Lotte Lenya: A Life by Donald Spoto - review by Harriet Murphy

Harriet Murphy

One Woman or Another, What’s the Difference?

Lotte Lenya: A Life


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Known primarily throughout her life time as a singer, Lotte Lenya’s recordings commemorate for posterity her unique role in many successful productions. They are genuine cultural artefacts, which, if they cannot do justice to her magnetic stage presence, project a voice which attacks us with a brittle kind of sexiness, overwhelming us with its uncompromising attitude to survival.

Donald Spoto’s biography shows how deeply the voice expresses the essence of her personality. It charts her experiences as an independent woman from her birth in 1898 in Vienna to her death in New York in 1981, through her years in Zurich and Berlin. Curiously but not surprisingly it does not examine her development as an artist because it implies, by default, that Lenya possessed a talent to perform which did not evolve, let alone mature, over the years. Instead, her absolute gift was exploited periodically by some of the great creative talents with whom she was associated, namely Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Compared to Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel, the far more successful interpreter of the role of Mutter Courage and a woman whom she disliked, Lenya clearly lacked the drive, conviction, purpose and above all ambition which we normally associate with the committed professional. She emerges, in this study, as one who at a very deep level was a creature of circumstance.

It is all of a piece that Lenya never received any kind of formal musical or dramatic training. She consistently resisted external constraints and always relied on her inner resources. Spoto’s theory is that her willed excellence in the art of survival had its origins in the childhood abuse –

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