Mary Garden’s parents, both of whom were Scottish, emigrated to America when Mary was nine years old, eventually settling in Chicago when she was fourteen. Showing promise as a singer, she studied with Sarah Robinson-Duff in Chicago with the financial support of patrons David and Florence Mayer. With their continuing help, in 1896 she moved to Paris where she studied with Mathilde Marchesi, Jacques Bouhy, Trabadello and Lucien Fugère. After the Mayers withdrew their assistance in 1899, Garden was coached by the American soprano Sybil Sanderson, through whom she met Massenet and Albert Carré, the director of the Opéra-Comique. Carré invited her to join the company of the Opéra-Comique, where she made her unexpected stage debut in 1900 as Charpentier’s Louise, taking over when the scheduled soprano Marthe Rioton fell ill after the first act.
Now Garden soon became one of the company’s leading sopranos. During 1901 she was the star of two world premieres: Lucien Lambert’s La Marseillaise and Gabriel Pierné’s La fille de Tabarin, in which she sang Diane. In the same year, with continued coaching from Sanderson she sang Massenet’s Thaïs at Aix-les-Bains; and at Monte Carlo, Massenet’s Manon and Madame Chrysanthème by Messager (with whom she had a tempestuous emotional relationship). Debussy selected her to sing Mélisande at the Opéra-Comique in his Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902 to great critical acclaim.
During 1902 and 1903 Garden sang at the Royal Opera House in London as Manon, Juliette / Roméo et Juliette and Marguerite / Faust. However she did not enjoy London and did not return. Later roles at the Opéra-Comique included the title parts in Massenet’s Grisélidis (1902), Xavier Leroux’s La reine Fiammette (1903, world premiere) and Saint-Saëns’s Hélène (1905); and Chrysis in Camille Erlanger’s Aphrodite (1906, world premiere) as well as Violetta / La traviata (1903). The title role of his opera Chérubin was composed by Massenet specifically for Garden, who created this at Monte Carlo in 1905.
Oscar Hammerstein persuaded her to leave Paris in 1907 to join his Manhattan Opera Company, with which she made her debut in November 1907 as Thaïs, followed by Jean in Massenet’s Le Jongleur de Notre Dame and Mélisande in the American premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande (both 1908). Garden returned to Paris to sing at the Paris Opera for the 1908–1909 season, appearing as Ophélie in Thomas’s Hamlet (1908) and in the title part of Henry Février’s Monna Vanna (1909), as well as in other roles. She returned to New York and Hammerstein in 1909 and created a sensation as Richard Strauss’s Salome.
By now a household name in America, Garden left Hammerstein’s company in 1910 to join the Chicago Grand Opera Company, with whom she sang until 1913 in roles that included Mélisande, Fanny / Sapho, Dulcinée / Don Quichotte and the Prince / Cendrillon (all by Massenet) and the title roles in Carmen and Tosca. She also sang in the world premiere of Victor Herbert’s Natoma in Philadelphia and in the American premiere of Monna Vanna in Boston, both during 1911. Between 1915 and 1921 she continued her association with Chicago, singing with the Chicago Opera Association in roles that included the title parts of Henry Février’s Ghismonda—its world premiere—and Massenet’s Cléopâtre (both 1919) and the role of Fiora in Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re (1920). Garden served as the company’s director for its final season, 1921–1922, and was responsible for the first performance by it of Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges.
From 1922 to 1931 Garden was director of the new Chicago Civic Opera; amongst the roles she performed with it were Charlotte / Werther (1924), Katyusha in Alfano’s Risurrezione (1925, in French) and the title role in Honegger’s Judith (1927), the last two both United States premieres. Having returned to the Opéra-Comique in 1930, Garden’s last role with the Chicago Civic Opera, before the company became bankrupt, was Carmen in 1931. She retired from the operatic stage in 1934, her final appearance being Katyusha at the Opéra-Comique.
Garden had appeared, albeit without success, in two silent films produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Thaïs (1917) and The Splendid Sinner (1918); and now she became a talent scout for MGM while also giving lectures and recitals. She was a great supporter of young artists, through master-classses and on occasion with direct financial support; but died virtually destitute and in poor health.
A woman of great personal beauty, Garden clearly dominated the world of opera both on stage and off. She made a limited number of recordings between 1903 and 1929: in London and Paris for Pathé, the Gramophone Company and Edison; and in America for Columbia and Victor. In her 1904 recordings she was accompanied by Debussy; those made between 1911 and 1914, for Columbia, are held to be amongst her best, while her later recordings for Victor show supreme artistry and little evidence of vocal decline.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).