By Helen Ellsberg
Copley Award, San Diego History Center 1981 Institute of History
The success of the San Diego Verdi Opera Festivals since 1978 under the direction of Tito Capobianco and the prospect of San Diego’s becoming one of America’s leading music centers — have been cause for general rejoicing among San Diego music lovers. However, only a few of these music lovers know that the establishment of a San Diego Opera Festival was an almost-realized dream over sixty years ago the dream of Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink as a tribute to the city she loved.
This festival had gone far beyond the dream stage. As of January 10, 1917, when national publicity was first given out1 the initial season was already financed, the program chosen, singers, musicians, directors and a chorus master hired. Plans were drawn up for necessary changes in the stage of the organ pavillion in Balboa Park, and for an orchestra pit in front of the organ to accommodate a symphonic body of seventy-five pieces.
In the early 1900s, Mme. Schumann-Heink was San Diego’s most famous and best-beloved citizen, a legendary figure. She was considered the world’s greatest contralto singer. Her records sold by the thousands.2 And like Babe Ruth and Mary Pickford, her fame was so great that her name became a household word.
A story was told of a little boy in Sunday school who was asked to name the first man. He promptly replied, “Adam.” Asked the name of the first woman, he answered with equal promptness, “Schumann-Heink.”3
She owed her great popularity to a phenomenal voice with a range from low D to high C and a magnetic personality that charmed everyone from children to grandparents — that all-important combination of talent and charisma that makes the superstar. She had three husbands and eight children, including a stepson. “Tina” as she was known to her friends, barely topped five feet in height, but carried herself with such regal dignity that she was occasionally described in the press as looking “tall and stately.” Luminous, dark brown eyes were her loveliest feature. She was widely publicized as a Mother figure. But when, dressed in a silver gown, her white hair shining and her arms and ample bosom ablaze with diamonds, she came across the stage with that radiant smile, she generated her own unique brand of glamor. Her rapport with the audience was established before she ever uttered a note.
Besides an astonishing virtuosity, there was extraordinary warmth and beauty in the middle register of her voice. This was savored by thousands each Christmas, for the playing of her record of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” on Christmas Eve was, for many years, an American institution.4
Although she had sung for many crowned heads in Europe, including a command performance for Queen Victoria’s eightieth birthday, and wore the decorations of nine European countries, she was basically the people’s singer. She would sing in any place that wanted her, no matter how small. She even sang in Wenden, Arizona, with a population of thirty,5 when they requested a concert as a benefit for their Red Cross. The ranchers made her a stage on planks laid across oil drums (which she pronounced as solid and secure as any auditorium stage); hoisted the grand piano up on it; then hoisted Madame and her accompanist up beside it. Her magnificent voice rose clear and true in the desert air to delight an audience, many of whom had traveled two or three hundred miles to hear her.
The setting at Wenden was unconventional, to say the least, but Madame was unflappable. Cattle grazed in a nearby field and as she sang, one stood with its head over the fence, white face shining in the moonlight. As the applause died down after one number, her bovine admirer gave a low, appreciative “Moo-oo-oo.” Schumann-Heink walked to the edge of the stage, bowed deeply and said, “Thank you, Sir or Madam.” The audience roared.
The diva, with her husband, Paul Schumann, came to the United States from Germany in 1898 with a contract with Maurice Grau for Ernestine to sing at the Metropolitan and Schumann to work as a stage manager.6 She fell in love with America and became a naturalized citizen in 1905. At that time she had homes in New Jersey and Chicago. She became a San Diegan in a rather unusual manner.
In 1910, Ed Fletcher and his friend, William B. Gross, a wealthy theatrical impresario, purchased the Villa Caro Rancho which included the present site of Grossmont. Their enthusiasm for the magnificent view, the seclusion, and the dry, temperate climate resulted in a decision to promote the choicest part of their property as a colony for artists. First they approached Mme. Schumann-Heink. Since she was the leading operatic figure of the day, they reasoned correctly that other artists would follow.7
Mme. Schumann-Heink selected two-and-one-half acres at the top of Grossmont with a panoramic view to the east of the El Cajon Valley and the surrounding Cuyamaca Mountains, and to the west, San Diego Bay, Point Loma, and the Coronado Islands in the Pacific Ocean. On this ideal site she built her beautiful summer “cottage.” When it was completed in 1912, “Nona,” as she was known to her family, christened the new home “Casa Ernestina.” 8 Kate Sessions, the landscape architect of Balboa Park, planned the gardens and orchard to have olive, orange, lemon, avocado, and other subtropical fruit trees. Two Washingtonia palms are still conspicuous as eighty-foot-tall landmarks atop the mountain.
