Lilli Lehmann: the cure of the voice

Eminent singer and teacher, Lilli Lehmann (1848 – 1929) developed as an artist for fifty years in which she played 170 roles in 119 German, Italian and French operas. She took part in the first presentation of the cycle of The Ring of the Nibelung, at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876, and helped popularize Wagner’s music in the United States with her participation in the Metropolitan Opera of New York between 1885 and 1899. She was artistic director of the Salzburg Festival and founded the International Summer Academy at Salzburg’s Mozarteum in 1916. Famous singers like Geraldine Farrar, Viorica Ursuleac, Edytha Fleischer, Olive Fremstad and Marion Telva, among others, were her pupils. In 1902 she published her singing treatise Meine Gesangskunst and her autobiography Mein Weg in 1913.

In Meine Gesangskunst’s prologue, Lehmann writes: “My chief attention I devote to artists, whom I can, perhaps, assist in their difficult, but glorious, profession. One is never done with learning; and that is especially true of singers. I earnestly hope that I may leave them something, in my researches, experiences, and studies, that will be of use. I regard it as my duty; and I confide it to all who are striving earnestly for improvement.”

A good singer can never lose his voice. Mental agitation or severe colds can for a time deprive the singer of the use of his vocal organs, or seriously impair them. Only those who have been singing without consciously correct use of their organs can become disheartened over it; those who know better will, with more or less difficulty, cure themselves, and by the use of vocal gymnastics bring their vocal organs into condition again.

For this reason, if for no other, singers should seek to acquire accurate knowledge of their own organs, as well as of their functions, that they may not let themselves be burnt, cut, and cauterized by unscrupulous physicians. Leave the larynx and all connected with it alone; strengthen the organs by daily vocal gymnastics and a healthy, sober mode of life; beware of catching cold after singing; do not sit and talk in restaurants.

Students of singing should use the early morning hours, and fill their days with the various branches of their study. Sing every day only so much, that on the next day you can practise again, feeling fresh and ready for work, as regular study requires. Better one hour every day than ten today and none tomorrow.

The public singer should also do his practising early in the day, that he may have himself well in hand by evening. How often one feels indisposed in the morning! Any physical reason is sufficient to make singing difficult, or even impossible; it need not be connected necessarily with the vocal organs; in fact, I believe it very rarely is. For this reason, in two hours everything may have changed.

I remember a charming incident in New York. Albert Niemann, our heroic tenor, who was to sing Lohengrin in the evening, complained to me in the morning of severe hoarseness. To give up a rôle in America costs the singer, as well as the director, much money. My advice was to wait.

Niemann. What do you do, then, when you are hoarse?
I. Oh, I practise and see whether it still troubles me.
Niem. Indeed; and what do you practise?
I. Long, slow scales.
Niem. Even if you are hoarse?
I. Yes; if I want to sing, or have to, I try it.
Niem. Well, what are they? Show me.

The great scale, the infallible cure.

I showed them to him; he sang them, with words of abuse in the meantime; but gradually his hoarseness grew better. He did not send word of his inability to appear in the evening, but sang, and better than ever, with enormous success.

I myself had to sing Norma in Vienna some years ago, and got up in the morning quite hoarse. By nine o’clock I tried my infallible remedy, but could not sing above A flat, though in the evening I should have to reach high D flat and E flat. I was on the point of giving up, because the case seemed to me so desperate. Nevertheless, I practised till eleven o’clock, half an hour at a time, and noticed that I was gradually getting better. In the evening I had my D flat and E flat at my command and was in brilliant form. People said they had seldom heard me sing so well.

I could give numberless instances, all going to show that you never can tell early in the day how you are going to feel in the evening. I much prefer, for instance, not to feel so very well early in the day, because it may easily happen that the opposite may be the case later on, which is much less agreeable. If you wish to sing only when you are in good form, you must excuse yourself ninety-nine times out of a hundred. You must learn to know your own vocal organs thoroughly and be able to sing; must do everything that is calculated to keep you in good condition. This includes chiefly rest for the nerves, care of the body, and gymnastics of the voice, that you may be able to defy all possible chances.

Before all, never neglect to practise every morning, regularly, proper singing exercises through the whole compass of the voice. Do it with painful seriousness; and never think that vocal gymnastics weary the singer. On the contrary, they bring refreshment and power of endurance to him who will become master of his vocal organs.”

Text excerpted from How to sing, Lilli Lehmann, New York, 1902.


  • How to sing, Lilli Lehmann, New York, 1902.
  • My Path through Life, Lilli Lehmann, New York, 1914.