Lotte Lenya (18 October 1898 – 27 November 1981) was an Austrian singer and actress. In the German-speaking and classical music world she is best remembered for her performances of the songs of her husband, Kurt Weill. In popular culture, she is best remembered for her performance as Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love. She is also known for receiving a mention in the Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin versions of the song "Mack the Knife".
Lenya was born Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer to working class Roman Catholic parents in Vienna, Austria. She moved to study in Zürich, Switzerland in 1914, taking up her first job at the Schauspielhaus using the stage name Lotte Lenja. She moved to Berlin to seek work in 1921.
In 1922 Lenya was seen by her future husband, the German composer Kurt Weill during an audition for his first stage score Zaubernacht, but because of his position behind the piano, she did not see him. She was cast, but owing to her loyalty to her voice teacher who was not, she declined the role. She accepted the part of Jenny in the first performance of The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) in 1928 and the part became her breakthrough role. During the last years of the Weimar Republic, she was busy in film and theatre, and especially in Brecht-Weill plays. She also made several recordings of Weill's songs.
With the rise of Nazism in Germany, she left the country, having become estranged from Weill. In March 1933, she fled to Paris, France where she sang the leading part in Brecht-Weill's "sung ballet" The Seven Deadly Sins.
During World War II, Lenya did a number of stage performances, recordings and radio performances, including for the Voice of America. After a badly received part in her husband's musical The Firebrand of Florence in 1945 in New York, she withdrew from the stage. After her husband's death she was coaxed back to the stage. She appeared on Broadway in Barefoot in Athens and married influential American editor George Davis.
Her role as Vivien Leigh's earthy friend Contessa Magda Terribili-Gonzales in the screen version of Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) brought Lenya an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Her portrayal of the villainous Rosa Klebb in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love (1963) brought her additional fame.
In 1956 she won a Tony Award for her role as Jenny in Marc Blitzstein's English version of The Threepenny Opera, the only time an Off-Broadway performance has been so honored. Lenya went on to record a number of songs from her time in Berlin, as well as songs from the American theater. Her voice had grown a lot deeper than during her first success as a performer. When she was to sing the soprano part in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and opera, the part needed transposition to substantially lower keys.
Sprechstimme was used in some famous songs in the Brecht-Weill plays, but now Lenya used it even more to compensate for the shortcomings of her voice. Lenya was aware of this as a problem; in other contexts she was very careful about fully respecting her late husband's score. She founded the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, to administer incomes and issues regarding rights, and to spread knowledge about Weill's work.
She was present in the studio when Louis Armstrong recorded Brecht-Weill's Mack the Knife. Armstrong improvised the line "Look out for Miss Lotte Lenya!" and added her name to the list of Mack's female conquests in the song. After the death of George Davis in 1957, she married the artist Russell Detwiler in 1962. He was 26 years her junior, and he died at age 44 in 1969.
In 1963, she got the part as the SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love, starring, among others, Sean Connery and Robert Shaw. In the final scene in the film, she wore a pair of shoes with knives sticking out. She later said in interviews that when she met new people, the first thing they looked at was her shoes.
In 1966, Lenya originated the role of Fräulein Schneider in the original Broadway cast of the musical Cabaret. Kander's and Ebb's score was inspired by Kurt Weill's music, so Lenya was considered a particularly appropriate casting choice.
Lenya and Weill did not meet properly until 1924 through a mutual acquaintance, the writer Georg Kaiser. They married in 1926, and later divorced in 1933, only to reconcile in September 1935 after emigrating to the United States. They remarried in 1937. In 1941, the couple moved to a house of their own in New City, Rockland County, New York, roughly 50 km north of New York City. Their second marriage lasted until Weill's death in 1950.
Lenya died in New York from cancer in 1981, aged 83. She is buried next to Weill in Haverstraw, New York. In 2007, the musical Lovemusik, based on Lenya's relationship with Weill, opened on Broadway. Lenya was portrayed by Donna Murphy.
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