Other artists joined the colony. One of the first was Carrie Jacobs Bond, composer of “I Love You Truly” and “The End of a Perfect Day,” who built a summer home on Summit Drive. Owen Wister built there also, leaving his mark on three Grossmont street names — Wister Drive, Virginian Lane, and Mollywoods Avenue. (Molly Woods was the school teacher in his book, The Virginian).9
San Diego welcomed Madame Schumann-Heink, and made much over her. She, in turn, loved the place and its people. She wished somehow to make a lasting tribute to the city. Ever since she had sung to an audience of over 25,000 — the largest audience ever assembled in San Diego for a musical event — for the dedication of the Balboa Park Organ Pavillion and the opening of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, she had envisioned a permanent music festival as such a tribute.
Her dream was to present grand opera among the picturesque surroundings of the park at prices within the reach of the average music lover. Why not, she thought, an American Bayreuth patterned after the Wagnerian festivals at the original Bayreuth,10 the musical Mecca in Bavaria which she knew so well.
When she had carefully outlined her plan, she contacted her friend, railroad tycoon John D. Spreckels of Coronado. He was immediately intrigued by the idea and volunteered to give a dinner party inviting a number of civic-minded and music-loving people who he thought might be interested in supporting the venture. The guest list read like a San Diego Who’s Who.
Spreckels and Mme. Schumann-Heink were prepared to do some persuading, but little was necessary. The idea caught on at once and almost before they realized it, plans were being made for the first festival to be held in July, 1917. Officers were appointed and the program planned. Officers included such well-known names as George Marston, Ellen Scripps, Dr. Homer Oatman, and F.J. Belcher.11
Mme. Schumann-Heink started the ball rolling with a check for $10,000 deposited in a San Diego bank. John Spreckels doubled the amount. Other wealthy San Diegans dug deep into their pockets to come up with gifts whose amounts astonished the project’s founders. Everywhere the idea was greeted with encouragement.
As soon as word reached Chicago and New York, letters poured in from singers, musicians, and directors offering their services. Enthusiasm ran high not only in San Diego music circles, but in the business and commercial community as well. With the war in Europe and the opera seasons in the great capitals closed down, musicians welcomed this new venture. Everything pointed to its success.12
The plan, in brief, as presented by Mme. Schumann-Heink, consisted of a music festival of not less than five performances every July at the Spreckels Organ Pavillion, giving grand opera with all necessary costuming, scenery and music. While the principal soloists and conductors in these performances were to be artists who had already won fame in their particular roles, rising young American singers would be given an opportunity in minor roles and home talent employed in choruses and orchestras.13
These were to be trained by Anton Hoff, a personal friend of Mme. Schumann-Heink, who had won an enviable reputation as conductor and trainer of choruses in Bayreuth and at the Metropolitan in New York.14 He was to come to San Diego in April to take up work as resident conductor and chorus master; to make his home here and to be retained by the association throughout the year.
In accordance with the Bayreuth tradition, performances would begin late in the afternoon, probably about 4:00 p.m., and continue through the evening with an hour and a half or more allowed for dinner. The first (1917) festival would have three, or possibly four days.
FIRST DAY: Excerpts from the great Wagnerian operas.
Afternoon: Choruses from the first act of Meistersinger with organ, orchestra and voice. The Preislied and antiphonal chorus from the last act.
Selections from Lohengrin, including the famous duet from the second act. “Fire music” from the last act of Die Walkure.
Evening: Selections from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.
Complete performance of Humperdinck’s fairy opera, Hansel and Gretel, in afternoon.
Evening: Selections from Carmen and Aida.
THIRD DAY: Big symphony concert with noted soloists.
(If Mme. Schumann-Heink had her way, Hansel and Gretel would be repeated on a fourth day for the children).
The 1918 program was to be devoted entirely to grand opera. It was in these performances that Schumann-Heink proposed to duplicate as nearly as possible the glories of Bayreuth from the musical standpoint. She had been promised the cooperation of the greatest Wagnerian exponents in the world in working out her hopes.
