Review of Eva Rieger’s Biography of Frida Leider
In January of last year, I was asked to review a book in German for an English language Website: it was a biography of a singer I had heard of, but knew little about. The story of the Wagnerian soprano Frida Leider (1888 – 1975), is such a unique tale of artistry under Hitler, that it deserves the widest possible audience, and I hope the excellent biography by Eva Reiger is soon made available in English. In the meantime, I’m grateful to Lars Fischer, book review editor of Jewish Historical Studies, for letting me re-post my extended review on the Forbidden Music blog. In any case, this is only a book review and more detailed articles on Leider’s dates of when and where she performed are available across the internet, where she still enjoys a wide fan-base.
Two things tend to surprise readers interested in Hitler’s war: no matter how desperate and “total” the war efforts, the Nazis kept opera houses, orchestras and gas-chambers in operation. Love of music and hatred of Jews were apparently the chassis of the Nazi war machine. Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Kempff, Richard Strauss, Walter Gieseking, Wolfgang Schneiderhan are all names familiar to music lovers, who were left severely compromised following the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich. If their motives were “honourable” and directed solely towards “their art”, their use as propaganda was ruthless. Yet added to these names are another group consisting of Franz Lehár, Edmund Eysler, Walter Braunfels, Paul von Klenau: all composers in “mixed race marriages” who remained in Germany and Austria. Some had no choice, while Klenau took his Jewish wife and in 1940 returned to his native Denmark. The others lived in constant fear. There follows another group of composers and musicians such as Max Butting, Heinz Tiessen, Felix Petyrek, Eduard Erdmann, Boris Blacher who were neither Jews, Communist or sympathetic to the Nazis, but had no choice other than to remain in order to put food on their families’ tables. It was in discussing the composer Heinz Tiessen with me in 1990, that the Hamburg born émigré composer Berthold Goldschmidt explained that we, who had not lived in Nazi Europe had no place to judge those who stayed. “If you weren’t a Jew, a Communist or a homosexual and you had neither money nor contacts abroad and a family to house, feed and clothe, you had no option but to keep your head down and play in a Nazi funded orchestra or teach in a Nazi funded institution.” Any affidavit or visa such a person might have acquired was at the expense of someone who was a Jew, a Communist or a homosexual. Being politically out of sympathy with the Nazis did not make you a collaborator if you had neither the means nor ability to immigrate. The binary of good and bad is far too simplistic and it’s to be welcomed that the biography of the Wagnerian dramatic soprano Frida Leider has now been scrupulously researched and written so that the dilemmas and ethical issues of individuals caught in Hitler’s web can be seen in the stark light of true experience.
Leider is largely forgotten today. A perusal on YouTube however offers a soprano who would seem as far away from a post-war concept of Wagnerian soprano as possible. The voice is instrumental, beautifully modulated, precisely tuned and as flexible as a bel canto coloratura. She was a heroic Wagnerian singer with a voice of silk, not steel. Every word is scrupulously audible and from what one reads in Rieger’s biography, she was enthralling and compelling as an actress, a very far cry from the caricature of she-elephant in a horned helmet. Indeed, her disappearance from our collective memory is even more astonishing as her career in the 1920s and 1930s was truly international while her popularity in London was unparalleled. Indeed, it was Leider’s removal from opera stages by Nazi decree along with her own decision not to return to opera afterwards that kept Walter Legge from recording Wagner’s Ring Cycle on EMI. Having heard Leider in Bayreuth in earlier days, Legge was convinced that a post-war Ring recording without her could never represent Germany’s Wagner tradition. Solti and Decca filled the gap in the late 1950s and ‘60s, setting Wagnerian trends and standards that continue to dominate to the present day. Leider reminds us that it was once a very different world.
The story is nonetheless deeply disturbing. Her husband, Rudolf Deman was concert master of Berlin’s State Opera orchestra, “Unter den Linden”, and an Austrian Jew. Prior to Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor, Leider had reached a professional level that no other soprano could approach. Until the emergence of Flagstad in the early 1930s, there was virtually no competition for Brünnhilde, Kundry and Isolde. Leider went on to dominate these roles at New York’s Metropolitan, London, Milan and Vienna.
