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Mary Garden

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Biography

Despite Mary Garden's Scottish birth and return to roots in 1939, Paris and Chicago were the centers of her career as a diva with a difference. In Ronald L. Davis' words, she was "gracious and charming, but above all things, brainy," as much an actress as a singer, "the Sarah Bernhardt of the operatic stage." Her range was formidable. She informed one interviewer that "I have 34 roles in three languages which I have learned completely. Sixteen were written for me." Those 16 did not include Debussy's Mélisande, but the composer chose and coached her for the first (and at that time only) performance of Pelléas on April 20, 1902, at Paris' Opéra-Comique. Debussy wrote in her score,"You alone will remain the woman and artist I had hardly dared hope for." He also coached and cherished Maggie Teyte later on, but Garden was the original. She introduced Mélisande to New York in 1908 (at Oscar Hammerstein's Met-competitor, the Manhattan Opera House), and to Chicago at a matinee on November 3, 1910, two days after their new Grand Opera Company debuted in Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium Theater. Garden, noted for her "stillness" as Mélisande, continued to sing the role until 1931, her last year in Chicago, where she reigned for 21 seasons, one of them as "directa" (her coinage) of the notoriously costly season of 1921-1922: a $1.1 million deficit. In 1934, Garden sang her final opera, Alfano's Resurrection, fittingly, at the Opéra-Comique. She had debuted there as Charpentier's Louise on April 13, 1900, two months after the premiere, replacing Marthe Rotion, who fell ill after the second act. This, too, became a Garden specialty for the next 30 years. Instantly famous, she created Pierné's La fille de Tabarin even before Mélisande. In 1905 Massenet wrote Cendrillon for her; Erlanger added Aphrodite in 1906. She also performed Gounod's Marguerite and Juliet, Verdi's La traviata, Puccini's Tosca, Montemezzi's Fiora, and Honegger's Judith (in 1927). It was Strauss' Salome, however, that made her a sensation stateside when she sang it on January 27, 1909, for Hammerstein, in Oscar Wilde's original French. She spent two years learning the role, tried it out in Paris, but didn't become notorious until New York, then Chicago, in November 1910 (where her audience was so scandalized that a third performance was canceled, but played without incident on tour in Milwaukee). She revived Salome in 1921, during her "directa" season, but again a third Chicago performance was canceled, although Milwaukee and 12 other cities welcomed it without incident. By then 47, Garden retired the role, although it remained one she "enjoyed the most" along with Mélisande, Louise, Carmen, Février's Monna Vanna, and two by Massenet -- Thaïs and Le Jongleur de Notre Dame. Massenet was in fact the composer she performed most, also singing Manon, Cléopâtre, Werther's Charlotte, Don Quichotte's Dulcinée, La Navarraise, and finally Sappho. Jongleur was her final Chicago performance, although she returned in 1935 to give master classes, and a lecture tour in 1947. Before retiring to Scotland, she worked in Hollywood as a "technical advisor" on operatic sequences. Garden was brought to the U.S. as a child -- Bridgeport, CT, first, then Chicago where she studied singing until, in 1896, a patron sponsored two years in Paris. When Garden ran out of money, Sybil Sanderson (Massenet's original Thaïs) befriended her. But from 1900 on, Mary Garden became the Maria Callas of her era: none less than James Gibbons Huneker (1860-1921) devoted four chapters of Bedouins to her in 1920, despite his detestation of Debussy's Pelléas!

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