Mme. Schumann-Heink was ideal for the task of re-creating the Bayreuth festival. In addition to her phenomenal personal popularity, she had the most extraordinary experience; colossal command of the stage; practical knowledge of all the schools of opera, and her art was part of the Bayreuth tradition. She had probably sung more character parts than any other living singer, as she began when only sixteen years old on the stage of the Dresden Opera House. At twenty, she had the foremost contralto position at Hamburg and kept it until she came to America in 1898.16
Because of her complete naturalness and humor, many people did not realize that she was a brilliant woman personally, aside from her great art. Well informed in world affairs, literature and politics, and a sparkling conversationalist, she numbered among her friends some of the world’s most famous authors and scientists as well as royalty.17
With her infectious optimism, Schumann-Heink said in an interview regarding the festival, “Why shall San Diego not become the Mecca for the American music lover? Why not hold here an annual music festival, the like of which is not now heard of in this country? I am absolutely convinced that it is possible — not only possible, but a probability in the near future.
“Do you realize what this will mean to San Diego? It will mean that the inhabitants of our city not only will hear the greatest opera works of the world but will have an opportunity to take part in their production. It will mean that thousands of music lovers throughout California and the entire West who now go to Chicago and New York to hear grand opera will come to San Diego, which will mean that the world’s greatest artists will come here to have an opportunity of singing in this unsurpassed theatre, this American Bayreuth, just as they travel thousands of miles for an opportunity to sing at the original Bayreuth. It will mean that the thousands of tourists to California will include San Diego in their itineraries in order to hear these performances. It will mean that at this place the worthy young American composer, the gifted American singer, may have a chance to be heard on his merits.
“For years people of culture and wealth have traveled to Europe to hear grand opera given under the most ideal conditions then extant. The best Europe could boast is crude beside what we have here — one of the most beautiful parks in the world, glorious landscape gardening, the only outdoor organ in the world and the most perfect climate in the world. Do you know any other place where we can find such a combination? We do not have to build to create these things. They are already at hand, giving us a tremendous advantage over any other place, even if it could equal us in climatic conditions.
“When I finish my active career, I shall live in San Diego and I want this project to be my tribute to the city. I am heart and soul a San Diegan and shall never rest until I see this counterpart of the great Bayreuth set up on the shores of this beautiful harbor.18
In early February, with Gertrude Gilbert, Music Director for the Exposition as her guest, she went to New York to see what support she might expect from the Metropolitan.
Upon their return to San Diego, Gilbert told the press, “You cannot imagine how popular Mme. Schumann-Heink is in New York. Everywhere, people know her — in the theatres, in the hotels, in the streets they hail her as an old and dear friend. I was astounded when Gatti-Casazza of the Metropolitan offered to lend us costumes and settings that would have cost us a small fortune to buy. Everywhere we went, people were excited about our venture. The festival cannot help but be successful.”
Late in February, 1917, Mme. Schumann-Heink was injured in an automobile accident in Chicago, receiving several broken ribs. For some time all her activities were canceled. Then, the United States’ entry into the World War in April with all the accompanying excitement pushed plans for the festival far into the background. Madame threw herself whole-heartedly into the sale of Liberty Bonds and singing for the soldiers and sailors. This singing to cheer the service men helped a little to ease the pain of the fact that she had sons of her own on both sides in the conflict — one on a German submarine and four in the service of the United States. In this stress-filled time, the festival apparently was forgotten.19
Nevertheless, in an interview in the San Diego Union, July 15, 1917, when asked if the plan had been abandoned, she said vehemently, “The American Bayreuth? Ah, we shall have it still.” Shaking her head energetically, she said, “No, no. I have not given it up. It is very near and dear to my heart and I shall never rest until I see San Diego established as a great music center and the out-of-doors home of grand opera.
“Although this season we have been compelled to give it up because of the war, even after the operas were chosen and artists and directors engaged, we shall have it here at the earliest feasible moment. If not this year, perhaps next.”
But the American Bayreuth never came to pass, becoming instead another casualty of the war. Madame Schumann-Heink died in 1936 with her dream unfulfilled.
But was it really unfulfilled?
If the Lady Ernestine could return today, she would most assuredly welcome the dynamic Tito Capobianco, Director of the San Diego Opera Company. It would matter little that Verdi has won out over Wagner as the featured composer. Her basic ambition was to see San Diego become a national art center presenting opera to the general public.
