Frieda Hempel initially studied the piano at the Leipzig Conservatory before undertaking vocal studies at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin with Selma Nicklass-Kempner. She made her operatic stage debut in 1905 at Breslau (now Wrocław), where she sang Violetta / La traviata, the Queen of the Night / Die Zauberflöte and Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia. From 1905 Hempel was contracted to the court opera at Schwerin: here she extended her repertoire to include Gilda / Rigoletto, Leonora / Il trovatore and Woglinde / Der Ring des Nibelungen.
After she made her debut at the Berlin Court Opera, also in 1905 as Frau Fluth / Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Kaiser Wilhelm II took an especial interest in her and persuaded the authorities in Schwerin to cancel her contract in favour of the Berlin Court Opera. Hempel served as a member of this company between 1907 and 1912 and was much admired for her interpretations of Lucia / Lucia di Lammermoor, Marguerite de Valois / Les Huguenots and Marie / La Fille du Régiment. In 1911 she sang the role of the Marschallin in the first Berlin performances of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and two years later created the role of Zerbinetta in the first version of the same composer’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Berlin’s Grosse Schauspielhaus.
Hempel first sang at the Bayreuth Festival in 1906 (Woglinde and a Flower Girl / Parsifal), returning in 1908 to sing the Woodbird in Siegfried. She was extremely active as a guest throughout central Europe, appearing in Bremen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, Mannheim, Munich, Vienna and Wiesbaden, as well as at the Royal Opera, Stockholm (1908), Brussels and Monte Carlo (1909), Basle, Paris and Riga (1910). She first appeared at the Royal Opera House, London in 1907 in a double bill as Bastienne / Bastienne und Bastien and Gretel / Hänsel und Gretel, followed by Eva / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Frau Fluth. In 1914 she repeated her success as the Marschallin in the first British production of Der Rosenkavalier under Beecham.
At the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1912 Hempel enjoyed a highly successful debut, singing as Marguerite de Valois opposite Caruso and Destinn. She remained with this company until 1919, undertaking predominantly the roles which had already established her success in Europe. Notable highlights of Hempel’s time with the Met included the Marschallin in the first American performances of Der Rosenkavalier (1913), Eva and the title role in Weber’s Euryanthe under Toscanini (1914), Leila / Les Pêcheurs des Perles opposite Caruso and de Luca, and Adina / L’elisir d’amore with Caruso (both 1916). Late opera appearances included Chicago (where she had first sung in 1914) in 1920 and 1921, and San Francisco in 1921.
Having left the Met unexpectedly and taken American citizenship, Hempel made a successful second career as a recitalist, famous for her singing of music by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf, as well as for recreating the nineteenth-century world of Jenny Lind, which she did in full costume. She also undertook tours in England (1935) and in France, Belgium and Holland (1938 and 1950). Her memoirs Mein Leben dem Gesang (My Life of Song) were published in 1955, the year of her death in Germany, where she had sought treatment for cancer.
Hempel possessed a crystalline vocal technique which, together with her clean intonation, served her well. Her earliest recordings date from 1906 and were made in Schwerin for the Odeon company. She later recorded for the Gramophone Company, Polydor and Victor (1909–1917), for Edison (1917–1923), and for the Gramophone Company (1923–1925, 1931).
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist