Senta Erd

Senta Erd’s graduation picture from the 1908 Zenith yearbook. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Soprano Senta Erd, who grew up in Duluth, led a successful operatic career for many years in Europe. She never forgot where she came from though, and regularly returned to visit friends in the Zenith City.

Erd was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on August 6, 1889. Her parents were John B. Erd and Marie (Geist) Erd. John was a native of St. Paul. His father, Thomas Erd, came to the city in 1857 and ran his own business (Schlick & Erd) as a contractor and stone cutter. He worked on many early and now historic St. Paul buildings, including the Church of the Assumption. His son John followed a different career path. At a young age, John began as an apprentice in the Twin Cities jewelry store of Emil Geist; later he would co-own a jewelry store in Duluth with Geist.

Geist’s daughter Marie was a classically trained musician. Born in Germany in 1859, she studied piano and cello at the Royal Academy of Music in Munich, graduating in 1876. Her parents took the family to the United States around 1880. Marie performed as a cellist in several concerts in New York City, including a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Soon the Geists were living in St. Paul. Marie’s father, Emil, opened a jewelry store, where he took on young John Erd as an apprentice. Marie continued to perform around the Midwest, including a concert at the Dramatic Temple in Duluth on November 23, 1882. On May 1, 1883, she and some partners opened the Conservatory of Music in St. Paul. In 1887 she married John B. Erd. Their first daughter, Marie, was born in 1888, and Senta a year later. A third daughter, Anita Ursula, was born in October of 1891, but lived only seven months.

Emil Geist’s brother Joseph had opened a jewelry store in Duluth at Second Avenue West and Superior Street in 1882. When Joseph died of Bright’s disease in 1897, Emil offered a partnership in the Duluth store to John. So John and Marie moved to Duluth, where John would manage the store, called Geist & Erd Jewelry. They moved into a home at 102 S. 16th Ave. E. and later moved to 202 S. 19th Ave. E. Both daughters began musical training at an early age—Marie on the piano and Senta the violin. Their mother continued to perform, mostly throughout Minnesota. On May 19, 1902, she played Romanze—a cello solo by Duluth composer Gerard Tonning—in St. Paul.

Senta began taking violin lessons from Fred G. Bradbury of Duluth’s Bradbury School of Music. On June 30, 1903, at the age of 13, she performed a violin solo in a program at Duluth Central High School. She continued to perform often in Duluth, usually playing a violin solo accompanied by her sister Marie on the piano. They both attended Central High School. In addition to music at Central, Senta was active in the Philomathian Society, school plays, and the German Club; she also played center on the junior girls’ basketball team. (It appears the girls’ basketball teams at Central mostly played against the other class teams; in one notable game that made the Duluth newspapers, Senta’s junior team beat the sophomore team 13 to 9.)

In her senior year, the school made as a requirement for graduation that each senior write a play. Senta’s one-act comedy, The Expelling of the Pikes, was a dramatization of a short story by James Raymond Perry called “Expelling the Pikes” that appeared in the February 1908 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. It was one of two student plays chosen to be performed on class day during graduation week.

Graduation exercises for the class of 1908 were held in the Central High School auditorium on June 5, 1908. School Superintend R. E. Denfeld handed out the diplomas. Among the performances, Senta played the violin solo “Adagio” from Suite No. 3 for Violin by Franz Ries, a contemporary German violinist and composer.

While Senta’s sister Marie, who graduated from Central in 1907, went on to study at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Senta chose to stay in Duluth for a while, continuing her violin lessons and becoming active in local theater. She and other students from her class continued the high school Dramatic Club and performed plays. Senta appeared in a local production called Up and Down Broadway at Duluth’s Lyceum Theater that played to a packed house for two performances, September 10 and 11, 1909. It was put on by Duluth’s Twentieth Century Club as a benefit for the youth of the West End.

In the summer of 1910, Senta and her mother traveled to Germany where Senta was enrolled in Munich’s Royal Academy of Music, the school her mother had graduated from 34 years earlier. Senta started in the violin program, but she was soon encouraged to study voice by her teacher Bianca Bianchi Pollini, a famous soprano who had performed in the Vienna Court Opera in the 1800s before becoming a teacher at the academy. Senta would remain at the school for three years.

On March 13, 1912, Senta’s sister Marie died in Minneapolis at the age of 23. She had graduated from the University in 1911 and had returned to Duluth, but was in Minneapolis to attend a sorority party and contracted pneumonia. Senta did not return to the U.S. for the funeral, but did come back to Duluth in August of 1913, when her studies in Munich were completed.

As part of her studies at the Munich academy, Senta sang at numerous recitals and received some good reviews. The Munich newspaper the Bavarian Courier said:

The young artist displayed marvelous natural ability and perfect understanding of her selection. Her voice is of wonderful carrying quality, showing brilliant schooling and great devotion to her art.

And, according to the Rosenheimer Anselger:

Miss Erd, the pupil of the famous opera singer, Mme. Bianca Bianchi, was engaged to sing for the big orchestral concert of the season. Her brilliantly sympathetic voice easily won the hearts of her enthusiastic audience.

In early October 1913, after her return to Duluth, Senta was the guest of honor at a reception at the home of Mrs. Frank Hibbing at 1830 E. Superior St. Mr. Hibbing, who died in 1897, was the namesake of the town of Hibbing.

Senta first performed as a singer in Duluth on October 20, 1913, in a recital at the Pilgrim Congregational Church. She sang several arias, including two from what she said was her favorite opera, Wagner’s Tannhauser.

