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Sheridan, Margaret (1889–1958)

Sheridan, Margaret (1889–1958)

Irish soprano who had leading roles at La Scala and Covent Garden and was particularly acclaimed for her singing of Puccini's operatic heroines. Name variations: Margaret Burke Sheridan; Margaret Burke-Sheridan. Born Margaret Burke Sheridan on October 15, 1889, in Castlebar, County Mayo, Ireland; died in Dublin on April 16, 1958; daughter of John Burke Sheridan (a postmaster) and Mary Ellen (Cooley) Burke Sheridan; educated at Convent of Mercy, Castlebar; Dominican Convent, Eccles Street, Dublin; and Royal Academy of Music, London, 1909–11; studied in Rome with Alfredo Martino, 1916–18; never married; no children.

Early in 1918, a young Irish singer, quite unknown in Italy, made her first appearance on the operatic stage, at Rome's Constanzi Opera House. The route by which she had arrived there was as romantic as the plots of the operas in which she was to sing. While practicing at the window of her room in the Quirinale Hotel, just across the street from the Opera House, Margaret Sheridan had been overheard by its director, Emma Carelli . When the soprano playing Mimi in a forthcoming production of La Bohème suddenly fell ill, Carelli remembered that voice, and sent a message to summon its owner. Inexperienced as she was, Sheridan was able to convince the director of her ability to sing the role and, with only four days to spare, the two worked together frantically to prepare for the first performance. On February 3, Margherita Sheridan, as she was billed, made her debut in what was to be her most celebrated role, before an audience which included the king of Italy and Margaret's patron and friend, inventor Giuglielmo Marconi. Described by both critics and public as "una Mimi deliziosa," Sheridan won admiration for both her voice and her acting: she was, according to Il Messaggero, "a young artist blessed with a wonderful voice who gave an unforgettable performance." Another critic particularly praised her performance in the final act, "which she rendered with emotive sweetness of voice."

Margaret Sheridan's triumph on that evening marked the opening of a short but glittering career which brought her from the obscurity of a small town in the west of Ireland to the leading opera houses of the world. Born Margaret Burke Sheridan in Castlebar, County Mayo, 29 years before, she was the youngest child of John Burke Sheridan, the local postmaster, and Mary Ellen Burke Sheridan . The family was a long-established and prominent one in the area, and Margaret's early life was both emotionally and financially secure. A lively, warmhearted and attractive child, she was her father's favorite, and friends noted her "lovely, fair and fresh coloring" and the "regal pose to her head."

At the age of four, Margaret was sent to the local Convent of Mercy school, where music was an important part of the curriculum. There, she began to learn singing and basic musical theory, and her promise as a singer quickly became apparent. When she was just five, however, her previously stable life was disrupted by the death of her mother. The tragedy left a void at home which was filled with family quarrels, intensified by her father's increased dependence on alcohol and later his poor health. In 1901, he died following a short illness, leaving his youngest daughter and son in the care of his friend, the local parish priest, Reverend Patrick Lyons. The family home was sold, and, with virtually all her links with the past destroyed, Sheridan left Castlebar for the Dominican Convent at Eccles Street in Dublin, where she was to spend the next seven years of her life.

Margaret was fortunate in that Eccles Street, one of the leading girls' schools in Ireland at that time, had a high reputation for musical education. Mother Clement Burke , who taught music and singing, quickly discovered her new student's outstanding talent, and became a major influence on Margaret's life and career. Another source of encouragement was Dr. Vincent O'Brien, conductor of the Eccles Street choir, who in 1908 arranged for her first solo public appearance at Dublin's Rotunda Rooms, on a bill which starred O'Brien's most famous pupil, John McCormack. In the same year, she won the gold medal in the mezzo-soprano section at the annual Feis Ceoil competition, and her success opened up a new range of opportunities in the Dublin musical world. The critics were united in their approval, praising her "divinely sweet" voice, her power, phrasing and enunciation, but it was clear that she deserved further training. In May 1909, she left for London, where she was to study at the Royal Academy of Music under William Shakespeare.

