Striking a Chord with a Press Photo of Opera Singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink, February 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) was one of the greatest and most popular opera singers in the world and was not just known for her expertise with the operas of Richard Wagner and others, but as an advocate for American soldiers and other community work. The highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings for this post in a February 1928 photograph of the diva with Rufus B. Von KleinSmid, president of the University of Southern California—of which more below.

Schumann-Heink was a major draw virtually everywhere she performed with Los Angeles certainly no exception and she took to the region, as well, living more than two decades near San Diego and then spending the end of her life in East Hollywood. Hers was a life of remarkable and often tragic twists and turns, beginning with her birth in a town that is now part of Prague in the Czech Republic in 1861 to Johann Rossler, a former Army officer and shoemaker, and Charlotte Goldman, a Jewish concert singer who was her daughter’s first teacher. The family moved several times with stays at Verona, Italy, Dresden, Krakow, Poland and Graz, Austria during her youth.

Los Angeles Times, 10 April 1904.

In 1877, she made her concert debut in Dresden, Germany and she played minor operatic roles there and in Hamburg over the course of about a dozen years. When, in 1889, she made a last-minute switch without rehearsals to play the lead in Georges Bizet’s famous Carmen and followed that with other late additions, she began to draw a good deal more attention and rose to stardom during the last decade of the 19th century.

In 1897, she performed in America for the first time and, two years later, debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. In 1904, she moved to the United States and resided in New Jersey and Chicago before migrating to California, with her first concert in Los Angeles taking place that year.

Times, 23 December 1906.

Her personal life featured no small amount of turmoil, as her first husband, Ernst Heink, who was secretary of the Dresden Opera, with which she performed and with whom she had four children, abandoned her in the early 1890s. Her second husband was Hambirg-based actor and stage manager Paul Schumann, with whom she had three children, but, to deal with the pain of erysipelas, a skin infection, he became dependent on alcohol and died after about a decade. Her last marriage was to a lawyer and her manager, William R. Rapp, but that ended in divorce after under a decade (there were no children in this union.)

Naturalized an American citizen in 1908, Schumann-Heink was very patriotic, but had to deal with the trauma of having one of her sons serving in the German Navy and commanding a U-boat that was sunk by an American craft during the First World War in 1918, with he and his fellow crew members losing their lives. Four other sons served in the American military, with one dying in 1916 before the U.S. joined the allies in the war and the others serving during the conflict.

Los Angeles Express, 1 June 1921.

Schumann-Heink was so involved in benefits and other music-related events and programs for the American military during the world war that she was called “Mother of the Doughboys” and a significant part of her personal appeal was that was viewed as a mother figure to those in the military, but also in a general sense. Raising her own large family while in a challenging business with long stays from home was another example of the singer’s ability to juggle a demanding set of circumstances over many years.

An early reference to her in Los Angeles, where she first performed in Wagner’s Lohengrin in 1898, came in the Los Angeles Times of 19 June 1904 when the paper gushed that “no individual musician created half the stir or personal enthusiasm” so far that year than Schumann-Heink, of whom it was added “her art is a glorious realization of the ultimate scope of vocal and intellectual perfection. There is probably no greater singer in the world.” The Times of 23 December 1906, in which it was observed that

Her majestic voice and superb art have made her a world’s favorite—none the less in Los Angeles than in New York . . . She is one of the few successful Wagnerian singers whose work is equally smooth in other schools, and one of the very few impersonators in music-drama who give unalloyed delight upon the concert stage.

Even though she premiered the role of Klytemnestra in Richard Strauss’ opera, Elektra, in 1909 she was not particularly impressed with his work, calling it a “dreadful racket,” nor was he very happy with her singing, allegedly telling the conductor to have the orchestra play louder as he could still her the diva’s vocalizations.

Los Angeles Record, 1 January 1924.

Generally, however, she received rave reviews regularly. During the Roaring Twenties, as Los Angeles’ classical music scene continued to mature and grow with the Philharmonic Orchestra founded in 1919 and Lynden E. Behymer, long a dominant impresario, continuing to bring top-shelf talent to the Angel City, Schumann-Heink’s popularity peaked, even as she was well into her sixties.

