Farrar, Geraldine

American soprano, 1882 - 1967

(by courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)

Biographical notes:

Born in Melrose, Massachusetts, she was the toast of Berlin by the time she was barely 20.  Then, as in later years, her looks and stage presence, a bit more than her voice, earned her a huge, devoted and almost fanatical public. She originally studied in Boston, then later in New York with Emma Thursby, Paris with Trabadello, and Berlin with Graziani, before turning to Lilli Lehmann for some finishing touches. It was in Berlin that she created a sensation of sorts after her 1901 debut as Marguerite in Faust, and she remained there until 1906 (interspersed with three seasons at Monte Carlo as well, where she created the title rôle in Mascagni’s Amica). During her years in Berlin, her conquests included (off-stage, at least) none other than the Crown Prince himself.


At the Berlin Hofoper: Marguerite (her debut in 1901) and Manon (courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)


By late 1906, her debut at the Metropolitan, as Juliette, placed her on a plateau with Caruso as a box-office magnet. She remained at the Met until 1922, and during her long career there sang Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly well over 100 times, was a perennial as Marguerite and Mimì in La Bohème , and sang in novelty works such as Julien, Königskinder (she always took curtain with a live goose under her arm), Zazà and Louise. Carmen and Tosca were specialties for her, as were Cherubino, Thaïs, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, Nedda and many other diversified roles. Backstage, there were dissenters regarding her vocal talents, including Puccini. In New York to supervise the first Met production of Madama Butterfly, he wrote: ”The woman was not what she ought to have been.” Of course, he was none too pleased with Pinkerton (Caruso), either. “Also, as regards your ‘god,’” he added in the same letter, “...I make you a present of him - he won’t learn anything, he’s lazy, and he’s too pleased with himself - all the same, his voice is magnificent.” For a time, Farrar enjoyed immense success as a silent screen star between opera seasons, and after her retirement from opera (at the age of 40), she continued to appear in recitals until 1931. In the 1930’s, she was, for a brief time, the on-air commentator for the Met’s radio broadcasts. She spent the rest of her very long and colorful life basking in well-deserved "living legend" status amidst musical circles.


As Carmen (by courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)


In the title role of Mascagni’s “Amica” (by courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)


And the "legends" were plentiful; well covered and sometimes confused by the press of Farrar’s era. No man, it seems, could resist her, from the baritone Antonio Scotti, rumored to be deeply in love with her, to Arturo Toscanini. When the conductor first came to the Met and began working with Farrar, their personalities clashed at once. Most humorous is the tale of her halting a rehearsal, instructing the maestro the he would have to follow her, since she was the “star.” There are variations on the conductor’s response. “The stars are all in the heavens, mademoiselle,” the earliest version goes. “You are but a plain artist, and you must obey my direction.” Farrar, furious, raged all the way to the Met’s board of directors, but before long it was an open “secret” that the two were having a romantic affair. It was rumored that Farrar delivered Toscanini an ultimatum, that he must choose either her or his family in Italy. He chose the latter.


As Mimì


As Elsa


The tales of histrionic excesses by her or because of her are legion, from the too well known story of her savagely biting poor Caruso during a performance of Carmen, to the lesser known tale of Scotti, expecting Farrar as his Tosca of the evening, becoming so upset by her cancellation that he flung Olive Fremstad to the stage with such force that he nearly broke her arm. Best known, and the most upsetting to Farrar in that it damaged her "image" and was a bona fide scandal, was her tumultuous marriage to Lou Tellegen, a popular silent screen actor of the era, whose sordid and bizarre suicide in the Hollywood of the 1920’s would have made for the libretto of an excellent opera. In 1938, Farrar published her autobiography, an exercise in the truly bizarre, in which she spent endless chapters writing of herself in the third person, praising "Geraldine’s" talents rather unabashedly.


As Thaïs


These are numerous, as she was one of Victor’s best-selling singers for quite some time. The finest are duets and ensemble pieces – numerous excerpts from Faust, Carmen and Madama Butterfly – in which she receives more than ample assistance from Caruso, Amato, Homer , Scotti, Journet, Martinelli, Clément and Schumann-Heink, some of the most illustrious singers of her era. She does, on occasion, startle the listener with her solo efforts, even if the top notes tend to be shrill, and the bottom ones, threadbare and forced. Especially thrilling are Cio-Cio-San’s entrance and "Mamma usciva di casa" from Zazà, and a number of fairly undemanding songs. Her recordings have sometimes been dismissed by certain "critics," but are well worth a listen, often lovely, and remarkable in their preservation of an unusual and truly memorable artist.



As Elisabetta in “Don Carlos”


But perhaps her greatest contribution to historical recordings was her persuading the elderly and reclusive Lionel Mapleson to part with the “inhouse” cylinder recordings he had made at the Met at the turn of the 20th century so that they might be preserved. Otherwise, after Mapleson’s death in 1937, they may have disappeared forever, as did hundreds his son later insisted had been moved to England during his lifetime, never to be seen or heard again.

 Ange adorable with Edmond Clément (Juliette in Roméo et Juliette  / Gounod / AGSB 1913)


As Salomé in Massenet’s “Hérodiade”


As Manon



Recital (Arias from Carmen, La Bohème and Butterfly)


20 Great Sopranos in Great Arias Vol. 2


The American Opera Singer - 36 Great American Singers


Von der Königlichen Hofoper zur Staatsoper “Unter den Linden”

Preiser - LV

Les Divas Américaines


Antonio Scotti: Recital


Enrico Caruso: The Caruso Edition


Enrico Caruso: The Complete Caruso


Ernestine Schuman-Heink: Stanford Archive Series Vol. 4


Giovanni Martinelli: The Acoustic Recordings 1913 - 1923


Mike Richter’s Opera Page: The Record of Singing Vol. 1





(by courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)


My warmest thanks to George Parous and Charles B. Mintzer