From The Metropolitan Opera Archives:

Lilli Lehmann as Norma

More than one hundred years after she last sang Norma in the United States, Lilli Lehmann and her assumption of the title role in Bellini's opera continue to tantalize admirers of great singing and torment sopranos who would emulate her. Her statement regarding the strains of singing three Brünnhildes versus one Norma is constantly repeated. When Kirsten Flagstad was asked by Edward Johnson to prepare Norma in 1935, the General Manager ignored the magnificent recent performances of Rosa Ponselle to remind Flagstad of Lehmann's example. (Flagstad learned the role but cautioned Johnson that he should hear her before scheduling it. Her first Met Fidelio was the result.)

Lehmann arrived at Norma after becoming known for the grandeur and eloquence of her Wagnerian roles, Brünnhilde and Isolde, which she combined with another repertory ranging from Carmen and Faust to Le Prophète and Les Huguenots. Norma at her benefit performance on February 27, 1890 astounded an audience that felt it knew her completely: "She demonstrated that her voice possesses far more flexibility and that she had a greater command of the pure ornamentation of singing than any one suspected," W. J. Henderson reported in The New York Times, "and so long it is since this public has heard so excellent an exhibition of this sort that the audience was fairly carried away" [See Henderson's reservations in the complete review]. Henry Krehbiel in the New York Tribune noted a house crowded as it hadn't been all season and maintained that her performance demonstrated that "devotion to the lyric drama in its latest and most significant phase does not necessarily preclude excellence in the old domain of beautiful singing."

Krehbiel may be responsible for the legend of Lehmann's Norma. During the final dress rehearsal for the first American Götterdämmerung he cautioned her about singing all the repetitions of Act II in full voice. Her reply has been frequently quoted but almost never completely: "Don't be alarmed about my voice. It is easier to sing all three Brünnhildes than one Norma. You are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene that you do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself. But in Bellini you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct emission. But I love Norma and Mozart's Entführung." In other words, Norma is difficult, not for its strenuousness, but because of the vocal poise that must always be maintained.

Lehmann sang Norma eight times in the United States, in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Two almost forgotten performances, on March 25 and 27, 1890, were in Oscar Hammerstein's Harlem Opera House as a gesture of support for the impresario in his first operatic venture. Her last three performances were in 1891-92 for Henry Abbey's company at the Metropolitan. Presumably, they were in Italian. In view of the interpretation that has been put on her statement vis-à-vis three Brünnhildes and one Norma, it is startling to be reminded that Abbey had planned a revival of Die Walküre for her but when the time came she was out of voice. Walküre was cancelled. And what did she sing instead? Why, Bellini's Norma, on February 3, 1892.


Lilli Lehmann as Norma.
Photograph by J. C. Schaarwächter,

   Program for Lehmann benefit.