Sheridan's talent quickly won recognition at the Academy, and one of her fellow students later recalled "the amazing colour and beauty of tone she possessed." In order to supplement the bursary which financed her studies, she performed at private drawing-room concerts, while also taking further classes from the famous singing teacher Olga Lynn and embarking on her first serious love affair, with an Irish MP, Richard Hazelton.

Increasingly, Margaret saw opera rather than the concert stage as her favorite medium, but was unsuccessful in obtaining a contract to sing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The outbreak of war in 1914 dealt a further, and apparently decisive, blow to her operatic ambitions. While singing at a reception given by Lady Howard de Walden , however, her voice attracted the admiration of the Italian-Irish inventor Giuglielmo Marconi, who persuaded her to accompany him to Italy for further study. The choice, as she told a schoolfriend, was "between love and ambition and … her advisers had prevailed upon her to leave love and follow ambition." In 1916, therefore, leaving Hazelton behind, she sailed with Marconi for Italy.

In Rome, Sheridan was fortunate in meeting the composer Francesco Tosti, who introduced her to the noted operatic coach Alfredo Martino. Martino's judgment was that her voice "had strong potential, but mainly because of faulty training, she had developed several bad habits, one of which was straining in the upper register." He agreed to take her on as a pupil, and with his help, Margaret worked to develop and correct her vocal technique, to raise her voice from mezzo to full soprano, and to master the operas in which she hoped to sing, and which she heard at the city's Constanzi Opera House. In early 1918, she had the chance to appear there when Carelli suddenly appointed her to sing Mimi in Puccini's La Bohème. Although Martino disapproved, believing that she was not yet ready for operatic roles, Sheridan went on to make her triumphant debut on February 3, 1918. Initially engaged for just one night, she sang Mimi in six further performances during that season, while continuing her studies with Martino.

In the following year, 1919, Sheridan fulfilled her long-standing ambition to sing at Covent Garden, appearing there in La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and in the Covent Garden premiere of Mascagni's Iris. She was extremely nervous about her first London performance, in which she was to follow Nellie Melba , and at which most of her Irish and English supporters were to be present, but the occasion, on May 27, was another resounding success. On July 8, Margaret appeared in the demanding title role of Iris, and once again, critics and audience were unanimous in their praise.

Sheridan's London season was to be important for more than professional reasons, since it brought her into contact for the first time with Colonel Eustace Blois, an administrator at Covent Garden. Handsome, humorous and cultivated, Blois shared with Margaret not only a love of music but also memories of Ireland, where he had spent many summers during his boyhood. The two developed a friendship which over the next few years grew into a love affair, despite the fact that Blois was married and that everything in Sheridan's devoutly Catholic convent upbringing was opposed to such a relationship. Other strains included their frequent separations because of work, and the discretion which they had to exercise at all times. Nevertheless, the relationship was to be the most important of Sheridan's life, and was to last for more than a decade.

Margaret's achievements in London enhanced her reputation in Italy. Returning there at the end of the season, she settled in Milan, declaring, to those who were skeptical, that a foreigner could sing Italian opera, and that as an Irishwoman she had the passion, the strength and the sensitivity required. When she appeared in December 1919 at the Dal Verme opera house in Madama Butterfly, the newspaper Corriere della Sera noted her nationality, but admitted that "either by luck or instinct she sings as an Italian … only the colour of her lower notes revealed her different origin." Among those who came to see her were the conductor Arturo Toscanini and Puccini himself, who praised what he regarded as her totally new interpretation of the role he had written, and the "dramatic intensity and childlike appeal" which she brought to it.

Margaret was to become one of the supreme exponents of Puccini's work, as the composer himself recognized. "He spoke of her," according to the conductor Bellezza, "as a great hope for the future, both for the opera world in general and for his own works in particular," and regarded her as the definitive Butterfly. He also chose and personally coached her for the part of Manon in a new performance of Manon Lescaut, first given in Rimini in 1923, and after his death in the following year, she took part in a number of commemorative events held throughout Italy.