Hitler was impressed and she would have dined with him and other cast members following his frequent visits to Bayreuth. Nevertheless, the legal implications of being married to a Jew in Hitler’s “New Germany” would count against her. At first she was accused of herself being Jewish, requiring official intervention to keep her on German stages. As the situation grew more precarious, marriage to a “non-Aryan” began to weigh professionally. She could still travel internationally, but the machinations of another shadowy figure, the opera director Heinz Tietjen, would see her eventually removed from Bayreuth and Berlin, replaced by Marta Fuchs.
By 1940, being married to a “non-Aryan” accorded “non-Aryan” status to the formerly “Aryan” spouse. Work was denied, yellow stars were worn and loss of home and livelihood led in many cases to divorce. It was only because Marta Fuchs was slow to take over from Leider, and Flagstad could not sing everywhere, that Leider was begrudgingly allowed to continue. By first making sure that Deman was safely out of harm’s way in Switzerland, Leider and Deman too would officially divorce, allowing her to continue supporting her unemployable husband and elderly mother, despite work on Germany’s opera stages having been brought to an end.
There can be little doubt that Leider had ample opportunity to immigrate to London or New York. That she chose not to, was based on her belief that immigration would mean abandoning her elderly mother, who refused to leave Germany. Following the suicide of Leider’s father, her mother had worked tirelessly, paying for her daughter’s education and singing instruction. Lacking hindsight, each step taken seemed a temporary and practical solution: first moving her husband to the safety of Switzerland, then a perfunctory divorce, then moving her mother to a cottage in the small town of Pausin in Brandenburg followed by the occasional opera role in allied Italy and song recitals in Germany.
Leider’s autobiography is equivocal on her years in Hitler’s Germany. She obviously hated the regime yet had no choice but to play the game as best she could in the interest of keeping her loved ones safe. This extended even to offering her services to the Wehrmacht for performances on the front. It was an offer that was turned down. Open questions remain unanswered, but the conflicts that a successful musician had to deal with in Hitler’s Europe offer no answers, and as Goldschmidt admonished, we have no right to judge.
Her post-war career as an opera stage-director was due to her acknowledged lack of complicity during the Nazi years. It was an advantage that few directors remaining in Germany could claim. That Tietjen was both complicit and cleared was an injustice that Leider only obliquely referenced in conversation and correspondence. She and Furtwängler formed a post-war Wagnerian team with him conducting and Leider directing. They had been joined together by Tietjen’s intrigues against both of them in Bayreuth. Tietjen was outraged when after the war, Leider would not vouch for him, despite having done so for Winifred Wagner. Rieger’s biography is thoroughly researched and if she tends towards hagiography, it’s hard to hold it against her. Unlike Furtwängler and other prominent musicians, Leider was not used for propaganda purposes. The moment the Nazis realised she was married to a “non-Aryan” not even Winifred Wagner could influence the decision to remove her from Germany’s stages. Indeed, her opera career was ended long before necessary. We could have been hearing Leider in Wagner performances years after the war, not to mention Legge’s possible Ring recording that never happened. She would, nevertheless, have been fifty-seven years old by that time, and there was some speculation that she left the stage when she noticed a decline in her vocal quality.
Deman re-joined his wife after the war, and though they never went through the process of re-marrying, they remained together as a couple. Leider’s mother died shortly afterwards with suicide suspected as the cause. She did not welcome the return of her son-in-law and her refusal to immigrate was the reason Leider had made so many personal as well as professional compromises. Both Leider and Deman ended their days with professorships in West Berlin, though here too, she paid a high political price having continued to work closely with her beloved Staatsoper and other East Berlin institutions until forced into making a choice in 1953.
Rieger’s biography sheds light on many figures from the time: Heinz Tietjen, Winifred Wagner, Friedelind Wagner, Lauritz Melchior, Max Lorenz, Heinrich Schlusnus and many more. Some whom we believed severely compromised are presented in a more favourable light, while others, such as Tietjen, come away as having been ruthlessly opportunistic, despite their undeserved post-war clean bill of health. This is not just a biography for opera lovers, or Wagner fans, but for any historian interested in the dilemmas and compromises every professional artist was forced to make in order to survive in Hitler’s hell. It’s engagingly written, with real empathy for Leider; yet whilst presenting a sympathetic account, Rieger does not remain unquestioning.