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Centennial Celebration for a Singing Actress

June 05, 1988|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

SANTA BARBARA — Contrary to popular myth, she wasn't the only great Germanic soprano of her time.

The stately Kirsten Flagstad had a much bigger voice and a better technique. Frida Leider commanded the heroic challenges--Isolde and Brunnhilde--that eluded her. Maria Jeritza was more glamorous, more temperamental. Elisabeth Rethberg mastered the lofty Verdi heroines that she avoided.

Still, Lotte Lehmann was unique.

Tenors loved her. "Che bella magnifica voce!" exclaimed Enrico Caruso, who wanted to sing Don Jose to her Micaela. Leo Slezak said "she possessed our secret weapon--the only one we have: heart." Lauritz Melchior simply called her " My Sieglinde."

Conductors loved her. Otto Klemperer, Franz Schalk, Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss and Hans Knappertsbusch sang her praises lustily, and they represented just a small part of a large chorus. Arturo Toscanini found her so appealing, off stage as well as on, that he permitted her the indulgence of a downward transposition in Fidelio's "Abscheulicher."

Composers loved her. Citing her "rare fusion of a soulful voice with excellent articulation of the text with genial force of expression and a lovely stage appearance," Richard Strauss insisted that she sing the premieres of his revised "Ariadne auf Naxos," his "Frau ohne Schatten" and "Intermezzo." He was willing, moreover, to temporarily sanction any liberties she would take with the vocal line.

Puccini felt that she was the first soprano who really could validate his "Suor Angelica." That she did so in the wrong language was irrelevant.

Audiences adored her, from her debut as a bit player in Hamburg in 1910 to her years as a reigning diva in Vienna to her career as a song specialist throughout America to her extended farewells in Southern California.

A final performance of her signature role, the Marschallin in "Der Rosenkavalier," took place with the San Francisco Opera in Los Angeles on Nov. 1, 1946. (The Times review, dated Nov. 2, doesn't even mention the milestone.) Her valedictory recital followed five years later in Pasadena. The masses continued to adore her in old age as she performed--the verb is emphatically accurate--in public master classes.

Even critics adored her, most of the time. A Beckmesser or two may have lamented her tendency to approximate pitches or distort rhythms as she sacrificed precision to passion. Others worried about her top tones in later years, or her eagerness to usurp lieder that tradition had assigned exclusively to male voices. A few iconoclasts groused that she conveyed housewifely decency even when she wanted to be very complex and very grand.

But no one doubted her profound poetic instincts or took her interpretive rapture for granted. No one questioned the radiance of her tone or the generosity of her spirit.

Lehmann was capable of disarmingly candid self-appraisal. Possibly protesting too much, she liked to admit that her technique was somewhat erratic, especially in matters of breath control. Although she enjoyed a splendid success at the Vienna premiere of Puccini's "Turandot" in 1926, she said she took greater pleasure in the performance of Maria Nemeth, her alternate in the strenuous title role.

Still, she knew her strengths. "I am a person," she declared, "who cannot do anything without being totally, compulsively devoted to the effort."

The effort eventually embraced lecturing, writing, painting and stage directing as well as singing. After Lehmann died at her beloved home in Santa Barbara on Aug. 26, 1976, aficionados everywhere continued to worship her. Fanatics with long and/or rose-colored memories dismissed such soprano whippersnappers as Reining, Bampton, Varnay, Schwarzkopf, Della Casa, Grummer, Steber, Crespin, Soderstrom, Rysanek, Jurinac and Altmeyer. "Very nice," they invariably clucked, "but you didn't see Lehmann."

The world at large, however, proved somewhat fickle. Much of the huge but in many ways frustrating Lehmann discography lapsed into library limbo. A new, more inhibited generation of performers and audiences tended to find her art oddly effusive and dangerously old-fashioned. The ranks of the devout began to thin.

Lehmann would have been 100 on Feb. 27, 1988. It was, clearly, time for revival and reappraisal. It was time for a centennial celebration. UC Santa Barbara, which houses the exhaustive Lehmann archives, provided just that last weekend.

For three busy, potentially hypnotic days, the cold little concert hall--it happens to be called Lotte Lehmann Hall--in this mirage of a campus by the sea was warmed with lectures, concerts, multimedia presentations, panel discussions, fanciful seances and fancy tributes. An "official" biography was introduced. Paintings were exhibited. Rare recordings were played. Hyperbole flowed in sincere abundance.

Lehmann's erstwhile students came to the shrine. Her friends, colleagues and associates came. Her disciples came. Who says nostalgia isn't what it used to be?

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