Ernestine Schumann-Heink

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Ernestine Schumann-Heink
Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1918 (cropped).jpg
Schumann-Heink in 1918
Ernestine Amalie Pauline Röhsler

(1861-06-15)15 June 1861
Died17 November 1936(1936-11-17) (aged 75)
Other namesTina Rössler
Johann Georg Ernst August Heink
m. 1882⁠–⁠1893)

Curt Paul Schuman (m. c. 1895–1905)
William Rapp, Jr.
m. 1905⁠–⁠1915)
ChildrenAugust (1883–1918)
Charlotte (1884–?)
Henry (1886–1951)
Hans Hugo Herman (1887–1916)
Ferdinand (1893–1958)
Marie (1896–?)
George Washington (1898–1979)
Walter Schumann
Parent(s)Hans Rössler
Charlotte Goldman

Ernestine Schumann-Heink (15 June 1861 – 17 November 1936) was an Austrian-born German-American operatic contralto of German Bohemian descent.[1] She was noted for the flexibility and wide range of her voice.

Early life[edit]

She was born Ernestine Amalie Pauline Röhsler on 15 June 1861 to a German-speaking family at house 8 in the town of Libeň (German: Lieben), Bohemia, Austrian Empire, which is now part of the city of Prague, Czech Republic.[1] She was baptized Catholic 5 days later. Her father, Jan Röhsler, was a shoe maker; while previously serving as an Austrian cavalry officer, he had been stationed in northern Italy (then an Austrian protectorate), where he met and married Karolina Goldman, with whom he returned to Libeň.[2] Her maternal grandmother was a Hungarian Jew.[3]

When Ernestine was three years old, the family moved to Verona. In 1866, at the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War, the family moved to Prague, where she was schooled at the Ursuline Convent. At war's end, the Roesslers moved to Podgórze, now part of Kraków. The family moved again to Graz when Tini was thirteen. Here she met Marietta von LeClair, a retired opera singer, who agreed to give her voice lessons.

In 1877, Rössler made her first professional performance, in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Graz, appearing with soprano Maria Wilt. Her operatic debut was at Dresden's Royal Opera House on 15 October 1878 as Azucena in Il trovatore.

First marriage[edit]

On 11 January 1883 in Dresden, Germany, she married Johann Georg Ernst Albert Heink (1854–1933), secretary of the Semperoper, the Saxon State Opera Dresden; this violated the terms of their contracts, and both had their employment abruptly terminated. Heink took a job at the local customs house and was soon transferred to Hamburg. Ernestine remained in Dresden to pursue her career, and eventually rejoined her husband when she secured a position at the Hamburg Opera. She went on to have four children with Heink. One of their children, Ferdinand Schumann-Heink (1893–1958) was a prolific, though mostly unbilled, Hollywood character actor. Other children were Hans Schumann-Heink, and Arthur Schumann-Heink.[4][5][6]

Ernest Heink was again thrown out of work when Saxons were banned from government positions, and departed to Saxony to find work. Ernestine, pregnant, did not follow him; they were divorced in 1893.[7] That same year she married actor Paul Schumann, with whom she had three more children Marie Schumann, George Washington Schumann and Walter Schumann. Her second marriage lasted until Paul Schumann's death in 1904. She came to the United States to make a brief foray into the Broadway theater, playing in Julian Edwards' operetta Love's Lottery, in which her performance was noted for the fact that she often broke off to ask the audience whether her English was good enough. She left the production after 50 performances and soon returned to opera.[8]

Her breakthrough into leading roles was provided when prima donna Marie Goetze argued with the director of the Hamburg opera. He asked Ernestine to sing the title role of Carmen, without rehearsal, which she did to great acclaim. Goetze, in a fit of pique, cancelled out of the role of Fidès in Le prophète, to be performed the following night, and was again replaced by Ernestine. Schumann-Heink replaced Goetze as Ortrud in Lohengrin the following evening, one more time without rehearsal, and was offered a ten-year contract.

Second marriage[edit]

After the divorce from her first husband, she married Curt Paul Schuman around 1895. He died in 1904. While fighting a legal battle in Germany over her late husband's estate, she filed her United States naturalisation papers on 10 February 1905, and became a citizen on 3 March 1908.

International career[edit]

Schumann-Heink in 1916

She performed with Gustav Mahler at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, during the Hamburg company's London season in 1892, and became well known for her performances of the works of Richard Wagner, forging "a long and fruitful relationship with Bayreuth" that "lasted from 1896 to 1914".[9]

Schumann-Heink's first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City was in 1899, and she performed regularly there until 1932. She recorded the first of her many musical "gramophone" performances in 1900. Several of these early sound recordings originally released on 78 RPM discs have been reissued on CD format. Although there are some imperfections in her singing, her musical technique still leave a deep impression on audience.

Third marriage[edit]

On 27 May 1905 in Chicago, Illinois she married her manager William Rapp, Jr.[7] She and her new husband lived on Grandview Avenue, North Caldwell, New Jersey in her "Villa Fides" from April 1906 to December 1911; she then moved to 500 acres (2 km²) of farm land located just outside San Diego, California (in an area then known as Helix Hill – now known as Mt. Helix – in Grossmont), purchased by her in January 1910, where she would live for most of her life. Her residence there still stands.

