Wallmann, Margarethe (1901–1992)

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Wallmann, Margarethe (1901–1992)

German-born dancer, choreographer, and teacher, a leading exponent of expressionist dance in pre-Hitler Germany, who later became the first woman to achieve international acclaim as an opera director . Name variations: Margarita Wallmann; Margaret Wallmann; Margarete Wallmann; Margherita Wallmann. Born, probably in Berlin, on July 22, 1901 (some sources cite in 1904 in Vienna); died in Monte Carlo, Monaco, on May 2, 1992.

Margarethe Wallmann enjoyed an extraordinary career, one extending over more than six decades in both Europe and the New World, in which she achieved fame as a dancer, teacher, director of a dance company, choreographer, ballet director, and last but certainly not least, as the first woman in history to be an opera director. She was born most likely in Berlin in 1901, and studied ballet there under Eugenia Eduardowa and Olga Preobrazhenska , and later in Munich with Heinrich Kröll and Anna Ornelli , as well as for a time in Paris. As a dance student in Munich, she was, she wrote, "a little dancer who was besotted with music." In 1923, Wallmann moved to Dresden to study modern dance with Mary Wigman . For a time, she was a member of Wigman's touring company, whose members also included such future dance stars as Hanya Holm and Gret Palucca . In 1927, Wallmann founded a dance school at which she taught the new style pioneered by Wigman, and the next year traveled to the United States to introduce the Wigman approach there.

By 1929, Wallmann had founded her own dance company, the Tänzer-Kollektiv (Dancers' Collective). It was in Munich in 1930 that she performed with her dance ensemble a "movement drama" entitled Orpheus Dyonisos, to the music of Christoph Willibald von Gluck, with the American dancer Ted Shawn, who proclaimed her to be "Germany's newest genius." Wallmann's choreography for Orpheus Dyonisos won her the first prize at the International Dance Congress of 1930. In the summer of 1931, the Wallmann troupe were guest performers at Austria's Salzburg Festival. There, as exponents of contemporary expressionist dance (Ausdruckstanz), she and her dancers staged the premiere of Das jüngste Gericht (The Last Judgment) to music by Georg Friedrich Händel, deemed a success by both audiences and critics. In 1932, Wallmann was placed in charge of the choreography for the Salzburg staging of Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon. Thanks to these artistic triumphs, Wallmann would be a regular guest at the Salzburg Festival until 1937, serving that prestigious institution as its chief choreographer. In 1933, she also made her debut in Salzburg as an opera producer with Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice. That same year at Salzburg she choreographed Max Reinhardt's acclaimed version of Goethe's Faust.

In 1932, Wallmann closed her dance school in Berlin, after an accident ended her active career as an expressionist dancer. Being both Jewish and a champion of artistic modernism, she fled Germany in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Fortunately, the successes she had already achieved in Austria allowed her to continue her career there, but her relocation coincided with her turning away from Wigman's ideas on modern dance. From this point on, Wallmann would direct her energies to making the best uses of more traditional ballet-oriented dance styles. The opportunity to do this soon arose, for in 1934 she was appointed the "ballet mistress" of Vienna's world-renowned Staatsoper (State Opera), with additional duties as director of the

State Opera's ballet school. The indefatigable perfectionist Wallmann quickly earned the admiration and respect of many of her colleagues, including Staatsoper director Dr. Erwin Kerber.

During her years in Vienna, which were marked by growing political tensions (on at least one occasion, Nazis released stink bombs during a Staatsoper performance to protest appearances by Jewish singers), Wallmann began to display her extraordinary versatility as an artist. While working full time at the State Opera, as well as at the Salzburg Festival every summer, she also began to take foreign assignments, including work at Prague's New German Theater and Milan's fabled La Scala Opera House. Her La Scala achievements in the 1930s included choreographing operas by Boïto, Gluck, and Verdi, and ballets by the contemporary Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (The Birds and Ancient Airs and Dances). Wallmann's growing fame even brought her to Hollywood, where among other projects she choreographed the Greta Garbo film Anna Karenina (1935). Back in Vienna, she produced a number of works reflecting Austria's desperate attempt to forge a national cultural identity distinct from that of (Nazi) Germany, including such artistically conservative ballets (or ballet-pantomimes) as Weihnachtsmärchen (Christmas Fairy Tale, 1933), Fanny Elssler (1934), Österreichische Bauernhochzeit (Austrian Peasant Wedding, 1934), and Der liebe Augustin (1936).

