In some cases, life is mysterious. As I discovered that Lotte Lenya grew up in the same environment as I did, I wondered if my research had been coincidence or destiny (see my first post on Lenya: Back to the Golden Twenties).
When I was riding the bike on a sunny spring day through Vienna’s fourteenth district, I traveled through time in two perspectives. First, I explored her birthplace, which was literally next door to the school I was attending. Furthermore, I spent some time in my childhood at several places related to her and remembered, that the descriptions on the signs about her already fascinated me some years ago.
Lenya was born on October 18, 1898, as Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer, being the third child of Franz and Johanna Blamauer, and grew up in the fourteenth district of Vienna. A circus in the neighborhood aroused her interest in artistic performances, whereupon she started to sing and dance. In 1913, she traveled to her aunt in Zurich and took ballet and acting lessons at the municipal theater (Zürich Opera House). Only one year later, she was employed as a junior dancer in the ballet company there and she adopted her stage name as “Lotte Lenya” on the advice of her acting teacher, Richard Révy. After playing several roles in various theaters in Zurich, she decided to move to Berlin in 1921, where she joined an acting group that performed Shakespeare plays in the city’s suburbs.
Due to a lack of engagements, Georg Kaiser, one of Germany’s leading expressionist playwrights, hired her as a housemaid and nanny. At a party at his country house, she met composer Kurt Weill, with whom she developed an intimate friendship. After their marriage in 1926, they began to make a lot of music together, although Lenya never had any sort of musical education. In the spring of 1927, Weill set to music five Mahagonny poems from the poetry collection Hauspoststille by the librettist Bertholt Brecht. Weill wrote one of them especially for Lenya, as she remembered: “Kurt had written the Alabama song for my completely untrained voice – I had started as a dancer and then switched to acting – and now insisted that I had to sing it in Baden-Baden.” [FRITZ/KNOPF:2006, 187, org. German] Additionally, she explained her intuition for singing with her origins: “You know, every Viennese can sing. It’s in her blood, really.” [FARNETH:1999, 11] With that statement, she was to be proved right when she made her debut as a singer at the premiere of “Mahagonny-Songspiel” at the Theater Baden-Baden on July 17, 1927.
For a stage adaption at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm four years later, Weill expanded the score of the previously staged cantata into an opera for ‘singing actors’. He called this piece Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and wrote a new version of the so-called “Havana-Song” for his wife. But already one year before the premiere, two songs from this new opera had been recorded by the label Homochord under the direction of the conductor Theo Mackeben:”Denn, wie man sich bettet, so liegt man” and the „Alabama-Song,“ which the magazine Prager Tagblatt described as “extraordinary”. Moreover, the author of this article identified that “this woman’s voice is what makes it a success. It is not a sweet, well-groomed voice, on the contrary, it is hard, squeaky pointed, but it has a charm that conquers.” [PRAGER TAGBLATT:1930, 8] To get an impression of these songs and Lenya’s way to sing in her early years, enjoy listening to her first recordings in 1930:
Recalling a performance of Mahagonny in 1927, Lenya herself joked about her singing: “I sang ‘Oh Moon of Alabama’ […] with another singer. She was a coloratura of the Staatsopera [sic], and I was a coloratura of a different kind.” [LENYA:1979, 00:12:40-00:12:55] Ironically, this was the reason why these songs became very popular, and particularly Weill was inspired by her interpretations to write more melodies. In this sense, Lenya influenced his compositions, and since her appearance at the premiere of The Three Penny Opera she became famous too. However, that is a story for another time – so stay tuned!
- Hennenberg, Fritz and Knopf, Jan: Bertolt Brecht, and Kurt Weill. Brecht/Weill “Mahagonny“, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 12006
- Farneth, David: Lotte Lenya. Eine Autobiographie in Bildern, Köln: Könemann 1999
- “Platten, die erst erschienen,“ Prager Tagblatt, April 2, 1930, 8, https://anno.onb.ac.at/cgi-content/anno?aid=ptb&datum=19300402&query=%22lenja%22&ref=anno-search&seite=8
- “Lotte Lenya, 1979 TV Interview, Schuyler Chapin”, published July 16, 2015, YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORaO_MPehk&t=1577s