Distant Voices : Mary Garden

Distant Voices : Mary Garden

“My art is one quite separate from that of other operatic singers, and the success I have won is not the success of vocal cords. It is by an art quite different and I want to be judged not alone by my singing or my acting or my stage appearance, but by these combined into one art.” 1
—Mary Garden

As the 19th century came to a close, the world’s operatic stages were dominated by names such as Nellie Melba, Luisa Tetrazzini, Marcella Sembrich, Selma Kurz, and Emma Eames. These sopranos, among others, were exemplars of the Bel Canto tradition of singing, with its emphasis on attaining the highest ideals of tone quality, legato, and agility. Melba, Kurz, and Eames all studied with the legendary Bel Canto proponent Mathilde Marchesi, while Sembrich studied with Giovanni Battista Lamperti, author of the Bel Canto bible, Vocal Wisdom.

Mary Garden was a fascinatingly different kind of singer. She knew it and she made the most of it throughout her 30-year career.

Born in 1874 in Aberdeen, Scotland, Garden moved with her family to the United States in 1883. First they lived in Brooklyn, New York, and, after a year back in Scotland, they settled in Chicago. There, in 1894, Garden met Mrs. Florence Mayer, who would become the young soprano’s benefactress. In 1896, Mayer sent Garden and her voice teacher, Mrs. Robinson-Duff, to Paris, where she would study for three years.

While in Paris, Garden met two dominant figures of the stage who would prove highly influential in shaping the young soprano’s professional sensibilities and attitudes—French actress Sarah Bernhardt and American soprano Sybil Sanderson. Bernhardt had portrayed in the theater some of the roles Garden would portray in the opera house, including Salome (written for Bernhardt by Oscar Wilde), Tosca, and Cléopâtre. From Bernhardt, Garden learned not only the power of characterization, gesture, and the voice as theatrical tools, but also of the power of the press, which she wielded with great skill.

Sanderson was a noted exponent of Thaïs (written for her by Massenet) and Manon, roles Garden would eventually assume. When they met in 1897, Sanderson was ill and her distinguished career was already in a state of decline. Garden stayed with Sanderson when Mrs. Mayer withdrew her financial support upon hearing wild rumors about the life Garden was leading in Paris. At Sanderson’s home, she gained invaluable insights about the life of an artist. Among the people Sanderson introduced to Garden was Albert Carré, longtime manager of the Opéra-Comique. Their meeting was pivotal in Garden’s career.

After agreeing to have Garden audition for him, Carré invited her to observe a rehearsal of a new opera that was in production at the Opéra-Comique—Louise. After the rehearsal, Garden purchased a score and immediately began learning it. Louise premiered on February 2, 1900, with Marthe Rioton in the title role. Rioton fell ill a week later, and Carré, knowing Garden was prepared to sing the role, engaged the eager soprano to begin rehearsals. On April 10, Carré called Garden to the theater when both Rioton and the official understudy became ill. Sitting in the house while Rioton courageously made her way through the first two acts, Garden was called backstage at the second intermission. She took the stage in Act III and, after an orchestral prelude, launched into “Depuis le jour.” She was an immediate success with the critics and the public alike, and Carré offered her a five-year contract. It was a remarkable beginning to a remarkable career, which would see her take the stage as Louise 175 times.

Although her repertoire included standard roles such as Violetta, Juliette, Marguerite, Tosca, and Carmen, Garden was more inclined to favor newer roles to which she could apply her exceptional gifts of musical and dramatic interpretation without being scrutinized under the weight of her predecessors. Debussy chose her as his first Mélisande, which she performed 106 times, and he dedicated his Ariettes oubliées to her. Garden undertook serious dance training in preparation to be Strauss’ Salome, a role in which she was a sensation and performed 61 times. She worked closely with Massenet and was a champion of his operas, performing not only Thaïs (144 performances) and Manon (72 performances), but also Jean in Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (67 performances), Charlotte (Werther), Dulcinée (Don Quichotte), Anita (La Navarraise), and the title roles of Cléopâtre, Grisélidis, Sapho, and Chérubin, the last of which was written for her. Garden also performed roles in works by lesser-known composers such as Pierné, Bunning, Leroux, Erlanger, Février, Montemezzi, and Forrest.

In 1907, Garden left Paris for New York to perform several of her signature roles at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House. Hammerstein built his opera house as a direct challenge to the Metropolitan Opera, which he felt was overrun with German and Italian repertoire. He saw French repertoire as the antidote and proceeded to purchase American rights to Louise, Thaïs, and Pelléas et Mélisande. Securing Mary Garden for his stage was key to the success of his plan.

When Garden arrived in New York, she met a public that was largely unfamiliar with her repertoire and that associated great singing with the more technical approach of a Melba or a Tetrazzini rather than with her interpretive approach. Critics were generally united in their praise of the soprano’s powers of characterization, but their assessment of her singing was mixed. Nevertheless, Garden and Hammerstein enjoyed many successes in New York until 1910, when Hammerstein (whose production costs were too expensive to sustain) made an agreement with the Met to close his theater and to not produce another opera in the United States for 10 years. By then, Garden was a household name in America.