Although her plan was for the use of Balboa Park (there was no other place at that time with a stage which would properly accommodate grand opera), with the obvious advantage of the present Civic Theatre, Schumann-Heink would undoubtedly forgive Capobianco for moving indoors. They would get along splendidly with such similar ambitions — making opera available to all; the training of young singers; the presentation of new and experimental works; both believing in old-school discipline and background; consideration for others; learning from others — magnanimous natures, both, with an overwhelming love of music and the theatre — and a dream of making San Diego one of the great musical centers.
As the “Sold Out” signs go up for the Verdi Festival operas each year, who is to say that Mme. Schumann-Heink’s dream has not been fulfilled?
1. San Diego Union, January 10, 1917.
2. A tabulation of royalties of $32,000 for record sales in the year 1922 is in the possession of Hubert Guy, grandson of Mme. Schumann-Heink.
3. Interview with George Washington Schumann, Schumann-Heink’s youngest son — her only child born in the United States. George died January 31, 1979, in El Cajon.
4. Henry Pleasants, The Great Singers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), pp. 279-282.
5. Arizona Gazette, September 10, 1917. Wenden is sixty-seven miles east of Blythe, California on Highway 60. Its population has now grown from thirty in 1917 to 400.
6. Mary Lawton, Schumann-Heink, The Last of the Titans (New York: Macmillan, 1928), p. 136.
7. Ed Fletcher, Memoirs of Ed Fletcher (San Diego: Privately printed, 1952), pp. 187-203.
8. Hubert Guy, The Story Behind a House (San Diego: Privately printed, n.d.).
9. Joe Stone, San Diego Union, February 16, 1975, “Schumann-Heink Remembered Fondly as Resident Here,” Biographical file, San Diego Historical Society Library and Manuscripts Collection.
10. Bayreuth, the musical Mecca, in Bavaria, Upper Franconia. Wagner settled there in 1872 to escape the noise and distractions of the city. The Festival Theatre (Festspielhaus) was built for him by the king. It opened in 1876 with the premier performance of The Ring of the Nibelungen cycle. After Wagner’s death in 1883 the festivals were carried on by his wife, Cosima, and his son, Siegfried, and since 1951 by his grandsons Wolfgang and Wieland. The composer’s home, Villa Wahnfried, has been preserved; the graves of the composer and his wife are in the garden. A singer had “arrived” when asked to sing at Bayreuth. Schumann-Heink was a great favorite there.
11. San Diego Union, and Daily Bee, January 10, 1917. List of officers and directors of the proposed San Diego Music Festival: President, Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink; Vice presidents, J.D. Spreckels, A.S. Bridges, Milton McRae, Howard Baker, G.A. Davidson, George W. Marston, Lyman J. Gage, F.J. Belcher; Secretary, F.C. Spalding; Directors, Miss Daisy M. Barteau, Mrs. Erskine J. Campbell, W.D. Dorland, Mrs. Walter Dupee, C.P. Douglas, S.R. Flynn, Miss Gertrude Gilbert, Ralph Granger, Mrs. Florence Schinkel Gray, Mrs. H.M. Kutchin, Mrs. Ivor N. Lawson, Simon Levi, Miss Alice Klauber, Mrs. George McKenzle, Dr. Homer Oatman, Dr. Bessie Peery, Mrs. C.O. Richards, Mrs. L.L. Rowan, Miss Ellen Scripps, F.S. Sherman, R.T. Robinson, Mrs. Claus Spreckels. The officers, with the addition of Mrs. Walter Dupee and Miss Gertrude Gilbert will comprise the executive board.
12. San Diego Union, January 10, 1917. Banner headline and full page story. Also in Musical Leader January 18, 1917.
15. Italian opera included for those who preferred Italian opera to Wagner.
16. Mary Lawton, The Last of the Titans, pp. 92-96.
17. Ibid. Royal friends included Queen Caroline of Saxony, The Kaiserin, Maria Theresia and Queen Victoria.
18. San Diego Union, January 10, 1917.
19. On the fiftieth anniversary of her career as a singer she was presented with a handsome album containing a letter from the governor of each of the forty-eight states in appreciation of her war efforts, selling Liberty Bonds and singing for the service men. Seen at the home of Hubert Guy, grandson of Mme. Schumann-Heink.
20. San Diego Union, July 15, 1917.
21. Ernestine Schumann-Heink died in Hollywood on November 17, 1936 of leukemia. Death notice, San Diego Union. Buried: Greenwood cemetery. Ashes in Crypt 16, Pier E, Sunshine Corridor near other distinguished San Diegans.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.