The 9 January 1924 edition of the Los Angeles Record featured R.W. Borough writing of Schumann-Heink, opined that “for the great human mass of us the years do not dimn [sic] the luster” of the diva as “the fire of her soul, the warmth of her benign personality, the color, if not the flexibility, of her rich voice, are as compelling as ever. In her recent recital at the Philharmonic (Temple Baptist Church) Auditorium, Borough reveled that “with nuances of phrase and surprising bursts of passionate utterance the singer set the hearts of her auditors thrilling as none of the younger generation has ever learned to do.”

Express, 8 October 1925.

Referring to Schumann-Heink’s “lusty Teutonic soul” whose lauded career path “may be ablaze with spiritual glory,” the critic reflected that,

We shall remember her always, pausing for a moment at the end of a song—before the thunderous applause breaks—a rapture on her kindly, grandmotherly face, eyes lowered in the humility of a great artist, and then the all-inclusive smile, the radiance of a rugged, virile soul that has suffered but still loves life well.

Borough apologized for his rhapsodized ruminations, but added “it will be a long time before the world sees another Schumann-Heink.” The 9 February edition of the Long Beach Telegram and Long Beach News in the “Are You Discouraged?” column focused on the diva’s “many troubles,” noting that she was raised in poor circumstances, while her early career was a series of trials and challenges as she tried to make her way in a very competitive environment.

Express, 1 February 1928.

It was stated that her first husband took her earnings and gambled her money away, while “she had to cook and tend babies between performances.” While she gradually earned her international acclaim and fame, Schumann-Heink suffered the loss of her second husband, the death of her son during the war and more, but the piece concluded, “today at 62 she still is one of the world’s most popular singers.”

The Record of 1 January 1925 generally replicated that refrain, publishing a photo of the singer with children and grandchildren and noting that “through poverty, unhappiness, marriage, motherhood, professional jealousies, [and] international misunderstandings, she has majestically plowed her professional and private life, until today there is no singer more highly respected or more deeply beloved.”

Express, 7 February 1928.

Schumann-Heink continued regular concert appearances until she decided to retire in 1928, which brings us to the featured photo here. It shows the diva receiving from von KleinSmid a golden card for a lifetime membership in the Los Angeles Breakfast Club, one of the forms of appreciation tendered to her in the Angel City on her impending retirement from the concert stage.

The Los Angeles Express of 1 February commented that Schumann-Heink was “now on the last lap of a transcontinental farewell tour” while observing that “judging from Eastern reports, she is closing it [her half-century career] on the height of her artistry. Three days later, it observed that she “is bidding goodby to those untold thousands of admirers this season, which marks her golden jubilee as a singer and also her farewell.”

It continued that, while Schumann-Heink was 65 years old, “this marvelous woman still spellbinds her listeners,” though she wanted to leave the stage and turn to teaching as well as spend more time with her family. On the 7th, the paper briefly reported on her being made an honorary Breakfast Club member, adding that she was the featured artist and guest for the program of the following day’s meeting.

The Angel City engagement continued through the end of the month with the Times of the 24th noting that “five decades of music lovers have been packing operahouses [sic] and concert halls to enjoy the art” of the opera singer “and still each season finds her more popular than ever.” Known by some as “the unconquerable Schumann-Heink,” she was readying for her final performance.

Times, 23 February 1928.

The Record of the next day commented that “audiences have arisen as one” during this last tour “to stand in silent love and veneration to their ‘Ernestine of the Golden Voice and the Golden Heart,” a demonstration only previously afforded to the legendary pianist and composer Ignace Jan Paderewski. It noted that, at her age, she was performing 75 concerts over 25,000 miles in the United States, this comprising “a schedule that might appall an artist of half her years.” Yet, it was added, she rose each morning at 5:30 and did not have a maid or secretary to handle her needs while she “remains in the vigor of health and art.”

