By JILL DIAMOND | La Mesa Courier
Before Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and Placido Domingo there was Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, one of the most popular opera singers in the world 100 years ago and a La Mesa area resident.
Born in 1861 as Tini Rössler in Prague to Austrian parents, she was a renowned operatic mezzo-soprano, known for tonal richness, flexibility and a wide range of voice that left audiences mesmerized. Although she had an unsuccessful debut early in her career in Dresden in 1878, she would go on to become a Metropolitan Opera star for five years beginning in 1899 with a repertory of 150 roles.
According to the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica: “She often gave recitals and once toured the United States with the operetta ‘Love’s Lottery.’ Although known primarily as a Wagnerian singer — her most noted role was Erda in Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’ … In the latter part of her life, she was known for her radio broadcasts in the United States, and she appeared in the film ‘Here’s to Romances’ in 1935.”
She later became an American citizen in 1908, performed on Broadway, toured and signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. According to records, her last performance was in 1932 when she was 71 years old.
Schumann-Heink was married three times, had seven children and lived to be 75 years old; many of her years were spent in a mansion she built in the Grossmont Colony. One of her sons, Ferdinand Schumann-Heink, was an actor who appeared in 65 films, including “Hell’s Angels” and “Blonde Venus.” He is buried next to her in San Diego.
“The house she built was completed in 1912 and is a mix of Italianate and Prairie-style designed by architect Del Harris; it’s not over the top, but modern for its time” said La Mesa historian James Newland. “It sits on one of the most prominent lots in Grossmont looking east to the El Cajon Valley – people drive by and go, ‘Who’s house was that?’”
Why La Mesa?
Newland said Schumann-Heink moved to Southern California after being recruited by former New York entertainment agent, friend and co-developer of Grossmont — William Gross.
“She was one of the ‘high-class artists’ Gross and fellow developer Ed Fletcher hoped to become a Grossmont Colony resident,” Newland said. “The colony they dreamed of didn’t fully take off like they had hoped. Her great grandson lives in the home and takes good care of it. He even has a few original furnishings.”
Newland said Schumann-Heink was perhaps the most famous of the Grossmont residents since the only other potential resident with her status, Owen Wister [author of “The Virginian”], never ended up living there.
The historian added Schumann-Heink was beloved in La Mesa, San Diego, the U.S. and Europe, and performed all over the world during her career. However, she never performed in La Mesa.
“There really weren’t any appropriate venues for her in La Mesa, although I believe she did some small fundraiser appearances for the La Mesa Women’s Club,” he said.
Interestingly, her grandson Hubert Guy (son of daughter Marie) wrote a detailed Grossmont area history book in 1993 called “Grossmont Isn’t Just a Shopping Center,” and it provides details of her local activities, Newland said.
What a life
And while Schumann-Heink’s voice was legendary, so was her life story. Newland said he himself wrote about Schumann-Heink in his book and several articles because her story is amazing at so many different levels.
“She was an early international popular music and recording star,” he said. “She was known throughout the Western world as an amazing and generous person and was beloved by fans and friends. She fought for this success against those who discriminated against her in that she was not this gorgeous iconic beauty — but relentless in her determination and talent — and subsequently beloved for her dogged perseverance. She had a legendary range and powerful voice such that she could sing any kind of part.”
She was also acclaimed for her radio appearances and unreserved personality and each Christmas, millions of radio listeners would tune in to hear her sing “Silent Night” in its original German, according to records.
Newland said her voice was so extraordinary and her reputation so great that she was hired in 1927 by the Vitaphone Co., a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Motion Picture Co., for an early sound-recording film to prove the legitimacy of its new sound technology.
“She was a multimedia star before her time really,” Newland said. “I think her talent overshone all those superficial things those early agents told her; she did become an international legend in spite of their concerns with her appearance.”
Schumann-Heink was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for recording, which is located at 6640 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood.
She died in 1936 of Leukemia at age 75 in Hollywood and is buried at Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego in the corridor of Sunshine in the Cathedral Mausoleum.
The La Mesa Historical Society is planning an exhibit on her life in La Mesa later this year at its McKinney House Museum. It will also be holding its annual Home Tour in the Grossmont area on Nov. 2. Find updates at lamesahistory.com.
— Jill Diamond is a freelance writer based in Southern California who enjoys writing interesting features about history.