As a singer and as an actress, Sheridan had managed to win over the notoriously critical Milanese audience. In 1922, following a successful season at the San Carlo theater in Naples, she was invited to join the company at Milan's premier opera house, La Scala, under its director, the autocratic Toscanini. Margaret described him as "the greatest dictator ever known in the world of opera," but admitted his huge influence within it, in promoting advances in technique and a much greater realism in performance, and in the demands which he made on his singers. "In future, he decided, Manon must look like Manon. He acted as a sort of Svengali. He compelled us to do things. He educated us. He made us read and study in detail the period of the opera we were rehearsing."

Margaret was to make her La Scala debut in the revival of Catalani's La Wally and, following a well-received short season in Naples, the production opened at La Scala on April 6, 1922. Physically, Sheridan's qualifications for the part of the beautiful young heroine were immediately apparent; her first aria proved that vocally, too, she was perfectly suited to the part, and worthy of the traditions of La Scala. As one member of the audience on that night later recalled, "Margherita sang throughout the piece with freshness, an air of effortless ease, a dramatic power, a charm that took the whole theater by storm. She had a terrific ovation."

In the following year, Sheridan returned to La Scala for the world premiere of Respighi's Belfagor. While the opera had mixed notices, her performance won plaudits from audience and critics. In the 1923–24 season, she received further praise for her performance in Primo Riccitelli's comic opera I compagnacci, and as Maddalena in Andrea Chenier. However, this would be her final appearance on the stage at La Scala. Her disappearance was due not to any decline in her vocal abilities, but rather to her worsening relations with Toscanini. Their disagreements were partly professional, with Toscanini regarding Sheridan as temperamental and self-willed and believing that her active social life interfered with her work. There were also profound political differences: Toscanini was a convinced and outspoken anti-fascist, while Margaret, if not positively a supporter of Mussolini, displayed no antipathy towards him, and certainly numbered many fascists among her friends and admirers. Toscanini was particularly irritated by an interview she gave to a fascist newspaper, in which, as a foreigner, she expressed her gratitude to the regime for allowing her the privilege of working in Italy.

By 1924, therefore, Sheridan's career at the center of Italian opera was at an end. However, she had little difficulty in finding work elsewhere. In late 1924, she sang Maddalena in Andrea Chenier at Bologna, moving on to further engagements in Genoa and Modena, and then to London, where Blois was by now managing director of Covent Garden. Engaged as one of the stars of the 1925 International Season, Margaret appeared in Madama Butterfly and in Andrea Chenier, with the tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. As in 1919, her performances attracted large audiences and won almost unanimous admiration, with the Daily Telegraph remarking on the psychological depth apparent in her singing of Butterfly, and on "her voice of loveliest most velvety character."

After a number of appearances in Italy, Sheridan returned to Covent Garden for the 1926 season, for which luminaries such as Melba, Feodor Chaliapin, Lauritz Melchior, and the conductor Bruno Walter had also been engaged. Once more, she had great success in Bohème, and as Lauretta in Gianni Schicci. With Blois' encouragement, she also signed her first recording contract, and in the following year made a number of records, of operatic arias and of Irish songs, for HMV. In 1929–30, she was one of the artists performing on the first complete recording of Butterfly, opposite the Australian tenor Lionelo Cecil. However, her recording career would be a troubled one, plagued by her restlessness and perfectionism, which led to repeated delays and cancellations. Indeed, between 1930 and 1944, she would make no recordings at all.

As was now her practice, Sheridan returned to Italy for the winter of 1926–27, but a planned return to La Scala, as Dolly in the world premiere of Wolf-Ferrari's Sly, had to be canceled because of ongoing nose and throat problems. These also prevented her appearance at Covent Garden in the 1927 season, but she was sufficiently recovered by the following year to sing Mimi and to appear, in the secondary but more sympathetic part of Liu, in Puccini's Turandot, with Eva Turner in the eponymous role. Sheridan continued to suffer from throat infections, and her first performance at Covent Garden in 1929 had to be canceled at short notice. A few weeks later, however, she scored "a notable triumph," according to The Daily Telegraph, in the title role of Manon Lescaut, in which she was partnered by the great tenor Pertile. As one critic recorded, "last night Margaret Sheridan and Signor Pertile gave their duets in superb style, each artist in splendid voice and blending their singing most effectively."