The paper provided a review of her final Angel City concert in its edition of the 27th, observing that the performance had “a rather inauspicious opening” as, while performing a religious song, “a note wavered.” Despite the rapturous applause that followed, Schumann-Heink tapped on her throat and told the assemblage, “I’m very grateful you forgive me—the frog.” Singing pieces from Brahms, Handel, Liszt and Wagner, the contralto “carried the traditional Schumann-Heink charm and it was added,

The color of a half-century of operatic and concert triumphs was not lacking in her farewell concert, but her casual humor and good-natured expression in numerous folk songs were the delight of the evening.

Moreover, it was recorded that the performer “was deeply touched by an eloquent eulogy by L.E. Behymer” and she was given a tribute book signed by 67,000 Los Angeles club members. Her voice was said to have cracked with emotion as she told the audience that ‘I’ll go to the children in schools and teach them as I taught my soldier boys,” meaning, apparently, those who served broadly during the late war, not her own sons. She added, “Old as a I am and homely always, anyway, just as I have taught the boys, now I’ll teach the girls—and I’ll teach them several things.” As expected, the evening ended with a mass of floral bouquets and an extended standing ovation.

Times, 25 February 1928.

It turned out, however, that the official end of her career was not until May 1929, when she sang her feature role as Mother Earth in Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan. Even then, however, her plans to devote her remaining active years to teaching were thwarted by the onset later that year of the Great Depression, which, as with so many, significantly adversely affected her financial position.

Consequently, she continued to perform professionally until 1932, ending with another Metropolitan performance, but also made a well-received movie debut and there was talk of her continuing in that field, when she experienced worsening leukemia and died from the blood cell cancer in November 1936 at her East Hollywood residence, which still stands.

Record, 27 February 1928.

The Hollywood Citizen-News, in its encomium, noted that “all over the world there are people who have the sense of a personal loss” with Schumann-Heink’s passing, adding that “not only was she a great artist; she was a great soul,” who was unlike so many stars who were egotistical in that she “was the rare sort who is coupled with broad sympathy for humanity and a desire to serve others.”

The Pomona Progress Bulletin reminded readers that she performed a benefit concert at the city’s high school in 1924 and followed this a few years later with an American Legion concert there and at the Ebell Club, now the historical society museum. It lauded her talent and skills “that marked her as a great artist,” but noted she was also “the gracious, the generous, the mother woman” who left “to the millions who knew and loved her a rich heritage of memories.”

Times, 19 November 1936.

Most striking, however, was the remembrance of the African-American-owned California Eagle, which titled its editorial, “Black America Mourns.” It noted that, when the news was relayed by radio and telegraph of her death, “12 million American Negroes bowed their heads in grief.” Beyond her remarkable career and service in which “she placed talent and fortune at the feet of humanity,” the paper added its tribute of what Schumann-Heink did at a Sacramento event, a few years prior, honoring World War One veterans and their families:

When the children marched upon the stage, the watchful eye of a white “patriot” spied a Negro boy. Rushing to the child like an infuriated bull at a red rag, he halted the youngster, saying Negroes couldn’t be seated on the platform.

The great diva, Mme. Heink had arose to sing, hugging the little black child close to her, as she stroked his kinky head, she delivered the most caustic arraignment of such action that ever fell from human lips. Filled with love and at times tinged with a note of bitterness Mme. Heink told of God’s love for humanity. Her eyes wet with tears, she burst forth in song and critics who have followed her concerts down through the years say that never before had the diva’s voice sounded so sweetly.

We love Mme. Schumann-Heink and as her body is lowered into its final resting place, 12 million true, tried Americans bow in grief as they hum that wonderful prayer, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

As this year’s Women’s History Month comes to a close this week, this photo from the Museum’s collection is a notable one for a woman whose tremendous talent as well as her heartfelt humanity shown through for millions of people of diverse backgrounds, even as Ernestine Schumann-Heink is largely forgotten today.

California Eagle, 20 November 1936.

There are, however, are recordings of hers that survive (the Homestead’s holdings include a 1911 Christmas holiday recording) and there are at least two YouTube videos that show her performing and speaking of her students late in her life and are definitely worth checking out as rare artifacts of a uniquely beloved and respected artist.

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