Schumann-Heink, Ernestine (1861–1936)

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Schumann-Heink, Ernestine (1861–1936)

Czech-born contralto. Name variations: Tini Rössler, Rossler, or Roessler; Ernestine Heink; Madame Schumann Heink. Born Ernestine Rössler in Lieben near Prague, Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), on June 15, 1861; died on November 17, 1936, in Hollywood, California; eldest of four children of Hans Rössler (a lieutenant in the Austrian army) and Charlotte (Goldman) Rössler; educated at an Ursuline convent in Prague; studied with Marietta von Leclair in Graz, and Karl Krebs, Franz Wüllner and G.B. Lamperti; married Ernst Heink (secretary to the Dresden Royal Opera), in 1882 (divorced 1893); married Paul Schumann (an actor and stage manager), in 1893 (died 1904); married William Rapp, Jr. (her secretary), in May 1905 (divorced 1914); children: (first marriage) August, Charlotte, Henry, and Hans; (second marriage) Ferdinand, Marie, and George Washington (her only American-born child).

Made debut under name Tini Rössler, in Dresden (1878); performed in a London production of Der Ring des Nibelungen under Gustav Mahler (1892); made Bayreuth debut, in Der Ring des Nibelungen (1896); debuted at Covent Garden (1897), Berlin Opera (1898), Chicago Opera (1898), Metropolitan Opera (1899); created the role of Klytemnestra in Elektra in Dresden (1909); also performed in musical comedy, films, and radio.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink was born Ernestine Rössler in Lieben near Prague, Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), in 1861, the eldest of four children of Hans Rössler, a lieutenant in the Austrian army, and Charlotte Goldman Rössler . Ernestine grew up poor on army posts, moving from barracks to barracks, while periodically attending Roman Catholic convent schools. In Graz, when ex-prima donna Marietta von Leclair heard her sing, she offered to give lessons, and, at age 15, Ernestine gave her first public performance, as the contralto soloist in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. She never learned to read music, however. Marie Wilt of the Vienna Opera was so impressed by the young girl that she arranged an audition in Vienna. But a broken-hearted Schumann-Heink failed to impress and was told to go home and become a dressmaker; she was too poor, they said, and too homely. Then, Amalie Materna arranged an audition in Dresden which was successful, and Schumann-Heink began to sing a number of small parts at the Dresden Royal Opera. In 1882, when she married Ernst Heink, a secretary at the opera, both were dismissed, for she had not obtained permission to marry a member of the management. Instead, she procured a position at Hamburg, and during this time had three children in three years. Night after night, she sang small parts, sometimes giving 22 performances in a month for little pay. As well, Heink walked out of their marriage, leaving her with his debts and pregnant with their fourth child. (They would divorce in 1892.)

Schumann-Heink placed her children with her parents and tried to accelerate her career. Her chance came in 1889, when the principal contralto at Hamburg, Marie Goetze , had a quarrel with the director and refused to go on as Carmen. Despite no rehearsal and an improvised costume, Schumann-Heink replaced her and was a sensation. Appearances throughout Europe soon followed.

In 1893, she married Paul Schumann, an actor and stage manager, and reclaimed her children. At last happy domestically, she had three more children; her husband, who was extremely supportive, was helpful to her career. In 1896, Schumann-Heink was coached by Cosima Wagner at Bayreuth and participated in five complete Ring cycles. She returned to the Hamburg Opera where most of her roles were now major ones. Soon she was in the United States debuting at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Schumann-Heink made a great deal of money appearing in a comic opera called Love's Lottery, and after it closed in 1903 decided to move to the United States. Following her beloved second husband's

death in 1904, she married her business manager, William Rapp, Jr., brought her children to America, and began a 40,000-mile concert tour in the U.S., becoming a great favorite on the opera and concert stage. (She separated from Rapp in 1911 and divorced him in 1914.) When World War I broke out, her oldest son August joined the German navy and was lost in a submarine; three of her other sons enlisted with the American forces, while son Hans died of pneumonia in 1915. Schumann-Heink turned her home into a service-men's canteen and made endless appearances on behalf of the troops.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink made her first radio appearance in 1926. Forced by the stock-market crash of 1929 to accept more commercial engagements as she supported a small army of relatives, she entered vaudeville and radio, and appeared in the motion picture Here's to Romance (1935). She worked in entertainment until her death from leukemia in 1936. Schumann-Heink's first recordings were made in 1903, and she continued a long association with Victor until 1931. Some of these records give a notion of her great operatic abilities. She was equally successful as a commercial singer, and many feel her recordings of "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night") have never been surpassed.

suggested reading:

Lawton, M. Schumann-Heink: The Last of the Titans. New York, 1928.

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