Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936)was a leading Wagnerian contralto from 1880 through 1914, and became a regular at the Metropolitan Opera. She also excelled in coloratura roles where he natural charm and remarkable vocal flexibility made her known as “the world’s outstanding contralto.”
Born Ernestine Roessler, she lived in poverty, saw her first opera at 14, made her debut at the age of 17, married at 21 and had seven children. She divorced and re-married, then divorced again, all the while maintaining her career. She was overweight, plain looking, willful and stubborn, and became extremely wealthy from concerts, opera appearances and records. She moved to America and eventually moved to Coronado, California near San Diego where she lived until shortly before her death. With the advent of World War I, she traveled around the country raising money for charities, selling Liberty Bonds, and entertaining American troops who called her “Mother” Schumann-Heink.
After the war she returned to the Metropolitan at the age of 65 to sing Erda in Das Rheingold. Her voice was as rich and strong as ever, but within two years her voice had begun to deteriorate and in 1929, the stock market crash wiped out her investments and she was forced to go back on the road, singing and telling jokes in vaudeville, on radio, and even appearing in movies. “Mother” Schumann-Heink, having denounced the Nazi’s who now controlled Germany, had became a beloved figure to Americans.
Her voice was, by this time, almost gravelly but audiences didn’t care. A reviewer wrote, “It isn’t singing as much as talking to the people across the footlights in the most beautiful of tones. And between songs she stops to hold a conversation. And the crowd catches on and talks back.” Another wrote, “An hour with Madame Schumann-Heink is like bathing in the stream of life. One comes out refreshhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG72fe4PkYoed, one’s mental cobwebs blown away with her rich humor; one’s faith in God and the essential fitness and worthwhileness of life renewed; one’s courage shamed into new being.” When she died, her estate was valued at only $33,000, but her legacy was immeasurable.