German singer Lilli Lehmann was regarded by many critics and opera mavens as the greatest soprano of her day, not least because of her command of an unbelievably wide range of roles — 170! She started her career as a coloratura soprano, but gradually took on dramatic roles of heavier character, especially in Wagner's operas. The power, steadiness, and versatility of her voice were given many testimonials by critics from both the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But what may be most astonishing about her career was that while Lehmann was in semi-retirement after 1900, she sang in concerts until 1920 (when she was 71 years old), generally still garnering critical acclaim.
Lehmann was born in Würzburg, Germany, on November 24, 1848. Raised in Prague, she was given vocal lessons by her mother Marie Loewe, a respected professional singer in her own right and a harpist as well. Young Lilli was regarded as a less promising talent than her sister Marie, who would also become a successful, though less-renowned soprano.
In 1865 Lehmann made her debut in Prague portraying the First Boy in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. Soon, however, she graduated to the role of Pamina, and then quickly ascended to the highest circles of the operatic stage, appearing at the Berlin Hofoper (1869), Bayreuth (1876), London (1880), Vienna (1882), and at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1885, where she was signed on as a member of the company.
There she impressed critics and audiences with a clutch of varied roles, but especially with her Wagner: she appeared in the New York premiere of Tristan und Isolde (1886) and later in the first American Ring cycle (1889). From 1890 to 1900 Lehmann was in her prime, dazzling audiences not only at the Met, but in Berlin, Bayreuth, and Covent Garden, where she appeared in 1899 in Wagner (Isolde, Sieglinde), Mozart (Donna Anna), and Bellini (Norma).
While she still appeared in certain operatic roles and on the concert stage after 1900, her appearances became increasingly infrequent. She helped create Mozart festivals in Salzburg beginning in 1906. That same year — at the age of 58 — she made her first recordings, and after 1907 made no more. Her recordings have been highly praised and are still available from a variety of sources today, including the English label Nimbus. Lehmann completely retired from all performance activity in 1920.