Lotte Lenya, née Karoline Wilhelmine Blamauer, was born on 18 October 1898 in Vienna to working-class parents. An abusive father and an early ambition to become a dancer led her in 1914 to Zurich, where she studied classical dance and the Dalcroze method and gained experience in the opera and ballet at the Stadttheater. As the acting student of Richard Révy, she then worked in repertory at the Schauspielhaus, where she appeared in dozens of productions and encountered artists of the stature of Elisabeth Bergner and Frank Wedekind. In 1921 she set out for Berlin with the hope of making a career as a dancer. During her audition for Zaubernacht in 1922, she was introduced to its composer, Kurt Weill, but couldn’t see him at his position at the piano in the pit. (She was cast, but out of loyalty to her teacher, who was not, she declined the offer.)
Marriage and Opera Roles
In 1924, the leading German Expressionist dramatist, Georg Kaiser, re-introduced Lenya to his new collaborator, Kurt Weill. Two years later they married, and in 1927 Lenya sang the role of Jessie in Mahagonny (Songspiel) at the Baden-Baden Music Festival. Although her distinctive but untrained soprano voice already set her apart from the opera singers who comprised the rest of the cast, she did not achieve a secure position in Berlin’s vibrant theatrical scene until she created the role of Jenny in Die Dreigroschenoper in 1928. Thereafter, she enjoyed an active stage, recording, and film career; although her efforts centered on her husband’s works, she also appeared on the legitimate stage in Berlin in such plays as Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen, Karlheinz Martin’s historic production of Dantons Tod and Leopold Jessner’s of Oedipus. In 1931, after all the opera houses in Berlin had rejected Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Weill simplified the role of Jenny so that Lenya could sing it in the production at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm.
Divorce and Reconciliation in America
Although they were estranged at the time they fled Germany and soon to be divorced, in 1933 Weill composed the role of Anna I in Die sieben Todsünden for her. They were not reconciled until they departed for New York in September 1935; they remarried the following year. Lenya then played Miriam in The Eternal Road (1937), sang at the fashionable nightclub, Le Ruban Bleu, and toured with Helen Hayes in Maxwell Anderson’s A Candle in the Wind (1942). After the success of Lady in the Dark, the Weills bought Brook House in Rockland County, New York. Lenya recorded six of Weill’s songs on the Bost label, supported the war effort with performances for Voice of America and the Office of War Information, and retired from the stage after disparaging notices for her portrayal of the Duchess in The Firebrand of Florence in 1945.
Lenya and the Weill Rediscovery
After Weill’s death in 1950, Lenya, no longer confident of her talents, reluctantly agreed to appear in a memorial concert at Town Hall; its astounding success prompted nearly annual revivals until 1965. In 1951 she created a role on Broadway in Anderson’s Barefoot in Athens and married the writer/editor George Davis. It was Davis who persuaded her to recreate the role of Jenny in Blitzstein’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, first under Leonard Bernstein in a concert version at Brandeis in 1952 and then at the Theater de Lys in 1954, a performance which won her a Tony Award. For the rest of the decade, Lenya devoted herself almost exclusively to the Weill renaissance her performances had initiated. Under Davis’s guidance the iconic image of “LENYA!” gradually emerged. Although her tessitura was now much lower than it had been during the Twenties, she recorded Berlin Theater Songs, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Johnny Johnson, Happy End, Die Dreigroschenoper, Die sieben Todsünden, and American Theater Songs. She also returned to Germany to search for Weill’s lost scores, to administer his copyrights, and to make her first stage and concert performances there since 1932. The shock of George Davis’s sudden death at age 51 in 1957 only intensified Lenya’s devotion to Weill’s legacy. In 1962, she married painter Russell Detwiler, who died under tragic circumstances just seven years later at the age of 44.
During the first two decades following Weill’s death Lenya re-established her international career both as singer and actress in non-singing roles and as a specialist in Brechtian theater. In addition, she appeared in several television specials devoted to Weill’s music, as well as the film, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. In close succession followed the revue Brecht on Brecht in New York, the role of Rosa Kleb in the James Bond film From Russia with Love, the title role in Mutter Courage in Recklinghausen, Fräulein Schneider in Cabaret on Broadway (Tony nomination), the film The Appointment, and the Fortune Teller in a television production of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real. In 1969, she was honored by the West German government with the Order of Merit, First Class. In 1971 she appeared in a concert performance of Der Silbersee at the Holland Festival and played Mother Courage at the University of California/Irvine. As late as 1975, at the age of 77, she planned to premiere a number of Weill’s unpublished songs at the Berlin Festival, a landmark in the continuing Weill revival, but illness forced an unfortunate cancellation. Her last film appearance, as a masseuse in Semi-Tough with Burt Reynolds, is indicative of the creative and personal energy that characterized her life until the final months before she succumbed to cancer on 27 November 1981. But even her last coherent moments had been devoted to Weill matters, as she embraced Teresa Stratas as her successor and entrusted the Kurt Weill Foundation (established in 1962) with her unfinished mission, the protection and promotion of Kurt Weill’s music.
–Kim H. Kowalke