Lilli's Bellini

Known for her unfailing energy, high standards and work ethic, here is an account of the great Wagnerian Lilli Lehmann from Chapters of Opera: being historical and critical observations and records (1908) by Henry Edward Krehbiel.  It illustrates her drive for perfection, artistic excellence, and stature as an artist of the first rank.

Lilli Lehmann brought to New York chiefly the fame which she had won in Bayreuth at the first Wagner festival, of 1876, at which she was one of the Rhine daughters (Woglinde), and one of the Valkyrior (Helmwige), and where she also sang the music of the Forest Bird in " Siegfried." At that period in her career she was still classed among the light sopranos, and so she continued to be classed until she broke violently away from the clogs which tradition puts upon artists in the theaters of Germany.
She felt the charm of freedom from the old theatrical conventions when she sang Isolde at Covent Garden on July 2, 1884, and her growth to a lofty tragic stature was rapid. She was filled with fervor for the large roles of Wagner when she came to New York, and her success in them was so gratifying to her ambition that it led her at the expiration of her leave of absence from the Court Opera at Berlin (where she had been fifteen years as erste Coloratursangerin) to extend her stay in America beyond the period of her furlough, and involved her in difficulties with the Berlin Intendant, and the federation of German theatrical managers, called the Cartellverband. Having carried to her an offer from the president of the Cincinnati Festival Association to sing at the festival of May, 1886, which was the ultimate reason for her action, I am in a position to give the details of the story of what became a cause celebre, and led to a wide discussion of the relations between the German managers and their singers. 
A short time before Miss Lehmann had declined an offer from the committee of the North American Sangerbund to take part in the Sangerfest, which was to be held in Milwaukee in June, 1886. She had also been asked by the artistic manager of the house of Steinway & Sons to go on a concert tour with Franz Rummel and Ovide Musin. When I came to her with the dispatch from Cincinnati she spoke of her unwillingness to break her contract with Berlin, and of the loss of the lifelong pension to which her period of service at the Court Opera would eventually entitle her. I declined to advise her in the premises, but made a calculation of her prospective net earnings from the three engagements which were offering, and suggested that she compare the income from their investment with the pension which she would forfeit. I also agreed, if she wished it, to reopen the negotiations with the Sangerfest officials at Milwaukee.
She took the matter under advisement, and in a few days, having concluded the engagement with a representative of the Cincinnati association, she told me she had determined to stay in America during June. In July, against the advice of some of her American friends, she paid a fine imposed upon her by the Intendant of the Court Opera. The amount of the fine was 13,000 marks ($3,250), and this amount she had received from the Milwaukee engagement. I had written to Mr. Catenhusen, the director of the Sangerfest, as promised, and he had reopened negotiations with more than willingness. Asked for her terms, she replied: "Three thousand three hundred dollars," and turning to a friend said: "I'll let the festival pay my Berlin fine." After she had paid the money into the royal exchequer, the manager of Kroll's Theater engaged her for a series of representations, but met an unexpected obstacle in the form of a refusal of the Intendant of the Court Theater to restore her to the privileges which she had forfeited by breaking her contract. It was long before she succeeecled in making peace with the Governmental administration of the Court Opera, and in the public discussion which accompanied her efforts she took part in an eminently characteristic way. 

The newspapers were open to her, and in the Berlin Tageblatt (I think it was) she defended her course on the ground that America had enabled her to exercise her talent in a field which the hidebound traditions of the German theaters would have kept closed to her. Once a florid singer, always a florid singer, was her complaint, and she added: "One grows weary after singing nothing but princesses for fifteen years." Though she began in "Carmen," and followed with "Faust," Miss Lehmann soon got into the Wagnerian waters, in which she was longing to adventure, and in them set some channel buoys which the New York public still asks Briinnhildes and Isoldes to observe. It was then, however, and still is, characteristic of her broad ideals in art, that, while winning the highest favor in tragic parts, she preserved not only her old skill, but her old love for good singing in the old sense. When, at the height of her Wagnerian career, she sang at a performance for her own benefit, she chose "Norma." 
From 1885 till the time when her operatic experiences had become the exception to her rule of concert work, the greater part of her career was spent in New York; and during the whole of the period she was in all things artistic an inspiration, and an exemplar to her fellow artists. For industry, zeal, and unselfish devotion in preparing an opera I have never met an artist who could be even remotely compared with her. When "Siegfried" was in rehearsal for its first American production, she took a hand in setting the stage. Though she had nothing to do in the second act, she went into the scenic lumber room and selected bits of woodland scenery, and with her own hands rearranged the set so as to make Siegfried's posture and surroundings more effective. 
When the final dress rehearsal of "Gotterdammerung" was reached a number of the principal singers were still uncertain of their music. Miss Lehmann was letter perfect, as usual, but without a demur repeated the ensembles over and over again, singing always, as was her wont, with full voice and intense dramatic expression. This had been going on literally for hours when the end of the second act was reached. When she came into the audience room for the intermission I ventured to expostulate with her.
"My dear Miss Lehmann, pray have a care. You are not effecting your début in New York, nor is this a public performance. Think of to-morrow. You will weary your voice.  Why to you work so? Mikiren sie doch!" 
"Mikiren thu Ich nie!" ("Markiren," it may be explained, is the technical term for singing in half-voice, or just enough to mark the cues.)  
"As for the rest, rehearsals are necessary, if not for one's self, then at least for the others. Don't be alarmed about my voice. It is easier to sing all three Brünnhildes than one Norma. You are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene that you do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself. But in Bellini you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct emission. But I love 'Norma,' and Mozart's 'Entführung.'

You can hear Lilli singing "Casta Diva" here.  She was 59 at the time of the recording, the voice still highly focused, with none of the over-darkened tone that is much criticized today. The high C sharp and the trill afterwards make me hold my breath. Amazing when you think about it. I wonder: does anyone practice trills and mezza di voce any more?  Do teachers demand it of their students?

Lehmann recounts in her book How to Sing that she would spend her mornings practicing the Great Scale, singing through two octaves twice (see my previous post for details). Oh that singers today were half as industrious!  Most want to sing through songs, learn a few arias, and then start auditioning. And conservatories, where most singers are trained today, are hard pressed to keep singers working on technique for the simple reason that so many non-technical matters take precedence. There was a time when a student of voice wasn't allowed to touch a song without having first worked things out, or, as was said long ago, had the voice 'placed'.  This takes time, which is in short supply in our instance gratification world. One has to learn to eat one's impatience for breakfast, and work steadily, if not incessantly. Lill and Bellini demand no less.


Dimitris said…
Fascinating! Thank you for your wonderful blog.
You are most welcome, Dimitris. Thank you for your comment.