The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1993, Volume 39, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink; Her Life and Times.
By Joseph L. Howard. Sebastopol, California: Grizzly Bear Publishing, 190 Appendices. Chapter Notes. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 409 pages. $39.95.

Reviewed by Evelyn Kooperman, Reference Librarian, San Diego Public Library. Author of San Diego Trivia.

Buy this book from

Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink was one of the world’s most famous and most beloved women of the early 1900s. She was considered the greatest contralto of her era, and perhaps of all time. This is the first biography since 1928 of this great diva, and it is indeed welcome; now the younger generations will be able to read about the woman whose name was once a household word. The author, Joseph L Howard, a San Diegan since 1919, had access to the Schumann-Heink albums and personal papers, and was able to fill the book with amusing and heart-warming anecdotes, such as the time that young Ernestine danced the czardas for a shopkeeper in order to obtain a piece of Swiss cheese for her pregnant mother, or when she sang on a cattle chute in Arizona with a beetle slithering down her back.

Howard gives the reader a brief history of opera and opera singers, and describes their popularity during the golden age of opera. Schumann-Heink lived at a time when opera stars were the celebrities of the day, and she herself was one of the most eminent. Her every action and thought was newsworthy, and her name and face were recognized by inhabitants of even the remotest backwater town.

Success did not come easily for this Austrian-born singer, however. When she was a struggling young opera singer, her finances and morale once dipped so low that she actually set out to commit suicide, planning to take with her her four infants. Fortunately her career soon blossomed, as did her family (she had eight children). She was catapulted to fame in Hamburg after singing the role of Carmen without a rehearsal when the scheduled prima donna walked out in a huff. After many successful seasons in Germany, she moved to the United States, where she received rave notices at the Metropolitan Opera. She loved her adopted country, and became a staunch American patriot, singing benefit recitals coast to coast for the military and welcoming all young men in uniform into her home. It almost broke her heart when her sons fought on opposite sides in World War I. From 1912 until her death in 1936, she maintained residences in San Diego County, and became San Diego’s most celebrated citizen. She was the first to have a house completed in the artists’ colony on Grossmont that was being developed by William Gross and Colonel Ed Fletcher. She later sold it, and transferred her main residence to a mansion in Coronado.

Through text and pictures the reader gets not only a biography of a fascinating woman, but an understanding of life in Europe and America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Only lacking is a real idea of the work it must have taken Madame Schumann-Heink to achieve the pinnacle of success—the amount of time and effort she must have put forth to develop her voice and learn the repertoire. The appendix does include a section containing her advice to young singers, but we don’t see how she applied this to herself. Perhaps this was not something that she ever wrote about. Nonetheless, this is a biography that will be enjoyed by all readers, not just music lovers.