Photo courtesy of Troy Chromatics Archives, Collection Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy , NY

In the course of a lifetime in the Arts, Johann Berthelsen became acquainted with many extraordinary individuals. In this feature,
we will introduce them to you.

They met only once, but for Johann Berthelsen, his conversation with the legendary contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink became a memory that he would treasure for a lifetime.

In 1905, Johann Berthelsen was a 22-year-old student at the Chicago Musical College. His combination of vocal talent (which had won for him a full scholarship) and great personal charm had made him a favorite with school director Willie Ziegfeld. The brother of legendary Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld and co-owner of the school, Willie Ziegfeld never missed an opportunity to promote the talent of his young protégé. A favorite technique was to choose Johann to deliver a personal message to a leading musical or theatrical personality who happened to be in town. At the bottom of the message, he would add, “Please ask the young man who delivered this to sing for you.”

On that day in 1905, the message may well have been wedding congratulations for Madame Schumann-Heink who on that day was to marry Chicago attorney William Rapp Jr., her manager. Johann could be forgiven if he evidenced any nervousness when he delivered the message for he was about to enter the presence of a woman who had already established herself as one of the preeminent stars of opera’s Golden Age.
Born in Bohemia in 1861, Ernestine “Tini” Rössler was the daughter of a shoemaker. The family moved frequently during her childhood, eventually settling in Graz when she was 13. It was there that she began to study voice with Marietta von LeClair, a former opera singer, and made her debut in 1877 in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Her operatic debut was followed the next year in Il Trovatore.
The circumstance that was to propel her to stardom occurred at the Hamburg opera when, because of a dispute between the manager and their lead singer, she agreed to substitute and sang three different roles on three consecutive nights. She sang at the Bayreuth festivals from 1896 to 1914, and in 1898, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
It was Schumann-Heink’s versatility in creating vocal characterizations that established her among the operatic immortals. Examples of her unique style can be found in the recordings she made that demonstrate her range, both as a singer and an actress. In the duet, Ai Nostri Monti from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which she recorded with the great tenor Enrico Caruso, she is, to quote Caruso biographer Francis Robinson, “A broken old woman dreaming of home.” Conversely, her interpretation of “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” from Handel’s Messiah eschews the polite monotony so often found in oratorio in favor of a command and authority worthy of an Old Testament prophet.
A naturalized American citizen, Madame Schumann-Heink was intensely patriotic. In World War I, she raised money for the Allied cause and afterward supported various veterans’ charities.
The War brought a great personal tragedy, as she had relatives fighting on both sides and one of her sons, August Heink, died during the conflict.
After reading the message that Johann Berthelsen delivered, she looked up, smiled and asked him to sing something for her. According to Lee Berthelsen, “My father sang a German leid and, when he had finished, Madame Schumann-Heink said, ‘Come over here and sit down next to me.’ She put her arm around the young man, praised his voice and predicted a great career. What happened then was what impressed my father most. The greatest contralto of her age, on her wedding day, discussed singing with him for the next two hours. The fact that she would spend so much time with an aspiring singer on such an important occasion made this a very special memory and provided a lesson in kindness that he never forgot.”
In later years, Madame Schumann-Heink would become familiar to the non-opera going public through concert appearances, movies, and especially through radio. Beginning in 1926 until 1935, the year before her death, she sang Silent Night in both German and English at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. To again quote Francis Robinson, “It was Christmas past, present and to come.”
She died on November 17th, 1936, in Hollywood of leukemia. In recognition of her patriotism and generosity to veterans’ causes, she was buried with full military honors.
Johann Berthelsen went on to achieve high critical acclaim for his vocal performances. After a relatively short time in the spotlight, he would move on to teaching and later to painting but, as long as he lived, he would never forget the gracious artist who took the time to encourage and advise him.