Michael H. Kater. Never Sang for Hitler: the Life and Times of Lotte Lehmann, 1888-1976. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xv + 394 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-87392-5.
Reviewed by Jonathan O. Wipplinger (North Carolina State University)
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The World of Lotte Lehmann
In this copiously documented and well-researched biography of world-renowned opera singer Lotte Lehmann, historian Michael H. Kater pursues the two-fold goal of setting the record straight regarding the many myths surrounding the prima donna and situating her life within specific cultural, historical, and social contexts. As in Kater's other works on German music and musical culture, the picture that emerges of Lotte Lehmann, both politically and personally, is ambiguous and at times contradictory. Culturally, she was an avowed philistine, but consorted with members of the cultural elite like Thomas Mann; aesthetically, she despised jazz and Arnold Schoenberg and adored Richard Strauss; politically, she was banned by the National Socialists, yet had little problem with Austro-fascism; and though she counted many Jews among her friends and artistic collaborators, she consistently displayed antisemitic attitudes and prejudices. What ultimately emerges from this wide-ranging biography is the portrait of a master artist haunted by insecurities, about her art and person, and a deep need to be recognized for her art.
Kater follows Lehmann's fascinating life through six chapters, relying almost exclusively on archival sources rather than on the singer's published autobiographical writings. Each chapter follows a more or less standard structure. After opening with a vignette from or about Lehmann, Kater provides contextual information about broader historical and cultural developments relevant to this period of her life. Next, major events and personalities of her professional life are recounted. These, finally, tend to be followed by a third section covering her private life.
Lehmann was born in 1888 in Perleberg in the Mark Brandenburg into a lower middle-class family. Her father worked in a credit union that served the local nobility. The direct connection between her family's well-being and that of the aristocracy meant that she was raised in an extremely conservative environment. According to Kater, it left her with a "deeply conservative disposition ... and with a concomitant respect for law and order" (p. 168). Such conservatism extended to her aesthetic preferences, which tended towards the middlebrow when she consumed culture at all. Her family background also played an important role in shaping her relationship to money and wealth. Simultaneously generous and greedy, Lehmann was in constant fear of not having enough money to support herself and those who relied on her. The greatest beneficiary of her magnanimity throughout her life was her brother, Fritz, whom she supported until his death in 1964, out of gratitude that he had loaned her the tuition for her studies at Berlin's Musikhochschule. Financial woes both real and imagined form a leitmotif of Lehmann's personal correspondence and go a long way towards explaining the singer's obsession with contracts and contract negotiations, which is thoroughly detailed over the course of the book.
Lehmann took her first position in an opera company, Hamburg's Stadttheater, in 1910-11, and quickly ingratiated herself with the port city's denizens, who later lovingly referred to her as "unsere Lotte." She performed in Hamburg between 1910 and 1916, making her debut as the second boy in Mozart's Zauberflöte (1791). Her true coming out was as Elsa in Lohengrin (1850), whom she portrayed in 1912 under the baton of Otto Klemperer. Yet, even if some musicians there were of the caliber of Klemperer and Gustav Brecher, the city was no Berlin or Vienna. During this formative moment in her career, the petty-bourgeois predilections of the young Lehmann were reinforced rather than undermined. "In Berlin," Kater writes, "her taste might have been shaped more appropriately in the direction of a serious-quality repertoire than could have been the case at the second-class Hamburg Stadttheater.... And so in Hamburg she found herself too often serving up lighter fare, without even finding very much wrong with that" (p. 27).
If in Hamburg, Lehmann became a local star, then Vienna and Richard Strauss made her an international one. In 1916, in the midst of World War I, Lehmann moved to the city with which she is today most closely associated. At Vienna's Hofoper she made her debut as the Composer in Strauss's revised setting of Ariadne auf Naxos (1916). Her stellar performance in the role marked the beginning of a troubled relationship with the opera's progenitor, as she fell in and out of his favor. The conflict with Strauss climaxed when the lead female roles for the world premieres of his operas Die ägyptische Helena (1927) and Arabella (1932) went, for a variety of reasons, to rivals. Kater summarizes Lehmann's difficulties with Strauss: "She did not know, or did not want to know, that whenever Straus told her she was the only singer in his life, he had said this to other singers before and would do so again, during her own career with him and after.... Not to be able to comprehend this and put it in perspective was the gullible Lehmann's first mistake. Her second was her own unwillingness to make material and intellectual sacrifices, swallow a prima donna's pride, and give up more of her precious time" (pp. 103-104). If this judgment seems harsh, Kater supports it by detailing the singer's diva-esque contract demands, which included increasing amounts of vacation time and decreasing minimum numbers of performances.
