An Hour With Lilli Lehmann
( Originally Published 1907 )
IN Berlin, fourteen years ago, the foreigner was at once impressed with two faces, new to him, but conspicuous in every show-window. One picture represented an imposing, middle - aged man, which you were told was "unser Kronprinz," and the other, a handsome, fine-figured woman, was "unsere Lilli Lehmann." And you were looked at in surprise for not knowing " our Lilli Lehmann."
The Berliners have always spoken in a possessive sense of this lady—their star of the opera—especially in that year when she broke her contract with the Kaiser to accept an engagement in America. t made a great talk there at the time, but the Berliners thought none the less of her, and the morning after her début in New York the first words that greeted you in the Vaterland were :
" Have you heard the news? The Lilli Lehmann has had a great success in America."
Fourteen years later this same Lilli Lehmann is still having "a great success in America." Her art is enduring as it is great. She is equally successful in colorature and dramatic rôles ; but her physique and voice are particularly fitted to the mythical Wagnerian characters. Lilli Lehmann imparts to these legends of the Norseland all the attributes our fancy calls for. Her Scandinavian goddess is a creature of mighty emotions, heroic build, and a voice at times like the fierce north wind. Her cry of the Walküre is a revelation in the art of tone-production.
I was to call upon Madame Lehmann at 9:30 A.M., and this after a great and long performance the evening before. I had visions of the prima donna still in bed, receiving her caller quite in negligee, and sipping her coffee, served by a French maid, while a parrot and pet dog and flowers and the morning mail and newspapers combined to form an effect of artistic confusion.
This makes a pleasing picture, but it is not Lilli Lehmann. There is no sense of " artistic confusion " about her from her gray-tinged hair to her grand, true voice.
In answer to the visitor's knock at her room in the Hotel Netherlands, she opened the door herself, and shook hands with true German cordiality.
The bed in the adjoining room was already made, and there was no sign of a late breakfast ; all this at an hour when it is safe to say half her hearers of the evening before were not yet up.
And Lilli Lehmann, who in the eyes of the public is majestically arrayed in flowing robes and breastplates and silver shields, wore on this occasion, over her plain serge dress, the typical little fancy apron—so dear to the German Hausfrau.
The Berliners may well call her " Our Lilli Lehmann," for she is as unassuming to this day as the least of them.
But altho she impresses you as unpretentious, you also feel at once her great force and energy. t shows in her every word and movement, and also in her business-like method of being interviewed.
" Yes, I am quite tired," was her first remark as she seated herself at a little writing-desk and her visitor near by. "The opera lasted so late; I did not get to bed until two o'clock. But I was waiting for you this morning, and had just prepared to write down some items you might wish to know."
Then she took a pencil and paper,—and what do you suppose she wrote first? These are the exact words, and she read them aloud as she wrote :
"Born—Wurzburg, November 24, 1848."
I could not conceal some surprise, and was obliged to explain : " The American ladies so seldom give their age that your frankness is a revelation."
"The Lilli Lehmann" smiled and said : " Why not? One is thereby no younger."
She turned again to the desk, and went on with the "interview," using her pencil with great firmness and rapidity as she wrote in German, and with all possible abbreviations :
"I was brought up in Prague, where I made my début when eighteen years of age. My mother was my first teacher and constant companion. She was herself a dramatic soprano, well known as Maria Low, and my father, too, was a singer."
" In what opera did you first appear?"
"It was the ` Magic Flute,' and I appeared in one of the lighter rôles ; but two weeks later, during the performance, the dramatic soprano was taken ill, and I then and there went on with her rôle, trusting to my memory after hearing it so often. My mother, who was in the audience and knew I had never studied the part, nearly fainted when she saw me come on the stage as Pamina."
Madame Lehmann's feats of memory have more than once created a sensation. We remember the astonishment aroused in New York music circles five years ago when she mastered the Italian text of " Lucrezia Borgia " in three days.
Recurring to her life in Prague, Madame Lehmann further said :
" I appeared not only in many operas, but also as an actress in many plays. In those days opera singers were expected to be as proficient in the dramatic side of their art as the musical, and we were called upon to perform in all the great tragedies. But nowadays this would be impossible, since the operatic repertoire has become so tremendous."
