Part Eight: The Master and Her Apprentices
1951 was a banner year for the fledgling Music Academy of the West. The gift of the Miraflores estate was a logistical boon that helped secure the Academy’s future physically. Meanwhile, the arrival of Lotte Lehmann as a faculty member was a major musical coup for the growing vocal program. Once hailed by conductor Arturo Toscanini as “the greatest singer in the world,” Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976) was a renowned German soprano who settled down in Santa Barbara after immigrating to the United States in 1938. She had been involved with the Music Academy from its beginning, mostly as an advocate. She had helped recruit musical luminaries to the cause and gave benefit recitals to raise funds for the new school. She was, in fact, one of the Academy’s de facto chief fundraisers personally soliciting donations from people like Bing Crosby and Bruno Walter.
But up to that point what she hadn’t been was a member of the faculty. That changed in 1951 when she officially came on board as head of the vocal department. In addition to auditioning the singers and teaching lessons, Lehmann’s contract stipulated that she was to teach one masterclass per week. She insisted that the singers she took under her tutelage be already of the highest technical abilities. This allowed her to focus almost exclusively on musicality. In her famous masterclasses she spoke early and often about expression, sometimes demonstrating for the students in a sort of half-talking/half-singing fashion (she did not sing publicly at this stage of her career). “You don’t quite get the character,” she announced to one student during a masterclass, “You are too dramatic.” Her teaching style was blunt but kind. Though it sometimes left her students smarting, they were always better off for it. The success of her early students, especially Marilyn Horne and Grace Bumbry, shows that well enough.
During her nineteen-year career with the Academy (1951-1969), Lehmann also worked diligently to produce the first operas at the Music Academy. Her earliest effort was 1953’s An Evening with Lotte Lehmann, wherein Lehmann herself acted as emcee for a series of opera scenes chosen from across her own storied career. There is a certain enviable swagger to this, Lehmann curating an event based around own past successes. Approaching the twilight of her career she may have been, but she was still the consummate diva. Scenes from Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande were presented at the Lobero Theatre in 1954; Lehmann herself painted the sets, while the costumes were loaned to the Academy by Ganna Walska, the owner/creator of Lotusland. Her 1955 production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, another important work from Lehmann’s singing career, was the Academy’s first fully staged operatic production.
Lotte Lehmann directs the cast of Ariadne auf Naxos (Strauss) in 1955
Lotte Lehmann was a fascinating and multifaceted character. She was at once both the operatic prima donna revisiting pivotal moments from her own past and the dedicated producer painting opera scenes by hand, the teacher quick to make a critical remark and the mentor who penned letters to her students long after their time together had ended. In the Music Academy, Lehmann had found a fitting final act to her legendary career. And in Lotte Lehmann, the Music Academy had found a fierce advocate for its mission and its students.
– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West
Michael H. Kater, Never Sang for Hitler: The Life and Times of Lotte Lehmann, 1888-1976 (2008)