Garden, Mary (1874–1967)

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Garden, Mary (1874–1967)

Scottish-born American soprano. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on February 20, 1874; died in Aberdeen, on January 3, 1967; the second of four daughters of Robert Davidson (an engineer) and Mary (Joss) Garden; attended private school in Aberdeen; never married; no children.

Mary Garden was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on February 20, 1874, the daughter of Robert Davidson and Mary Joss Garden. At the age of five, she made her first public appearance, singing for her grandmother's friends who had come to tea. Perched on top of a table, she sang, "Three Little Redcaps Growing in the Corn," all the while twirling her fingers around her head. From that time on, music was the center of her life, although as a child she never had the remotest thought of becoming an opera singer, nor could she have known she was destined to be a star. Brought to America while still quite young,

she lived in Brooklyn, New York, and Chicopee, Massachusetts, before her family finally settled in Chicago. She studied the violin and piano, and at 16 began voice lessons with Sarah Robinson Duff , who encouraged her to study in Paris and even secured a wealthy Chicago patron to pay her way. In Paris, Garden rejected a number of teachers before deciding on Antonio Trabadello and Lucien Fugère, who kept her on as a student even after her sponsor stopped sending money. Quickly running out of funds for living expenses, Garden was dramatically rescued by Sybil Sanderson , an American opera star living in Paris. Upon hearing of her plight, Sanderson decided to take Garden into her own home and to sponsor her.

Through Sanderson, Garden met the manager of the Opéra-Comique, Albert Carré, who was next in line to influence her budding career. Although Carré did not have an immediate opening in his company, he listened to Garden sing and then loaned her a copy of the new opera he was producing, Gustave Charpentier's Louise, urging her to study the score. On April 13, 1900, in another dramatic turn of events, Garden was called upon to step into the title role when the leading soprano took ill after the first two acts. She created a sensation and became a permanent member of the Opéra Comique, performing in La Traviata, La Fille Du Tambour-Major, and L'Ouragon. Carré later suggested Garden for the principal role in the world premiere of a new French opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, by Claude Debussy, which became her signature role. Later, one American critic called her portrayal of the elf-like character of Mélisande "vivid," but tempered his enthusiasm by also commenting that her vocal shortcomings were less evident in this role, which consisted largely of fragmentary, declamatory passages.

On November 25, 1907, Garden made her U.S. debut at Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House in the American premiere of Massenet's Thaïs, an opera that the critics hated, though audiences flocked to see her. Her performance in Louise six weeks later confirmed her success, and she remained a star of the Manhattan Opera House until it closed in 1910, singing numerous roles with varying degrees of success. One of her most important Manhattan appearances took place on January 28, 1909, when she appeared in Strauss' Salome, stunning audiences as much with her erotic performance of the Dance of the Seven Veils as with her singing.

Critics generally agreed that Garden's voice, even in its prime, was never great, although her magnetism and dramatic flair often made up for her lack of technical skill. Oscar Thompson, in his book The American Singer, called her work "disturbingly irregular" and cited the wide divergence between the best and the average of her performances of the same role. "[H]er Carmen as an instance. Her Mélisande, in its early year particularly, stood alone. In Thaïs she could be glamorously convincing or she could attitudinize the evening long. Her Louise was hectic and tame by turns.… Out of these contradictions arose an imperious something to dwarf them all. Mary Garden was Mary Garden." Ian Fellowes-Gordon believes that Garden's reputation as a singer suffered because she was such a superb actress. "Her misfortune," he wrote, "is to be remembered in some quarters as a singing actress, rather than a singer."

With the close of the Manhattan Opera House, Garden joined the Chicago Opera Company, where she appeared in numerous roles, including Fiora in Italo Montemezzi's The Love of Three Kings, and the title role in Monna Vanna, by Henri Février, two of her favorites. When artistic director Cleofonte Campanini died in 1919, she was appointed to succeed him. The first woman to become the director of a major opera company, she held the post for one tumultuous year (1921–22), after which she happily resumed her status as a member of the company. One of Garden's last performances with the Chicago Opera was in the American opera Camille, by Hamilton Forest, in 1930. She retired from the stage in 1931 at the height of her career, deciding to leave quite suddenly one evening after a performance in Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame. Later, she went back to Aberdeen to live, although she returned to America for lecture and recital tours and to serve as a judge for the National Arts Foundation.

Garden never married, although it was not for lack of opportunity. There were numerous proposals, even one from Albert Carré, who was so incensed at her refusal that he tore up her contract. (He later apologized and presented her another.) Although she fell in love a number of times (once, quite seriously), she made an early decision never to marry. In her autobiography, Mary Garden's Story, she wrote that the real "romance" of her life was opera. "There never was anything in the world to take the place of my work—nothing and nobody." Mary Garden lived almost 30 years after her retirement, and to the end of her life was an encouragement to younger singers. She died in a nursing home in Aberdeen, Scotland, on January 3, 1967, at age 93.


Fellowes-Gordon, Ian. Famous Scottish Lives. Watford, Herts., England: Odhams, 1967.

Garden, Mary, with Louis Biancolli. Mary Garden's Story. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1951.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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