One of Wallmann's last triumphs was her choreography for Bizet's Carmen, staged at Vienna's Staatsoper in December 1937, with Bruno Walter conducting. In March 1938, time ran out for Austrian independence. Jewish artists like Wallmann and Walter now fled Nazi terror. Fortunately for Wallmann, she enjoyed a worldwide reputation for excellence in both theater and dance, and by the end of that year she was in Buenos Aires, having been offered a contract by Argentina's famed Teatro Colón, where she directed the opera house's ballet. Her much-acclaimed work in Buenos Aires over the next decade included choreographing Lothar Wallerstein's productions of Beethoven's Fidelio, and Wagner's Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Among Wallmann's most noted dance sequences done at the Teatro Colón were her productions of Richard Strauss' Don Juan and Die Josephslegende. In 1947, she also ventured into opera direction with her version at the Teatro Colón of a contemporary work, Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bucher, which earned her the highest critical praise from both audiences and critics that year. She encored the Honegger work in 1948.

After returning to Europe in 1948, Wallmann concentrated her career energies on opera direction. For the next four decades, she would be involved in an extraordinary number of opera productions. She was not only the first woman in the world to work as an opera director, but would virtually monopolize this position until the 1960s. By 1949, she was active in Italy, where she would direct an astonishing number of operas—14 by Verdi alone, including such rarities as his early La Battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller—many of these at La Scala. As late as 1982, Wallmann would direct a Verdi opera (Un ballo di maschera), in this instance not in Italy, but in France at Avignon's municipal theater. While directing operas across the entire range of the lyric repertory, including Maria Callas in Norma and La Gioconda, Wallmann enjoyed specializing in modern works, including operas by contemporary composers such as Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Francis Poulenc.

Wallmann's artistic relationship with the French composer Francis Poulenc would turn out to be a particularly fruitful one, for in 1957 she directed the world premiere of his great opera Dialogues des Carmélites at the Paris Opera as well as at La Scala. In her memoirs, Wallmann wrote with pride of her work with Poulenc who had become a sort of "big brother." Over a friendship lasting decades, she gave him valuable advice, including a way to end the first act of Dialogues des Carmélites. "Francis looked at me in amazement. 'It's wonderful, it's amazing!,' and he lifted me in his arms and carried me round the room like a whirlwind."

Wallmann's style, described by Alan Blyth as "representational, flamboyant and luxurious, requiring elaborate scenery," was budget-busting and had largely gone out of fashion by the mid-1970s. In her heyday, however, she was incomparable and worked successfully with some of the operatic world's most eminent designers, including Nicola Benois and Salvador Dali. Besides working at such opera houses as Vienna's Staatsoper (where she directed imposing and long-lived productions of Don Carlos and Turandot under Herbert von Karajan's baton), Buenos Aires' Teatro Colón, and London's Covent Garden, Wallmann also directed operas in the United States at New York's Metropolitan Opera (Ponchielli's La Gioconda in 1966–67, and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from 1964 through 1976), and at Chicago's Lyric Opera (Bizet's Carmen in 1959–60). Even the Iron Curtain did not stand in her way, for in 1964 she found a way to direct Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as Puccini's Turandot, at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater. Wallmann continued to direct well into her 80s. In 1983, she helmed her first Zauberflöte (Mozart's Magic Flute) at the Teatro Colón. In 1987, she presented Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier at the Grand Theater of Monte Carlo, which received praise from the critic of the journal Opera, who noted simply that Wallmann, "an old friend of Richard Strauss," had presented this classic opera in "an authentic way… [and] … with so little indulgence on [her] part that the Faninal escapes caricature and even Ochs retains a trace of dignity." In 1988, Wallmann directed one final opera in her long and remarkable career, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, also at Monte Carlo's Grand Theater. It was in Monte Carlo that she died on May 2, 1992.


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Walter Toscanini Collection of Research Materials in Dance, New York Public Library Research Collection.

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