MARY GARDEN OPERA SINGER
(A discussion by Press & Journal (Aberdeen. Scotland) Forum Members)
PAGE ONE of Nine Pages
Aberdeen has produced its share of famous sons and daughters, but surely one of the most extraordinary was the opera singer Mary Garden. From ordinary beginnings
in Aberdeen she went on to be the most famous, glamourous and controversial opera star of her day, yet she is almost forgotten in her native city of which she was so
proud. In some ways this isn’t surprising, since she made her career almost entirely in France and America.
The lovely picture on the left is of Garden as Mona Vanna. On the right, in a photo dedicated to her friend the Aberdeen singing teacher Jimmy Reid, we see her in
later life as Aberdonians remember her. Once seen - never forgotten!
Mary Garden was born in 1874 at 35 Charlotte Street. With the birth of her younger sisters Amy and Agnes the family moved to 41 Dee Street. This house still
stands, and Garden’s time there iscommemorated by a plaque on the building.
In her biography she writes “I was still a tiny child when I was taken to the Music Hall in Aberdeen to hear a singer named Marie Roze. The hall still stands there, and even
today I never go into it without feeling the thrill of that first contact with a stage personality. Mme. Roze was a very handsome and majestic woman, and I shall never forget
the way she sang ‘Ocean, thou mighty monster’. It was as if a new world had suddenly been unlocked for me.”
Marie Roze was at one time the most popular singer in Paris, and is said to have been Bizet’s original choice to create the role of Carmen, so perhaps it was there in our
Music Hall, that Mary was first inspired to become a singer.
Throughout her career she would remain proud of her Aberdonian origins and would often return to the city. She finally returned in 1940 when it became clear that it was
no longer safe to remain in her Paris flat and made her home at her mother’s house at 18 Albert Street. Following the death of her mother in 1948, she rented a flat at 28
Belgrave Terrace”. In the early 1950s she was invited back to the US for the first of a series of triumphant lecture tours, greeted everywhere by reporters and legions of
fans. When she came home to Aberdeen, only her sister Amy would be at the station to meet her.
In her eighties Mary Garden did make a public appearance in the Music Hall at a meeting of the Aberdeen Burns Club. She proved so popular, and so many people
wished to meet her that the function had to be repeated in the ballroom. As always, she Made An Entrance, sweeping on to the stage in tremendous style, a pale green
wrap draped dramatically around her shoulders, jewellery glittering and her trademark pearls glowing at her throat. Instantly she held the audience in the palm of her hand,
and there she kept them for the duration of her speech on… what else but the career of Mary Garden!
It's sad that she is not better remembered - the little garden in Craigie Loanings is nice, but it's nae very exciting:
I thought it would be worth finding out if anyone has memories of this wonderful lady that they would share, like Gunner who wrote in 2005:
"Your mention of Mary Garden on your list of famous Aberdonians Marty,brought back the memory of her coming to the BonAccord Ice Company with her chauffeur,
regularly, to pick up a block of ice. I believe the price of the ice was about 2/6 , and she used to hand out about a pound in tips to the one who sold her the ticket, me,
as office boy, the guys on the loading dock, and the guy who wrapped it and put it in her car. She was a generous lady."
The other night I came across something in a book that I think says a great deal about why we should celebrate Mary Garden. If she had done nothing else, she would
have been remembered as Debussy's choice to create the role of Melisande, his "distant princess". He wrote in her copy of the score, "You alone will remain the
woman and the artist I hardly dared hope for."
This is what I read:
"The legend gathered sparkle along the way – the tantrums, the cheerful contradictions, the aphorisms, the lofty advice to young aspirants. But it is as the great artist that
Mary Garden most commends herself to memory. In Boston, her Mélisande remains imperishable. Even for those who never witnessed her impersonation, the name of
Garden is linked forever with Debussy’s heroine, her white figure a tranquil, gentle wisp caught upon the strange, bleak winds of fate, whirled in and out of the shadows;
she brought to Boston and its critics a vision unique upon the opera stage and in the finer theatre of the imagination and vision each may see for himself."
Quaintance Easton (“The Boston Opera Company” Appleton Century 1965)
Hi Jim, Well I for one think that these were two excellent posts you just made. I know a little about Mary Garden and could never understand why she was never held
in a higher regard. Anyway, I thought I should try to renew my interest in her life and managed to get a copy of her biography by Michael Turnbull. I haven't read it in
earnest yet but it is packed with great photographs of herincluding one of her in Aberdeen in her later years. Have you read this one by any chance?