Although nobody yet knew it, Sheridan's operatic career was drawing inexorably to an end. Her performance as Mimi at Covent Garden in 1929 was her last appearance in this role. In February 1930, she performed for the last time in Italy, when, with Pertile, she sang Gianni Schicchi at a gala performance in Turin. Returning to London in May, she appeared, with Gigli, in Andrea Chenier, as well as in performances of Butterfly and Otello, and it was as Desdemona

that she made her last appearance on the operatic stage, at Covent Garden, on June 16, 1930.

The next few years were to be dogged by continued disappointments. Her health continued to be poor, necessitating a number of operations, and as offers of work diminished, so did her income. In addition, the strains on her relationship with Blois intensified. Knowing that marriage was impossible, since Blois had no intention of seeking a divorce from his wife, and dogged by religious scruples, Sheridan eventually ended the affair. She was deeply unhappy, and her sense of loss was compounded by Blois' death not long afterwards.

With her confidence at such a low ebb, the prospect of a comeback was daunting, and the three years of inactivity had weakened her voice. Because her early training had been curtailed, she lacked the technique to make good this decline, and therapy at voice clinics in Salzburg and in London failed to resolve her problems, which were as much psychological as physical. According to E. Herbert-Caesari, who treated her for a number of years, "a devastating emotional upheaval had obviously shattered all faith in herself and her will to return to public performance." In 1939, at age 50, "her voice," he noted, "was as sound as a bell…. The quality was truly exquisite and more than ever evident as a result of her technical studies. If only certain inhibitions could have been uprooted and mental readjustments crystallised there was nothing whatever to prevent her returning to her well-loved opera stage. The desire was now there, but not the full will."

Despite her long absences from Ireland, "Maggie from Mayo," as she liked to call herself, had always maintained her links with her home country. During the late 1930s, she spent a number of holidays there, and in 1940, with Europe at war and her own career showing no sign of revival, she made the decision to live permanently in Dublin. The move, however, was almost certainly a retrograde one in professional terms. In 1944, she did take part in a recording of Irish songs and arias for HMV, which showed that her voice, though demonstrating signs of strain, was still rich and as expressive as ever. Nevertheless, she steadfastly resisted all offers of public engagements. Her declared ambition to teach came to nothing, and she repeatedly refused invitations to return to Italy where more opportunities would certainly have been available. With no prospect of singing professionally again, she led an aimless and financially precarious existence, a flamboyant and instantly recognizable, if somewhat pathetic, figure in the insular and unsophisticated Dublin of those years.

In 1950, however, Sheridan visited the United States for the first time, in response to an invitation from the American National Arts Foundation to serve on a committee which was to search for promising singers. In New York, she met Emerson and Ruth Axe , millionaire art patrons who were to become her closest American friends. During the final years of her life, she returned frequently to New York on foundation business, and for a taste of the luxury and excitement which Dublin could not provide. In 1956–57, while on her final visit there, she complained of feeling unwell. Tests showed that she had cancer, and she insisted on returning to Dublin, where she died on April 16, 1958. Tributes came from her friends, such as President Sean O'Kelly and the leading Irish actor Michael MacLiammoir, and from the Italian ambassador and former colleagues, both at home and abroad. Gloria Davy and Ebe Stignani were among the artists who sang excerpts from Verdi's Requiem at her funeral mass, but most appropriate of all was the tribute paid at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre on the evening following her death, when the cast and audience, at the opening performance of Manon Lescaut, stood in silent remembrance of one of the greatest Manons of them all, "Margherita Sheridan, Prima Donna."

sources:

Chambers, Anne. Adorable Diva: Margaret Burke Sheridan, Irish Prima-Donna, 1889–1958. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1989.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. London: Macmillan Press, 1992.

Smith, Gus. Irish stars of the opera. Dublin: Madison, 1994.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland

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