The Wonderful World of Opera Dogs: Frieda Hempel – Opera Star & Dogcatcher

By Diana Burgwyn
                                                (Photo Credits: Alamy Stock Photos)

OperaWire is proud to present “The Wonderful World of Opera Dogs,” a series by Diana Burgwyn, which will focus on the relationship between opera’s most iconic stars and their beloved canines. The creation of this series and all research necessary for each individual piece were conducted solely by Diana. To learn more about the origins of the project, click here

“Singer Eats Dog Food and Thereby Wins Freedom!” shouted the headline of an article in the February 6, 1942 issue of the Minneapolis Star.  Evidently, a certain middle-aged opera singer had been arrested because the police were convinced that she was trying to kill dogs in New York’s Central Park by leaving them food laced with poison. In truth, the maligned woman was totally innocent: she had prepared a delicious dinner for the dog of her acquaintance.  But the two detectives who came to investigate did not believe her and announced that she would have to 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 imminent collapse or death, she was released.

An Unlikely Suspect

The singer in question, Frieda Hempel, was a highly unlikely suspect. She was a retired lyric coloratura who had been the darling of the Berlin Royal Opera, singing for and dining with kings, queens, and the aristocracy. A favorite of Richard Strauss, Hempel was chosen by him to sing the plum role of the Marschallin in the first Berlin performance of his exquisite “Der Rosenkavalier.” Later she was a big success at the Metropolitan Opera in the treacherous role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and she partnered with Enrico Caruso in  the company’s first performance of Bizet’s exotic “The Pearl Fishers.”

Hempel had loved dogs from her earliest days.  They were a key part of her childhood, as were others of nature’s creatures, including a frog that, she wrote, could predict the weather. When she began to sing professionally she pined for her old farm life, so Boy, her dog at the time, decided to be of help.  He would rummage through her suitcase, unseen,  when she was getting ready for a trip, and hide a dusty old potato amongst her delicate undergarments, to serve as a souvenir of home.

Love Me, Love My Dog

In true prima donna fashion, Hempel then became the owner of a tiny Pomeranian, who accompanied her everywhere, hiding in her muff.  Pitti was so named because Hempel bought him from a woman near the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy.  The local trainmaster, recognizing her when she traveled to singing engagements, would obligingly look the other way as she smuggled the dog onboard the train, where he was not allowed.

Posh hotels at the time were not always welcoming to dogs, no matter how perfect their manners. Pitti was trained to hide when anyone knocked at the door of her room, but once he was discovered by a bellboy.  Management insisted that she leave, she refused, and a guard was stationed at her door. Finally, friends came to rescue her, and she departed in high dudgeon. On another occasion, after several summer resorts in the United States had turned Pitti down as a guest, she took a steamship with him to Europe, where he was accepted everywhere she went. Clearly, she found Europe to be far more civilized, despite the fact that World War I was raging there.

Once retired from opera, Hempel led a quieter life in an elegant apartment facing Central Park in New York. Though she was still doing vocal recitals, she apparently was not recognized by the nosy New York resident who reported her to the police as wandering down a secluded path of Central Park on a frigid winter day, carrying a briefcase and a paper bag.  The two detectives who had taken her to the police station were subsequently very embarrassed by their treatment of the lady, probably because her friend Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had taken them to task. They paid her a home visit to apologize, bearing an armload of roses; she responded by treating them to highballs.

The Five-Year Hunt for Brownie

That episode did not by any means constitute the full story.  In fact, the saga of Frieda Hempel and a certain canine resident of Central Park, whom she named Brownie, was five years in the making and occupied a full chapter in her autobiography. She first saw the dog in 1937 from her eighth-floor apartment in Central Park West. He was large—probably a mix of collie and chow—with beautiful auburn fur, and he was limping painfully along the park’s bridle path. Concerned, Hempel grabbed some food from her icebox and rushed to the park, but the minute the dog saw her he disappeared.  Obviously, he was homeless and wild. The singer, however, was charmed by his courage, resourcefulness, and cunning, as well as his gentle spirit (when boys threw sticks and stones at him he neither bared his teeth nor barked), and became determined to make him her friend, to give him a better life.

