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OperaWire is proud to present “The Wonderful World of Opera Dogs”, a series by Diana Burgwyn, which will focus on the relationship between the most iconic stars of opera and their beloved dogs. The creation of this series and all the research necessary for each individual piece was carried out solely by Diana. To learn more about the origins of the project, click here.
“The singer eats dog food and thus gains freedom!” cried the title of an article in the February 6, 1942 issue of Minneapolis Star. Obviously, a middle-aged opera singer had been arrested because police were convinced she was trying to kill dogs in Central Park in New York City by leaving them poisoned food. In truth, the slandered woman was completely innocent: she had prepared a delicious dinner for the dog she knew. But the two detectives who came to investigate did not believe her and announced that she should go to the police station with them. Once there, she insisted on taking a big bite of the food she had prepared. After showing no signs of impending collapse or death, she was released.
An unlikely suspect
The singer in question, Frieda Hempel, was a highly unlikely suspect. She was a retired lyrical coloratura who had been the darling of the Royal Berlin Opera, singing and dining with kings, queens and aristocracy. A favorite of Richard Strauss, Hempel was chosen by him to sing the plum role of Marschallin in the first Berlin performance of his exquisite “Der Rosenkavalier”. She later enjoyed great success at the Metropolitan Opera in the treacherous role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and she teamed up with Enrico Caruso for the company’s first performance of the exotic. Bizet’s “pearl fishermen”.
Hempel loved dogs from a young age. They were a key part of her childhood, as were other creatures in nature, including a frog which she wrote could predict the weather. When she started singing professionally, she was pining for her old farm life, so Boy, her dog at the time, decided to help her out. He rummaged in her suitcase, without seeing her, when she was getting ready for a trip, and hid an old dusty potato among her delicate underwear, to serve as a memento from home.
Love me love my dog
Like a prima donna, Hempel then became the owner of a small Pomeranian, who accompanied him everywhere, hiding in his muff. Pitti was so named because Hempel bought it from a woman near Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy. The local train conductor, recognizing her when she went to singing engagements, looked away obligingly as she smuggled the dog onto the train, where it was not allowed.
The posh hotels of the day weren’t always dog friendly, no matter how perfect their manners were. Pitti was trained to hide when someone knocked on his bedroom door, but he was once discovered by a hunter. The management insisted that she leave, she refused and a guard was stationed at her door. Finally, friends came to rescue her and she went to high prison. On another occasion, after several resorts in the United States turned Pitti down as a guest, she took a steamboat with him to Europe, where he was accepted wherever she went. Obviously, she found Europe much more civilized, despite the fact that World War I was raging there.
Once retired from the opera house, Hempel led a quieter life in an elegant apartment facing Central Park in New York City. Although she still does vocal recitals, she apparently went unrecognized by the curious New York resident who reported her to police as wandering a secluded path in Central Park on a cold winter day, carrying a briefcase and a paper bag. The two detectives who took her to the police station were subsequently very embarrassed by their treatment of the lady, probably because her friend the mayor Fiorello La Guardia had taken them to task. They visited her at home to apologize, carrying an armful of roses; she responded by calling them highballs.
The five-year-old brownie hunt
This episode was by no means the complete story. In fact, the saga of Frieda Hempel and a certain Central Park canine resident, whom she named Brownie, had been in the works for five years and occupied an entire chapter of her autobiography. She first saw the dog in 1937 from her eighth-floor apartment in Central Park West. He was tall – probably a mix of collie and food – with beautiful auburn fur, and he limped painfully along the bridle path of the park. Worried, Hempel grabbed some food from his cooler and rushed to the park, but the minute the dog saw her, he was gone. Obviously he was homeless and savage. The singer, however, was charmed by his courage, ingenuity, and cunning, as well as his gentle wit (when boys threw sticks and stones at him, he neither showed his teeth nor barked), and was determined to do of him his friend, to offer him a better life.
