Hempel, Frieda (1885–1955)

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Hempel, Frieda (1885–1955)

German-born American coloratura soprano whose operatic performances, particularly those of Mozart and Strauss, made her one of the leading singers in the world. Born in Leipzig, Germany, on June 26, 1885; died in West Berlin on October 7, 1955; daughter of Emil Hempel and Augusta (Morler) Hempel; married William B. Kahn (divorced 1926).

Frieda Hempel was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1885, and showed exceptional musical talent as a small child. At age 15, she enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory, specializing in piano, but it soon became clear that she possessed great vocal abilities. In 1902, she moved to Berlin to study voice with Selma Nicklass-Kempner at the Stern Conservatory. Hempel made a brilliant debut as Mrs. Ford in Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (The Merry Wives of Windsor) at Berlin's Royal Opera House on August 22, 1905. While she was based at the Schwerin Opera House during the next several years, her reputation rapidly spread through Germany. By 1907, she was singing at London's Covent Garden opera, starring in both a Mozart role and in Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel. Both critics and audiences were delighted by her purity of tone and stylistic sophistication.

In 1908, Hempel starred in a Berlin revival of Meyerbeer's grand opera, Les Huguenots, which was lavishly staged and under the personal supervision of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. With Hempel at its center, this production was a gala event that transfixed the German capital's social elite and was the talk of much of European royalty for the musical season. Hempel received the coveted title of Kammersängerin (Court Singer), a tangible sign of her success in Berlin. In addition to receiving decorations from Kaiser Wilhelm II, the rising young star also was awarded honors by the king of Belgium, the grand duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and the duke of Anhalt.

Having mastered the major classical opera roles, in 1911 Hempel became a significant figure in the advancement of contemporary music when she sang the role of the Marschallin in the Berlin premiere performance of Richard Strauss' new opera, Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss, who regarded Hempel as one of the finest interpreters of his works, was in awe of her vocal powers, particularly her high F-sharps.

Hempel became an undisputed international singing star when she made her debut at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House on December

27, 1912, singing the role of Marguerite de Valois (Margaret of Valois [1553–1615]) in Les Huguenots. Although she had been extremely nervous during her performance, it still prompted enthusiastic reviews, including one from Henry Krehbiehl of the New York Tribune who praised Hempel as an artist with a "highly finished style of vocalization, a flexible voice, and good taste." During the next seven seasons, Hempel was one of the Metropolitan Opera's leading sopranos, giving outstanding performances as Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville, the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute, Olympia in Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, Violeta in Verdi's La Traviata, Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, and the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

By the end of her career, Hempel had mastered over 70 leading soprano roles, only 17 of which she appeared in during her years at the Metropolitan Opera. With her farewell Met performance on February 10, 1919, she had made 187 appearances with the company, 155 in New York City and 32 while on tour. Her outstanding performances during these years included her portrayal of the Marschallin in the American premiere of Der Rosenkavalier on December 9, 1913, and the numerous times she sang opposite Enrico Caruso in Donizetti's Elisir d'amore as well as in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Another great triumph for Hempel was her appearance in the title role of the American premiere of Carl Maria von Weber's Euryanthe, which was conducted by Arturo Toscanini on December 19, 1914.

Although Hempel left her strongest musical impressions at the Metropolitan Opera, she thrilled audiences not only in her native Germany but in other countries as well. In addition to her successful appearances in Paris, she was immediately regarded as a major vocal artist during her appearances in London in 1914, when she sang in the epoch-making Drury Lane season directed by Sir Thomas Beecham. Her characterization of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute was an unqualified success in London's musical circles. At the time, some music lovers were already acquainted with her 1911 recording of the aria "Der hölle Rache" from this, one of Mozart's greatest and most beloved works.

By 1917, the animosities released by World War I were leaving a profound mark on musical life in America. The U.S. declaration of war on Germany in April of that year quickly led to a massive explosion of hatred for all things German. German books were burned in public, the German language was driven from school curricula, and staples of German origin were rechristened with patriotic names: sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage. German music was banned by many orchestras, and German-born artists, including Hempel, found many doors shut. Both she and Austrian-born violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler were banned from a number of American cities, and many other musicians would never again perform in the United States. Orchestras and even the Metropolitan Opera banished German compositions from their wartime programs as a sign of their patriotic purity, and German-born artists like Hempel became viewed as cultural pariahs in a land that had once hailed their gifts.

Hempel's operatic career ended in 1921 with her having made relatively few recordings (unfortunately she never made recordings of works by either Richard Wagner or Richard Strauss). After a few stage performances with the Chicago Grand Opera Company in San Francisco, she retired from the operatic stage. Now in her 30s, she was not ready, however, to end her singing career.

On October 6, 1920, Hempel had appeared in Carnegie Hall to present an exact duplicate of the concert given in 1850 by the famous Jenny Lind at New York's Castle Garden (Lind's first appearance in the United States). During the 1920s, Hempel gave more than 300 Jenny Lind concerts, clad in a costume similar to that of the fabled Norwegian singer, and charming her sold-out audiences with both her personality and vocal art. She not only performed as Jenny Lind throughout the United States, but made two acclaimed tours of the United Kingdom. While some critics voiced misgivings about this form of performance due to its resemblance to the mass-appeal entertainment style that marked Jenny Lind's career (which had been orchestrated by none other than the showman P.T. Barnum) both the box-office results and Hempel's artistic satisfaction with her efforts outweighed the impact of such criticism. After she finished the Jenny Lind concerts, Hempel concentrated on giving Lieder recitals. For more than three decades, these were appreciated by cognoscenti of the German art song. Critics would long rave about her Lieder performances, as did Richard Aldrich of The New York Times in January 1921, when he praised Hempel's voice for its beauty and "its rounded smoothness, its color, [and] its equality through its range." Although her vocal powers were in decline by the late 1930s, much of her musical artistry remained intact, and it was not until 1951 that she gave her last New York recital.

In 1936, Hempel's name made the newspapers for reasons other than music. She initiated a lawsuit against the philanthropist August Heckscher because of his termination in December 1935 of an annual income of $50,000 that he had begun paying her in 1928. In return, she was obligated to give private performances and appear at charitable events. In point of fact, Hempel had divorced her husband William B. Kahn in 1926 in order to become the mistress of the wealthy, and elderly, Heckscher, who soon after this began making annual payments to her. When Heckscher's payments ceased in 1935, and Hempel quickly turned to the courts, the press found the scandal good copy, and it was reported in considerable detail. The matter was finally settled with Hempel being guaranteed an annual income of $15,000 by Heckscher for the remainder of her life. On October 7, 1955, while on a visit to Germany, Frieda Hempel died suddenly in Berlin.


Hempel, Frieda, with Elizabeth Johnston and William R. Moran. My Golden Age of Singing. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1998.

"Jenny Lind Brought Back to Life," in The Literary Digest. Vol. 77, no. 8. May 26, 1923, pp. 46, 48.

Reed, P.H., G.T. Keating, and B.F. Stone. "The Recorded Art of Frieda Hempel," in The Record Collector. Vol. 10, 1955–56, pp. 53–71.

Vacha, J.E. "When Wagner Was Verboten: The Campaign Against German Music in World War I," in New York History. Vol. 64, no. 2. April 1983, pp. 171–188.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia