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Past Exhibition of the Month - January 2017

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Mary Garden as Le Jongleur in Massenet's Le Jongleur de Nôtre-Dame. Photograph by A. Dupont, New York.

Mary Garden as Le Jongleur in Massenet's Le Jongleur de Nôtre-Dame. Photograph by A. Dupont, New York.

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GARDEN, Mary (b. Aberdeen, 20 February 1874; d. Inverurie, Scotland, 3 January 1967)


Mary Garden, who died in her native Aberdeenshire fifty years ago this month, should be remembered as one of the most remarkable figures in the operatic history of the early twentieth century.  Recognised internationally as a great singing actress, she was also honoured by her conductors and peers as an outstanding musician and penetrating interpreter.  Debussy, Massenet, Strauss, Roussel, Honegger and Prokofiev were among the contemporary composers who wrote or conceived works specifically for Garden and paid eloquent tributes to her artistry.  A career which spanned more than 30 years at Paris's Opéra Comique - her last stage performance was at Katiusha in Alfano's Résurrection in May 1934 - was also hugely successful in America, where for four years at the Manhattan Opera House and then for twenty in Chicago she was an important ambassador for French and contemporary opera.  She became Director of the Chicago company for the 1921-22 season.

We show here an article on Mary Garden from Gustav Kobbé's book Opera Singers; a pictorial souvenir, with biographies, of some of the most famous singers of the day. (Sixth edition, Boston, 1913.)

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Mary Garden as Mélisande.

Mary Garden as Thaïs (top) and Salome (bottom). Mary Garden as Louise in Charpentier's Louise (top).

Garden's American debut occurred in November 1907.  Oscar Hammerstein I (1846-1919) offered her a 4-year contract to head the company at the Manhattan Opera House, the theatre which he had opened the previous year.  After introducing to the USA three of the French operas with which she had been most closely associated - Thaïs, Louise and Pelléas et Mélisande, Garden was surprised to be offered the title role in Salome, particularly as Strauss's opera had been taken off after a single performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1907.  She agreed on two conditions, (i) that the work should be sung in French (the language of Oscar Wilde's original play) and (ii) that she should herself undertake the demanding Dance of the Seven Veils.  The first performance, on 28 January 1909, established her both as a successful singer of heavier roles and as an actress of extraordinary range.  She had studied the role with Strauss himself and until the oubreak of WWI she remained closely associated with it both in the US (though not without some fierce controversy) and at the Paris Opéra, where she gave the first performance in French in May 1910 (and was said by the critic Henri Gauthier-Villars to have achieved "the highest pinnacle of art" ever offered by the Paris theatre to the French public).

Programme for a performance of Richard Strauss's Salome at the Manhattan Opera House, 27 February 1909.