Indeed, just such a contract dispute, with none other than Hermann Göring, lay at the heart of the prohibition that the National Socialists laid on her performance career, the state of affairs referred to in Kater's title. During exile and after the war, Lehmann insisted that she had been banned from performing in Nazi Germany for her politically motivated refusal to sign a contract with Göring's Staatsoper that would have prevented her from performing outside of Germany. According to Lehmann, she was to have been compensated for her sacrifice of foreign markets with vast riches including a castle on the Rhine. Kater's critical eye allows no truck with this sort of retrospective myth-making. Though Lehmann did meet with Göring and Heinz Tietjen, then director of the Berlin State Opera, no castle on the Rhine was promised to her, nor, in fact, was there a restriction on performing outside Germany. The dispute actually centered on the way her honorarium of RM 1500 was to be funded and perquisites she sought, such as an apartment in Berlin and a guaranteed position for Fritz at Berlin's Musikhochschule. Lehmann voiced her concerns first to Tietjen, who rebuffed her, and then to Göring himself. After an exchange between Lehmann, Tietjen, and Göring, the singer was informed on June 5, 1934, that no official contract would be forthcoming. So ended her potential career in the Third Reich.
With Germany closed to her for the immediate future, Lehmann was forced to focus her attention elsewhere. During the early 1930s, she sought to capitalize on her fame by exploiting as many international markets as possible. The most important of these was the United States: in particular, New York and its Metropolitan Opera. She had toured America three times between 1930 and 1934, but engagement at the Met had eluded her. Lehmann now redoubled her efforts in this regard. The contract she eventually signed for the 1934-35 season contained neither the perquisites nor the guarantee of high payments she had sought from Göring. Yet, just as in Hamburg and Vienna, Lehmann's charismatic personality and warm voice won over audiences, even if she ultimately had to play second fiddle to newcomer Kirsten Flagstad. At the Met, she became known above all for her portrayal of the Marschallin from Strauss's Rosenkavalier (1911), a role she was uniquely suited to and which she performed thirty-three times for the Met alone. Earlier in her career, she had portrayed both of the opera's other lead female roles, Octavian and Sophie. Now, in her mid-forties, Lehmann excelled at breathing life into the middle-aged, world-weary princess. In America, she also devoted greater attention to the art of singing Lieder, of which she later became one of the foremost masters. She not only performed traditionally feminine songs, but also more prototypically masculine ones, like Franz Schubert's Winterreise song cycle (1827).
It was during the 1930s, as she reached the apex of her career, that personal matters (and crises) came to the forefront. The first of these concerned her husband, Otto Krause, whom she had married in 1926 after a two-year long extramarital affair. While the marriage was professionally useful for her, Lehmann seems to have fallen out of love as soon as they married. The debonair former soldier proved less than adept in business and became a financial drain; in 1936 he became ill and was treated at expensive sanatoria until his death in 1939. During this time as well, she secured papers for Fritz to emigrate after the Anschluß. He never found stable work in the United States and she footed the bills for him, his wife, and their own medical treatments. The central figure in handling these disbursements was Lehmann's agent, Constance Hope. This native New Yorker and daughter of a concert pianist possessed the cultural refinement, social connections, and fiscal restraint that Lehmann lacked. At first, she was Hope's only client, but as Lehmann's career stagnated, she was forced to rely heavily on an agent who had progressively less time and interest for her. Kater summarizes their correspondence, saying that, as "time progressed, the tone of their communications became colder on Hope's side, but more heated on the singer's" (p. 190).
Though in the late 1930s and 1940s Lehmann did not have the voice of her earlier years, she attempted to compensate through forays into other art forms. She authored a sort of roman à clef entitled Orplid, mein Land (1937; published in the same year in English as Eternal Flight). The novel featured Lehmann in the form of a pair of twins, as well as veiled depictions of individuals from her real life, such as Arturo Toscanini. In that same year, she also published her autobiography in Vienna; with Hope's aid, an English translation, Midway in My Song, appeared a year later. This period also witnessed her discovery of painting, a hobby she practiced for the remainder of her life and that yielded small exhibitions in New York and Pasadena. Finally, she landed a role in the film The Big City (1947), a Danny Thomas vehicle and box-office flop that doused Lehmann's hope of becoming a Hollywood star with the corresponding remuneration. Her artistic abilities in these realms never rose above the level of the dilettante. The salient issue for Kater, however, is that instead of pursuing these hobbies privately, she insisted on presenting them publicly. Of her interest in painting, he suggests: "Had she been sufficiently introspective, Lehmann might have kept her painting as a serious hobby, realizing its psychological benefits, and become a more easily satisfied woman. But her relentlessly competitive nature did not allow for this; as with films and writing, she saw in the new medium another chance to successfully compensate for the seeming accretive failures in her singing" (p. 242).