This endeavor would not be easy.  Fortunately, Hempel had the help of a kindly mounted policeman, who kept her informed as to Brownie’s whereabouts. With that knowledge, every day for five years the soprano (or a designated helper) would arrive, whether in the blazing sun or driving rain, snow or sleet, with a paper bag containing freshly boiled beef, vegetables, and a dollop of cod liver oil, and leave it near Brownie’s designated route. She would sit on a bench nearby and he would see her, but he never approached her—nor any other human. He did, however, take the food. Whenever Brownie changed his route, sensing danger of some kind, Jim, the mounted policeman, would inform Hempel of the change. The dog did have one friend: a large black cat that stood protectively by his food, daring the rats to steal it before he came for it.

After the police incident, Hempel began to feel more fearful of entering the park at all hours, especially given the blackouts that were occurring with the entry of the United States into World War II.  With food rationing, she also feared Brownie would be deprived of his specially cooked meal, so, with the help of Jim and the ASPCA, she managed to trap him.

From the Wilds to the Lap of Luxury

Finding himself imprisoned in a cage, Brownie barked loudly in obvious distress.  But when he was freed from the cage the next day, he allowed Hempel to gently pet him for the very first time and to take him home in a taxi, docile but fitted with more than one leash in case he tried to bolt. Amazingly, on arriving at Hempel’s building, Brownie followed her obediently into the lobby and up the elevator. Once inside her lavish apartment with its green and gold guest room, he climbed up onto the velvet-covered sofa as if it had been his since birth.

Brownie had found his true home. Living with Hempel for ten more years, he showed her great affection and joyfully greeted her policeman friend, Jim, whenever he came to visit.  Central Park was no longer of interest to Brownie, and when Hempel took him on vacation to places where there was plenty of space to roam, he never left her side. In time he became quite famous, being featured in such publications as the New Yorker, with photos and cartoons depicting him in his upper-class life. During Brownie’s final years, as he became deaf and blind, he moved to Hempel’s bed, where he felt safe.  He left this world at the ripe old age (especially considered his cake-filled diet) of nineteen; a pampered and beloved companion.

A Lifelong Devotion to Animals

Why would a singer become so committed to the life of one dog?  The soprano never answered this directly, but not long before recusing Brownie she had formed a misbegotten and somewhat mysterious arrangement with August Heckscher, a wealthy businessman four decades her senior. The agreement stipulated that she would sing only at charitable events on his request; furthermore, she would never leave New York for more than two nights.  For this she would be paid an annual sum of $48,000 throughout the rest of her life.  The deal fell apart; and so did Hempel. She stated that she no longer had any desire to sing—indeed, that she was physically unable to sing, and she had lost her trust in humans. “I don’t know what I would have done,” Hempel wrote, “if Brownie had not been sent to me.”

A friend and benefactor of the soprano later made this tart comment: “In the end, Frieda Hempel’s romantic attempt (if indeed that is what it was) to turn back the clock and establish in twentieth-century New York the life of an eighteenth-century ‘courtesan’ must be deemed a failure.”

Whatever Hempel’s motivations were, there is no denying her lifelong devotion to animals in need, a sentiment stemming from childhood, when her home was a haven for the injured or abandoned.  During her travels as a recitalist to cities and towns throughout the United States, wherever she witnessed animal abuse she came to the rescue: be that an old, sick donkey abandoned to the streets or a flea-ridden, starving kitten. Those in her social circle were often co-opted into joining her on her missions.

One of those missions started innocently enough, when the Italian coloratura Luisa Tetrazzini and the American bass Edward Lankaw were visiting Hempel in New York. Hempel suggested that they all go to a movie. First, however, she would take a walk. Naturally, she did not return alone. She had come upon a huge Great Dane wandering around lost and decided that he had to be taken to a local animal hospital to be cared for and provided a home. The three singers and the dog squeezed into the back seat of a taxi. According to Hempel, Tetrazzini then weighed about 200 pounds, Lankow more than that, and she herself was no longer “the slimmest thing.” Add as much as 200 pounds for a male Great Dane, and you have a cargo that well might flatten the back seat of a car. The dog, however, wrote Hempel, was very accepting of the cozy ride.

Copyright 2021 Diana Burgwyn


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