People seldom consider how much larger is the present list of famous operas than formerly. All the Wagnerian works, many of Verdi's, and most of the French have taken their places in comparatively recent years, and yet there is still a demand for all the old operas too. The singer who attains Wagner must at the same time keep up her Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Bellini.
As the visitor mentioned Bellini, Madame Lehmann assented. "Yes, we are to give ` Norma ' here next month." " Norma," abounding in melody and florid fancies, is as different from Wagner as a cloudless sky from a thunderstorm.
The divine art, like nature, has its various moods, and Wagner and Bellini represent two extremes.
Among Wagner's works, " Isolde " is one character to which Madame Lehmann's temperament and physique are strikingly fitted. Throughout the long first act, wherein she is almost constantly singing, she imparts a glorious impression of one who thinks in music. The fearless, impassioned Isolde thinks bitter, rancorous thoughts of Tristan, whom she abhors, until with fierce resolve she hands him the fatal drink which, unknown to herself, is a love-potion. The previous dearth of action has created a ready mood for us to thrill and respond at the love-frenzy,? the delirium which now animates the scene as these unwitting lovers suddenly find all hatred and other memories gone from their hearts.
It may be mentioned here that Wagner firmly believed in the power of contrast, and he purposely preceded his greatest climaxes by what many would deem an unwonted length of inaction.
In 1870 Lilli Lehmann was engaged for the Berlin Opera-House.
Americans can hardly appreciate the significance of this fact ; but it means much. The opera in Berlin is supported by the government and directly under the super-vision of the emperor. The singers are not engaged for a season, but for life, being en-titled to an annuity after they retire from the stage. Lilli Lehmann's contract was signed by the kaiser during the Franco-Prussian war.
When asked if the old Emperor Wilhelm was musical, Madame Lehmann smiled, and there was a gleam of humor in her eyes:
" No, I can not truthfully say that he was at all musical, tho he was wonderfully kind and good to all artists."
For fifteen years Lilli Lehmann sang in Berlin with an occasional flight to Baireuth under the kaiser's permission, where she sang for Wagner himself.
" I was one of the Rhine daughters, and also the first Forest Bird in ` Siegfried.' "
Wagner's own Forest Bird! It is a thrilling and poetic statement that would be hard to equal. Of all this great master's characters, including gods and demi-gods, knights and shepherds, dwarfs and giants, his most original, and perhaps for this reason his best-loved children of the brain, were, we believe, his Rhine daughters and his Forest Bird. The former sing under the water laughing strains of mystical import and un-earthly sweetness, while the Forest Bird sings in the air—always unseen, but more impressive than the greatest presence.
This bird-music is not very long, but it is of unsurpassed beauty, and the most memorable theme in the opera. The scene too is exceptional and powerful in its simplicity—. only one person on the stage. Siegfried, the inspired youth, who knows the speech of bird and beast, is alone in the forest when he hears a bird sing. He pauses to listen, as you in the audience do too, for the song is not a meaningless mocking-bird array of trills and cadences, but a tender strain that bespeaks the bird as a prophet. Siegfried tries to catch the message, tries to see the bird, and tries, too, to imitate its tones. He cuts him a reed from the water-banks, and shapes it and tests it until he can play upon it the music he hears. Ah, we should like to have been in that audience at Baireuth when this Forest Bird took its first flight into the world !
t is a great thing to create a rôle, to set the standard by which all later performances shall be modeled. If the new opera proves to be a great and lasting work, the singers who created the important rôles are always credited therewith and mentioned. They usually have been selected by the composer, and their performance is the result of his best instruction as well as their own inspiration. Madame Lehmann has " created " many rôles, but the most poetic, we deem, is the Forest Bird.
After writing with characteristic abbreviation the foregoing fact—" '75-'76, Baireuth, Rhine daughter, I Forest Bird "—Madame Lehmann handed over the paper and asked " Is there anything more I can tell you? "
Her bright eyes, clear complexion, and magnificent figure prompted a personal question :
" How do you keep your splendid health, and the strength to work so much? " For this she had a ready answer :
"I have been a vegetarian for the past five years."
In reply to one more parting question, Lilli Lehmann spoke words of wisdom that are worthy of reflection :
" Yes, I still practise and study more than ever. At the end one is just beginning." 277