In 1909, she created the role of Klytaemnestra in the debut of Richard Strauss's Elektra, of which she said she had no high opinion, calling it "a fearful din".[10] Strauss was not entirely captivated by Schumann-Heink either; according to one story, during rehearsals he admonished the orchestra, "Louder! I can still hear Madame Schumann-Heink!"

She separated from her husband on 10 December 1911. She filed for divorce in 1913.[7] They divorced in 1914 and the appeals court upheld the lower court decision in 1915.[11][12]

In 1915, she appeared as herself in the early documentary film Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco directed by Fatty Arbuckle, who also appears as himself in the film.

Charitable work and community support[edit]

A concert program from 1912

While living at North Caldwell, New Jersey Schumann-Heink became interested in efforts to honor President Grover Cleveland. The future president was born in 1837 in nearby Caldwell, New Jersey, where his father, Rev. Richard Cleveland was minister of the First Presbyterian Church. On 10 September 1912, Schumann-Heink performed a benefit concert at the church to raise money to purchase the adjacent Presbyterian Manse, Cleveland's birthplace. In 1913, the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association (GCBMA) purchased the Manse and opened it to the public as a museum. Mme. Schumann-Heink became the first lifetime member of the GCBMA.[citation needed]

During World War I, Schumann-Heink supported the United States and its armed forces. She entertained the troops and raised money to help wounded veterans. She toured the United States raising money for the war effort, although she had relatives fighting on both sides of the war – including her sons August Heink, a merchant sailor who had been impressed into the German submarine service, Walter Schumann, Henry Heink and George Washington Schumann, all in the United States Navy.[citation needed]

Later years[edit]

In 1926, she first sang Silent Night (in both German and English) over the radio for Christmas. This became a Christmas tradition with US radio listeners through Christmas of 1935. In 1927, she performed in an early Vitaphone sound short film, possibly the only surviving footage of her singing. She lost most of her assets in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and was forced to sing again at age 69.[citation needed]

Her last performance at the Met was in 1932 performing Erda in Der Ring des Nibelungen, aged 71. In her later years, she had a weekly radio program. In the movies of the 1930s, many a buxom opera singer/instructor/matron was modeled on her; see for instance 1937's Stage Door.[citation needed]


Schumann-Heink died of leukemia on 17 November 1936 in Hollywood, California at the age of 75.[1][13] Her funeral was conducted by the American Legion at the Hollywood Post Auditorium, and she was interred at Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego.[14] Her archive was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.[15] On Memorial Day, 30 May 1938, a bronze tablet honouring Schumann-Heink was unveiled at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, San Diego.[16]

Memorial plaque, Balboa Park, San-Diego


  1. ^ a b c "Schumann-Heink, Great Singer, Dead. Native of Bohemia, She Won World-Wide Acclaim in Opera and Concerts". The New York Times. Associated Press. November 18, 1936. Ernestine Schumann-Heink, beloved operatic and concert singer, died at her home in Hollywoodlands tonight at 7:21 o'clock (10:21 P. M., Eastern standard time). She was 75 years old
  2. ^ "The Catalogue". Retrieved 2020-05-20.
  3. ^ Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 2, Harvard University Press (1971), p. 240
  4. ^ "Sues Schumann-Heink's Son. Young Woman Asks $25,000 Because He Won't Marry Her". The New York Times. March 7, 1912.
  5. ^ "Opera Singer To Make Citizens Of Her Sons. Mme. Schumann-Heink Brings Three Boys from Germany". The New York Times. April 16, 1906.
  6. ^ "Death Takes A Son Of Schumann-Heink. Arthur, Veteran of World War, Suddenly Succumbs in a Hospital Wheelchair". The New York Times. July 1, 1934.
  7. ^ a b c "Schumann-Heink Sues For Divorce. Grand Opera Star Files An Action In Chicago Charging Wm. Rapp, Jr., With Desertion". The New York Times. December 23, 1913.
  8. ^ Gerald Martin Bordman, American musical theatre: a chronicle, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 235.
  9. ^ Shawe-Taylor, Desmond, Schumann-Heink, Ernestine, in Sadie, Stanley (editor), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, New York, Grove (Oxford University Press), 1997, Volume Four, p. 255, ISBN 978-0-19-522186-2
  10. ^ Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera
  11. ^ "Singer Gets Her Decree. Schumann-Heink Cleared and Costs Put on Husband". The New York Times. July 1, 1914.
  12. ^ "Confirms Schumann-Heink Divorce". The New York Times. October 6, 1915.
  13. ^ John Warrack and Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera (1992)
  14. ^ "Eulogized at Rites. American Legion Holds Service for Singer in Auditorium of Hollywood Post". The New York Times. November 21, 1936.
  15. ^ "Children Get Estate Of Schumann-Heink. Will Gives Her Medals, Degrees, Diplomas and Music to the Smithsonian Institution". The New York Times. Associated Press. November 25, 1936.
  16. ^ "Veterans see plaque unveiled honoring Mme. Schumann Heink". San Diego Union. 1938-05-31. p. 3.

Further reading[edit]

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