New book points out opera singer’s Stevens Point connection
The Portage County Historical Society has published a reprint of the “Madame Schumann-Heink” pamphlet as part of its Portage County Stories series that provide information about events, people and institutions in the county.
The pamphlet was originally compiled by Dianne Peplinski and printed in 2011.
The book contains articles from the Stevens Point Daily Journal between 1923 and 1987 pertaining to Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, an acclaimed opera singer who was known as “Mother of the American Legion.”
While younger people may have no idea who Schumann-Heink was, older residents of Stevens Point are familiar with the name, which graces the title of the Disabled American Veterans Post in Stevens Point, Schumann-Heink Post, a tribute to her work for soldiers and her closeness to Stevens Point.
Schumann-Heink was born Ernestine Roessler June 15, 1861, at Lieben, near Prague in Hungary (which was then part of Austria). Her father, Hans Roessler, was a cavalry lieutenant in the Austria army and her mother was Charlotte (Goldman) Roessler, who was born in Italy and taught her to sing.
Her deep contralto voice impressed a retired singer, who gave her free lessons for four years, but she was rejected by the Vienna, Austria, opera director, only to be invited to try out for the Dresden, Germany, opera, where she was hired at age 17.
When she was 21, she married Ernst Heink, secretary of the Dresden Opera, in 1882, only to lose their jobs because her contract required her to secure the consent of the management.
Her husband got a job in Hamburg, and she joined him, as they raised three children while she performed in smaller parts with the Hamburg opera. After giving birth to a fourth child, she was asked to sing a leading role with the opera when the lead contralto refused to sing the role of Carmen.
Her performance astounded the audience and management, and she received a 10-year contract, which led to her singing in cities throughout Europe and spreading her fame.
She divorced Ernst Heink, who had been absent from the family since 1887, and was married to Paul Schumann, an actor and theater manager in Hamburg, in 1893. Her family grew to eight, with four with Heink, one that Schumann had prior to the marriage and three with him.
Schumann-Heink made her American debut in Chicago in 1898 and four weeks later gave birth to a boy she named George Washington Schumann. She continued to perform in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but in 1903 bought out her contract with the Berlin Opera Company because she could make more money in the United States.
After her husband Paul Schumann died in 1904, Schumann-Heink took out U.S. citizenship papers and married William Rapp Jr., a lawyer who became her business partner. She also brought six of the children to the U.S. with her, settling near Montclair, N.J. Her oldest son, August, was a merchant seaman, and her daughter, Charlotte, was married to a Leipzig doctor.
Schumann-Heink continued to perform in operas in Germany and in concerts and philanthropic events in the U.S., eventually moving her family to San Diego, Calif., where she acquired 500 acres to provide homes for herself and her children.
When World War I broke out in 1914, she was performing at an opera in Germany, so she made her way back to the U.S. with two of her children who were with her. Two years later, her oldest son, August, a sailor on a German steamship line, visited but returned to Germany to be with his wife and children.
The U.S. entered the war, and Schumann-Heink became a symbol of national motherhood because she put the U.S. first, even though her brother was in command of an Austrian warship, her oldest son was in the German navy and two sisters lived in Germany. Four of her sons served in the U.S. military, and her oldest son, August, drowned when his submarine was rammed by a U.S. destroyer in 1918.
Schumann-Heink criss-crossed the country entertaining military men and appearing at fundraisers to help soldiers and sailors, all the while proclaiming motherly love.
After the war, Schumann-Heink welcomed the widow of her son August, Kaethe Heink, to the San Diego area, and resumed her singing career, traveling around the country and the world, and bringing Ilse Ernestine Heink, the daughter of her oldest son, August, with her as her secretary/traveling companion.
Schumann-Heink made her first appearance in Stevens Point May 16, 1923, appearing before a full house at the auditorium in Old Main at the Stevens Point Normal School (the auditorium was in the east wing of the building that was demolished during a 1990s renovation of the building).
She returned for a concert Oct. 4, 1926, in the auditorium of the Stevens Point High School that later became known as Emerson School. The concert opened her 50th anniversary tour that year, which was billed as her last, and Ferdinand Hirzy, a Stevens Point man, accompanied her as a representative of the American Legion, to her next stop in Green Bay.
Schumann-Heink was born in Unter-Gratz, Austria, south of Vienna, the same place as Hirzy. Schumann-Heink’s father and Hirzy’s father were friends and the families were well acquainted with each other.
Hirzy’s friendship with the singer prompted her to return to Stevens Point for a concert Aug. 19, 1927, in the high school auditorium as a benefit to raise funds for the American Legion building fund. Hirzy was the commander of Stevens Point American Legion Post 6, as well as the first vice-commander of the state unit.
That visit led Schumann-Heink to make periodic visits to Stevens Point until her death. Her granddaughter, Ilse Schumann-Heink, met Hirzy during the trip, and they were married a year later.
Schumann-Heink then continued to visit her family in Stevens Point until her death at age 75 Nov. 18, 1936. She took time out from a visit in 1933 to throw out the first pitch at a American Legion district championship game between Stevens Point and New London at Goerke Park, before a crowd estimated at between 2,000 and 3,500 spectators.
The Schumann-Heink Chapter 30 of the DAV dedicated a memorial to Schumann-Heink June 20, 1941, on the grounds of the Stevens Point City Hall at the northeast corner of the Church and Clark Street intersection (now the site of an Associated Bank building).
When the City Hall was torn down in 1960 after the city moved its offices into the County-City Building, the memorial was dismantled, and stored until it was rebuilt along the Wisconsin River at the northeast end of the Clark Street Bridge and rededicated Memorial Day 1962.
The Schumann-Heink Memorial remains there today, still bearing the bell from the tower of the South Side Fire House on Strongs Avenue where it rang for more than 50 years at 8 a.m. for school children, at noon and at 6 p.m. It also sounded curfew for youngsters for a time.