After the closure of the Manhattan Opera House, Garden did not go to the Met (in fact, she never sang with the Met); instead, she returned to Chicago and made it her artistic home for 20 years. Garden was made impresario—“directa,” as she preferred—of the Chicago Opera Association for the 1921-22 season, during which she also sang many roles herself. The season was an artistic triumph and included the premiere of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges—but it was also a financial disaster, ending more than $1,000,000 in debt. The company was restructured as the Chicago Civic Opera Company, and Garden remained a star member of the company.

Garden made her last operatic performance as Katiusha in Alfano’s Risurrezione in 1934 at the Opéra-Comique, after which she worked as a talent scout for MGM and gave lecture recitals, mostly on Debussy and on her own career. She died in 1967 in a Scottish country hospital near Inverurie with approximately $3,500 in cash and possessions to her name. It is unknown exactly what happened to the fortune she must have amassed during her career, although some speculate her generosity in supporting young artists depleted her accounts.

That her career lasted more that 30 years should alone be a testament to the reliability of her vocal technique, but the enigma of Mary Garden was that the sheer intensity of her personality and of her dramatic portrayals overwhelms most memory of her voice and of her singing. Indeed, she was the supreme singing-actress of her day, and her art went beyond the voice alone, but her recordings lead one to realize that she really sang better than was usually acknowledged. Perhaps her native instrument was not as sumptuous as those of some of her contemporaries, but it was very good, and the skill with which she used it illustrates what a great artist she was.

Garden left a modest number of records (41) from throughout her career and she herself hated them. She recorded six Scottish songs for Pathé in 1903. Three of the Ariettes oubliées (nos. 2, 3, and 5) and an excerpt from Pelléas et Mélisande with Debussy at the piano were recorded for Black G&T in 1904. Despite the historical authenticity of these records, Garden’s voice lacks the presence of her later recordings, perhaps due to the accepted notion that Debussy preferred a drier tone. She recorded three tracks for Edison in 1905 and numerous arias and songs for Columbia in 1911-12. The Columbia sessions include “Sempre libera” from La traviata (in French), “Depuis le jour,” “Il est doux, il est bon” from Hérodiade, and “L’amour est une vertu rare” from Thaïs. Between 1926 and 1929, Garden made 16 records for Victor Red Seal; they consist of Scottish songs, “Beau soir” and “Claire de lune” of Debussy, the Card Song from Carmen, “Depuis le jour,” and “Dieu de grâce” from Risurrezione.

Garden’s recording of “Sempre libera” belies its date of 1911, showing a voice of remarkable beauty and an affecting interpretation that is solely character driven. It is not a mere showpiece in Garden’s hands—there is no high E-flat—yet she dispatches the coloratura passages with clarity and apparent ease. She never performed Violetta in the United States because she felt American audiences would not be receptive to her approach. Also from the 1911-12 Columbia sessions was the first of her two recordings of “Depuis le jour,” displaying a touching simplicity and directness.

Garden’s second recording of “Depuis le jour,” from 1926, shows that the voice has lost some of its bloom and security in the top notes, some of the intonation is suspect, and the rhythm may be more free than is desirable, lending support to the argument that she became a “mannerist” or a “colorist.” Regardless, one must note that there is not a thread of a wobble in the tone. “Dieu de grâce” from Risurrezione reaffirms that Garden’s art was very special.

Compared with other singers of such notoriety, Garden’s recordings are more difficult to find. Opera in Chicago: Volume One (Symposium 1136) contains “L’ombre des arbres” from 1911 with Debussy at the piano, as well as various arias from both the Columbia and Victor sessions. Romophone has released the complete Victor sessions (8100802). All of the Columbia sessions and most of the Victors are on Mary Garden: A Selection of Her Finest Recordings (Pearl GEMM CD 9067).

Much has been published about Mary Garden’s life and career, including Mary Garden’s Story (Simon and Schuster, 1951), which was written with Louis Biancolli and is full of exaggerations and inaccuracies. Significant chapters about the soprano are included in The American Opera Singer by Peter G. Davis (Doubleday, 1997) and in Gillian Opstad’s Debussy’s Mélisande: The Lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte (Boydell Press, 2009). The most complete biography to date is Michael T.R.B. Turnbull’s Mary Garden (Amadeus Press, 1997), a thoroughly researched and entertaining read, full of absorbing detail.

The appendix to Turnbull’s book contains some of Garden’s thoughts regarding stage technique and her interpretive approach in specific operatic excerpts:

The bigger the house, the bigger the gesture must be in order to assure success. . . . The more you stand still, the more the audience is taken in, the more articulation is demanded. . . . Make the things you handle on stage—chairs, mirrors, books, letters, etc.—live!2

On “Depuis le jour”:

Opening of soul to love. It is not a vocalise but full of the awakening of love. Julien is sitting in chair at centre. You come down and stand behind him, one hand on chair. Take his hands after ‘premier baiser!’ and ‘Quelle belle vie!’ My goodness, what a gorgeous life! 34


1 Mary Garden, New York Herald (December 1, 1907), quoted in Michael T.R.B. Turnbull’s Mary Garden (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1997), 58.

2 Mary Garden, The Mary Garden Course (1935), quoted in Michael T.R.B. Turnbull’s Mary Garden (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1997), 225.

3 Ibid., 217.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.