Continent and in London's Covent Garden, Lehmann was long in receiving an invitation to America, and past her operatic prime when she debuted at the Met in 1934 - already 46 years old. Eclipsed by Kirsten Flagstad, she was not pre-eminent in her greatest Wagnerian roles there, but was a memorable Marschallin in Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier," a notable Fidelio, and greatly loved in America. Here she turned to lieder singing, in which she was peerless.
Beaumont Glass worked with her as a coach and accompanist at the Music Academy of the West, and had access to an extraordinary number of exclusive documents in the archives at the University of California in Santa Barbara - thousands of letters to and from Lehmann, telegrams, manuscripts, photos, press books, scrapbooks and paintings; also the letters she wrote to her brother Fritz from Hamburg Opera. He worked closely with Frances Holden, her companion from the time Lehmann's husband died in 1939 until Lehmann's own death.
Glass has written the quintessential source book, for his fine-toothed comb seems to have missed no detail: family, career, travels, love life, and how she felt about it all. Gossip and scandal, and anecdotes aplenty about a multitude of the singers, conductors and other artists of her day fill the pages.
You learn that her teacher in Berlin wrote her a New Year's Eve letter in 1909, saying "none of my pupils has ever been such a disappointment as you have," and suggesting she take up a "practical career." That she was a marginal singer when she began at Hamburg Opera in 1910, and never fully convinced that house of her value until she was stolen away by Vienna in 1916. That during the '20s, at the height of her success in the resplendent Vienna State Opera, she was almost overcome by depression and a sense of futility.
Glass also chronicles her notorious competition in Vienna with Maria Jeritza, whose jealous sting in New York may have prevented Lehmann's singing there sooner. He tells how Otto Krause's wife gave him a birthday present - a Lehmann recital - and thus forfeited her marriage, for the two fell madly in love. About how Lehmann "sassed" Herman Goering, who flew her to Berlin to entice her to "come home" and be a privileged artist of the Third Reich. When she realized that Nazism was not just a bad joke, she began transferring her allegiance to America.
When singing became precarious (not until 1951 did she sing her last public concert), she settled in Santa Barbara at the Music Academy of the West, to spend her declining years. Travel, her art work (painting and ceramics), writing of several books, a few movies roles, workshops, coaching of international artists, and operas to stage filled her time.
This is blow by blow biography - operas, recitals, concerts enumerated in chronological detail, with resultant critical comment, most of it flowery and adulatory. Indeed, this plethora of praise and adoration sometimes gets in the way of fluency.
Yet Glass writes in interesting narrative style, and impatient readers may skip, hitting the highlights and pausing over the juicier stories. And the book is invaluable to the Lehmann scholar, especially since it is further enhanced by a complete index and notes on correspondence, and 35 pages of discography.