If these endeavors ranged far afield from singing, her post-performance career in teaching did not. After retiring from the concert world after a much-remembered farewell concert at New York's Town Hall in 1951, Lehmann taught at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, her city of permanent residence since the early 1940s. There, she offered instruction to a new generation of singers, most notably African American mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry. What had begun as financial necessity with select students in private instruction became a second career for Lehmann, and she was roundly praised by students and former students.
In teaching, the success and skill that had eluded her in other pursuits seemed to come naturally. A few notable exceptions, however, involved two of her most famous pupils: Marilyn Horne and Bumbry. Kater adjudicates both feuds, coming down on Lehmann's side in only one of the cases. Horne, who became famous as the dubbed voice of Dorothy Dandridge in Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), claimed that Lehmann had verbally assaulted her in front of other students. Though Horne later portrayed this incident as a decisive break in their relationship, Kater rebuts her claim with later letters from the singer that reveal no acrimony. Most damning for Horne's version is the transcript of a recording of the event in question, which shows that Lehmann's criticism was constructive rather than caustic. Bumbry's case, on the other hand, is both more complex and more telling, in that it involved the émigré's racist beliefs. Lehmann viewed the younger singer as her protégé, someone over whom she felt proprietary rights for having "discovered" and promoted. Whenever she got wind of actions by Bumbry that she deemed questionable, such as the salacious portrayal of Carmen under Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festival in 1962, Lehmann criticized her and sent unsolicited performance notes and critical press reports. In all this, Bumbry's race played a conspicuous role. Kater suggests that Lehmann held a primitivistic view of Africans, seeing in them a lower form of humanity that was pure and earthy, but naïve and childlike. In this, she had been influenced by Wilhelmine popular culture, Carl Hagenbeck's Völkerschauen, and German colonialist propaganda. At the same time, Bumbry's technical mastery of operatic technique and Lieder singing refuted these views. This gap between ideology and experience led to the projection of friction between the two on Lehmann's part (Bumbry, in fact, seems to have harbored no ill feelings toward Lehmann). Kater writes that Lehmann's antipathy to Bumbry reflects "a long if sometimes invisible red thread running from the point where little Lotte Lehmann kissed those black dolls in that Perleberg toy shop in the 1890s to the point in the 1960s when she realized that she had educated a black singer now maturing on her own, who could speak four European languages fluently, whereas she could speak only two, and who was able to sing Schumann's Frauenliebe und -Leben ... better than any white soprano. It was an extension of herself Lehmann had not wished for in this way" (p. 275).
In the detailing and recounting of incidents like these, Kater's intense scrutinizing of Lehmann's life bears fruit and reveals his work as a biographer at its finest. Perhaps the most important revision he makes to Lehmann's biography lies in his treatment of her sexuality. Though she had no shortage of male lovers throughout her life, including, perhaps, an extramarital affair with Toscanini, this biography also traces her amorous relationships with women. From her time in Hamburg onward, Lehmann had a long line of female admirers, some of whom were either bisexual or avowed lesbians. Lehmann did not reject them, and often reciprocated their advances with letters and personal meetings. The most important of them was Frances Holden, with whom Lehmann shared more than the last thirty-five years of her life. Kater treads lightly on the question of Lehmann's love life throughout his biography, venturing commentary only towards the very end of the book. He grounds this tact not only in the fact that both Lehmann and Holden, who died in 1996, always insisted that their relationship was never physical, but also in his sense that actual consummation was irrelevant to his subject. Of her sexuality, he writes: "What this all signifies for Lotte Lehmann as a woman is that she was ambisexual, with physicality again beside the point. What it signified for her as an artist is that an aura of pansexuality heightened her powers of interpretation of aria and song" (p. 296). He continues: "Having the ability to project her persona as both man and woman, she neutralized sexual divides. In the end she lifted herself and her art beyond the realm of sexuality, not to say of the merely human" (p. 296).
Kater's biography is not always evenhanded in its treatment of Lehmann, and descriptions of her personality often seemed tinged with frustration, such as his sarcastic reference, cited above, to her refusal to give up some of her "precious time" (p. 104), or in the underanalyzed references to her compulsive shopping. On three page divisions, text is missing (pp. 83-84, pp. 84-85, and pp. 274-275). These minor criticisms aside, Kater has delivered a compelling portrait of Lotte Lehmann and the constellation of characters with which she consorted and environments in which she traveled. It will be especially useful for scholars of the culture of opera and music and lovers of opera in general.
. Most similar to his biography of Lehmann is his Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
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Jonathan O. Wipplinger. Review of Kater, Michael H., Never Sang for Hitler: the Life and Times of Lotte Lehmann, 1888-1976.
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