On December 7, 1913, Senta sang with the St. Paul Symphony in St. Paul, where she performed an aria from Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischutz and reportedly received a huge ovation. On January 12, 1914, she appeared again in Duluth in the Matinee Musicale recital along with violinist Valborg Gunderson. And on February 15, 1914, Senta sang with the Minneapolis Symphony in Minneapolis. There she performed an aria from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Minneapolis music critic Harlow Gale reviewed her performance, writing that, “the deep richness and remarkable compass of her young voice, its already very considerable volume…all portend the noblest singer’s career.”

John B. Erd, Senta’s father, died in St. Paul on April 15, 1914. He was visiting his sister and brother-in-law. (John’s sister Anna was married to Marie’s brother, Emil Geist.) After her father’s death, Senta and her mother sold the house on 19th Avenue East and moved into the Granville Apartments, 432 E. Second St.

On Sunday afternoon, January 10, 1915, Senta sang at the first performance of the new Duluth Concert Orchestra in the Central High School auditorium. Under the baton of her former violin teacher, Fred G. Bradbury, she performed the aria “Dich teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhauser to a nearly full house. According to the review in the Duluth News Tribune, “Duluth looks with confidence to Miss Erd as the coming Wagnerian prima donna of this generation of singers.” Senta had volunteered to sing in the concert, and it was the third and last time she would perform as a singer in Duluth.

In March of 1915, Senta traveled to Tryon, North Carolina, to stay with Duluth’s J. L. Washburn family at their winter home. (Tryon was a popular place for prominent Duluthians to spend the winter; Margaret Culkin Banning would later own a seasonal home in Tryon—Friendly Hills—which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.)

That spring Senta received a job offer from the Chicago Grand Opera Company, but it was to sing minor roles in their operas, not the major roles that she wanted to sing. So in the fall of 1915 Senta and her mother returned to Munich, where Senta would spend the winter studying with Bianca Bianchi Pollini, preparing 20 operatic roles for performance. In the spring she planned to audition for an appointment with one of the municipal opera companies in Europe. Presumably, World War I interrupted her plans, but she stayed in Europe through the war. In 1918 she was hired by the Stadttheater (or municipal theater) of Basel, Switzerland. Her debut role was as Leonore in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. Senta would stay on as the prima donna in Basel for three seasons.

During the 1920 summer break in Basel’s opera season, Senta and her mother returned to Duluth for a visit. While in the Zenith City they stayed with the Hibbing family. In an interview, Senta told the Duluth Herald that in Basel she was presented as “their American prima donna” and that the title made her proud. Much of that summer they spent in St. Paul with the Geist family, and they returned to Switzerland in August for the upcoming opera season. Senta was scheduled to sing the title roles in both Aida and Tosca during the 1920–21 season.

Senta left Basel in 1921 for Stuttgart, Germany, for a job with the Wurttemberg State Theater. She would perform there from 1921 to 1923. It was in Stuttgart that she met Casper Haehnle Jr., a wealthy ice manufacturer from Detroit, Michigan, who was vacationing in Europe in 1922 when he saw Senta sing. According to the couple, they at once fell in love and were soon engaged. But Senta had contractual obligations to finish the season in Stuttgart, and Haehnle had to return to the U.S. After the season was completed, Senta sailed to America, arriving in New York City on June 9, 1923. Her ship was met by Haehnle and they went directly to the city clerk’s office and were married.

The next day the couple caught a train to Detroit where they planned to live, although Senta told the New York Times that she would continue her operatic career. The marriage would last for seven years. In their 1930 divorce settlement, Senta accused Haehnle of extreme cruelty, saying at first he praised her singing but after their marriage he ridiculed her voice and refused to let her return to Europe to resume her career. Senta had gone to stay with her mother in Los Angeles, where she had moved. While in California, Senta performed with other opera singers at the Hotel del Coronado in Coronado Beach. The show was billed as performances by “former grand opera stars,” and, in addition to Senta, included baritone Mario Fiorella and tenor Angelo Bruno.

In 1931, Senta returned to Basel where she again sang at the Stadttheater. Her well-known roles included Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme, Michaela in Bizet’s Carmen, and Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute). Her favorite role, and one she was loved for in Basel, was as the witch in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel.

In Basel, Senta met the man who would become her second husband. Dr. Henry Ludeke was an American who was teaching English literature at the University of Basel. They were married around 1933 and Senta partially retired from opera, although she continued to take part in the productions and sang as a guest artist once a year.

Senta once again visited Duluth in December 1935. This time she stayed at the Spalding Hotel and while in town visited a number of friends, including Margaret Culkin Banning and Mr. and Mrs. Victor H. Anneke; at the time Mr. Anneke was president of the Fitger Brewing Co.

Senta continued to sing occasionally in Basel until the 1953–’54 season. Her final role was as Palmatica in the operetta Der Bettelstudent by Carl Millocker. But for years she had a reserved seat in the Basel Stadttheater and reportedly attended every opening-night performance.

Prof. Henry Ludeke died on May 29, 1962. After a two-year illness, Senta Erd died in Basel on October 1, 1966. She was buried in the Hornli Cemetery in Basel. Her funeral was attended by her many friends and colleagues and was filled with the music of Bach and Mozart. Speakers talked about how beloved she was in Basel’s opera community. In his funeral tribute to her, Dr. Friedrich Schramm, director of the Basel Stadttheater, said, “Senta Erd was far more than just an opera singer; she was a personality in the best meaning of the word.”

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.