This business would not be easy. Luckily, Hempel had the help of a friendly mounted policeman, who kept her posted on Brownie’s whereabouts. With this knowledge, every day for five years the soprano (or a designated assistant) would arrive, whether in a blazing sun or pouring rain, snow or sleet, with a paper bag containing freshly boiled beef. , vegetables and a spoonful of cod liver. oil and leave it near Brownie’s designated route. She sat on a bench nearby and he saw her, but he never approached her or any other human. He took the food, however. Whenever Brownie changed routes, sensing any danger, Jim, the mounted policeman, informed Hempel of the change. The dog had a friend: a big black cat who stood by his food to protect him, daring the rats to steal it before he came to get it.
After the police incident, Hempel began to be more afraid to enter the park at all hours, especially given the power outages that occurred with the United States entering World War II. Along with the food rationing, she was also concerned that Brownie would be deprived of her specially prepared meal, so, with the help of Jim and the ASPCA, she managed to trap him.
From wild nature to the lap of luxury
Finding himself trapped in a cage, Brownie barked loudly in obvious distress. But when he was released from the cage the next day, he allowed Hempel to gently stroke him for the very first time and take him home in a cab, docile but with more than one leash in case he did. would try to run away. Surprisingly, arriving at Hempel’s building, Brownie obediently followed her into the lobby and into the elevator. Once inside his lavish apartment with his green and gold guest bedroom, he climbed onto the velvet-covered sofa as if he had been his since birth.
Brownie had found his real home. Living with Hempel for ten more years, he showed him great affection and happily greeted his police friend, Jim, whenever he came to visit him. Brownie was no longer interested in Central Park, and when Hempel took her on vacation to places where there was plenty of room to walk, he never left her. Over time he became quite famous, being featured in publications such as the New Yorker, with photos and cartoons depicting him in his upper-class life. In Brownie’s later years, as he grew deaf and blind, he settled into Hempel’s bed, where he felt safe. He left this world at the age of nineteen (especially considering his diet rich in cakes); a pampered and loved companion.
A lifelong devotion to animals
Why would a singer become so attached to the life of a dog? The soprano never responded directly to this, but shortly before challenging Brownie, she had struck an ill-conceived and somewhat mysterious arrangement with August Heckscher, a wealthy businessman four decades her senior. The deal was that she would only sing at charity events at her request; moreover, she would never leave New York for more than two nights. For this, she would receive an annual sum of $ 48,000 for the rest of her life. The business collapsed; and Hempel too. She stated that she no longer had any desire to sing – indeed, that she was physically unable to sing and that she had lost her confidence in humans. “I don’t know what I would have done,” Hempel wrote, “if Brownie hadn’t been sent to me.”
A friend and benefactor of the soprano later made this scathing comment: “In the end, Frieda Hempel’s romantic attempt (if that’s what it was) to turn back time and establish in the New York of the twentieth century the life of an eighteenth. century ‘courtesan’ must be seen as a failure.
Whatever Hempel’s motivations, there is no denying his lifelong dedication to animals in need, a feeling that came from his childhood, when his home was a refuge for the wounded or abandoned. During her travels as a recitalist in towns and cities across the United States, wherever she has witnessed animal abuse, she has come to the rescue: whether it is a sick old donkey abandoned in the streets or a hungry and hungry kitten. Members of her social circle were often co-opted to join her in her missions.
One of those missions started innocently enough, when Italian coloratura Luisa Tetrazzini and American bass Edward Lankaw were visiting Hempel in New York. Hempel suggested that they all go to the movies. But first, she was walking. Of course, she did not come back alone. She had come across a huge lost wandering Great Dane and decided he needed to be taken to a local veterinary hospital for treatment and to provide him with a home. The three singers and the dog piled into the backseat of a taxi. According to Hempel, Tetrazzini weighed around 200 pounds then, Lankow more than that, and she herself was no longer “the thinnest thing”. Add up to 200 pounds for a Great Dane, and you’ve got cargo that just might flatten the backseat of a car. The dog, however, Hempel wrote, accepted the comfortable ride very well.
Copyright 2021 Diana Burgwyn