Well done Jim, excellent posting.
I am embarrassed to say I have never heard of her but I will find out more now, thanks.
I'm so glad you like the postings. I'm new to this, so your comments are much appreciated. Yes, Mary Garden was quite a lady. Haytoner, Michael Turnbull's book
is an excellent and very clear-eyed view of her career. For such a committed self-publicist, Garden was very good at keeping her private life hidden, so he has done
wonders in unearthing material. Nonetheless, no one really knows if she had lots of lovers or none!
Her own partially ghosted autobiography is, to put it mildly, unreliable, but it does give a very good idea of her powerful personality and belief in herself.
Here are a couple of quotes that speak volumes:
In "Aphrodite" (Camille Erlanger)
"A long, slow lift of that white arm and she has portrayed an ecstasy."
As Massenet's Sapho:
"Miss Garden sang a little, declaimed a great deal, snorted and ‘Ha-ha’d’ quite as usual and never for a moment let anyone forget that she was present."
"She came close to making the hit of her Chicago career with it."
Hope you enjoy them. Thanks again for contributing.
Hi Jim, I have to admit that until now I had never heard of Mary Garden. However I am interested in finding out a lot more about her. Did she ever make a recording?
Yes, Mannie, she did. She was more aware than anyone that she needed to be seen as well as heard, but she had a well-trained, lovely and powerful voice. Her vocal
technique must have been quite something since her voice lasted some 35 years of constant use.
She didn't make a lot of recordings, but Pearl GEMM CD 9067 features performances between 1911 and 1929, and I believe it's the only CD currently available.
Pearl's policy is not to enhance the sound in any way, simply to use the best 78 rpm copies they can find. This means that there's some surface noise, which can take a
bit of getting used to. The recordings range from opera to Scottish and French song and give a good idea of how she sounded.
The now defunct Romophone label's CD 81008-2 is in much better sound but only features her Victor recordings made between 1926-29, so there are a number
of duplications from alternativetakes. It does show that, even in her fifties, she still produced lovely tone and this is very evident in her recording of "Annie Laurie".
I have just checked, and the Romophone is available on Amazon. The Pearl CD is there but shows "Limited availabilty".
I'm abolutely delighted that this thread has been looked at so many times, but there are fewer memories of Mary Garden than I expected. So... here are a couple that
were relayed to me.
Mary Garden's trademark was the many strings of pearls she loved to wear. Ken Kite, who ran the West End Jewellers, told me that a lady who worked for
Hendersons as a bead stringer, positively dreaded visits from Miss Garden, because restringing pearls is an incredibly finnicky job, and she was EXTREMELY fussy.
You can bet she wouldn't have accepted anything other than individually knotted strands - which of course means that only one pearl is lost if the strand breaks - and
that is a real [censored] (forgive the expression) of a job. Still, the end result was pretty impressive:
A similar take came from a lady who, as a young girl, worked in Milne and Munro's shoe shop just up from Henderson's. Mary never came in early. It would always
be about 5 o'clock, which meant that whoever had the unenviable job of serving her would be lucky to get away by seven!
At the height of her popularity in the 1920s, America considered Mary Garden to be the epitome of chic and glamour, so it was something of a coup for Rigaud to
launch a perfume named "Gardenia" after her. You can often see items from Rigaud's Mary Garden collection on e-Bay.
Garden's impact was most strongly felt in Chicago, where she was the undisputed queen of the Oscar Hammerstein (father of the musicals composer) opera company
there. There was even a Mary Garden Ballroom where an almost unknown vocalist was learning his trade in the 1930s - Frankie Laine.
Hi Jim, I presume you have seen, or rather heard, the two recordings on youtube. They are "Depuis le jour" and "Annie Laurie" from the 1933 recordings. These
are just recorded straight from the original 78s. Also there is a recording of "At dawning" when she was 53. The quality of the first two are excellent, and there is
a lot of his on the third. Anyway, it brings the book I am reading to life a bit. I have to say that for MY taste I don't like the rendition of Annie Laurie because I
feel her voice is to refined for that sort of song. I know this is all basic information to you, but I am just discovering these things about her so be patient. Am I
correct in thinking that a great deal of her autobiography is rather unreliable?
Keep up these posts, they are very informative and the pictures are great.