Garden, Mary

Scottish-American soprano, 1874 - 1967

Biographical notes:

She was born in Aberdeen/Scotland and moved to America at the age of 6. She took first singing lessons in Chicago and studied afterwards with Trabadelo and Lucien Fugère in Paris. Sibyl Sanderson introduced her to Albert Carré, director of the Opéra-Comique, where she made her debut in the title role of Charpentier’s Louise in 1900. She soon enjoyed wide popularity at this great opera house. In 1902 she was chosen by Debussy and Carré to create Mélisande in Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande (despite Maeterlinck’s protests). She appeared at Covent Garden in the season 1902/03. Her Manon persuaded Massenet to write Chérubin for her in 1905. Her Chrysis in Erlanger’s Aphrodite was the Paris opera sensation of 1906. Garden’s opera debut at Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House was in the American premiere of Thaïs in 1907. Her long association with the Chicago Grand Opera began in 1910 with Pelléas et Mélisande. She became the leading soprano for the next 20 years (she was the prima donna assoluta in the lyric repertoire). She was also occupied as its director and was responsible for the premiere of Prokoviev’s “The Love for three Oranges.” Her reign was nevertheless turbulent and a financial disaster. Essentially a lyric soprano, she was superb in coloratura roles such as Violetta, Juliette and Ophélie as well as Carmen and Salome. She appeared as Tosca, Charlotte, Sapho and Cléopâtre. She used to sing all her roles in French! 


As Mélisande (she created the role)

Debussy said that he had scarcely to tell or teach her anything; it came naturally and of its own accord.


As Chrysis in Erlanger’s “Aphrodite”


“Sir Thomas Beecham, Maria Callas and Geraldine Farrar rolled into one: lively, indomitable, glamorous, witty, imperious, publicity-minded, capricious and a great artist on top of all that...”

Harold Schonberg about Mary Garden, New York Times, 1967


In the title role of Massenet’s “Thaïs”


“A swan, did I say? A condor, an eagle, a peacock, a nightingale, a panther, a society dame, a gallery of moving-pictures, a siren, an indomitable fighter, a human woman with a heart as big as a house, a lover of sport, an electric personality, and a canny Scottish lassie who can force from an operatic manager wails of anguish because of her close bargaining over a contract; in a word, a Superwoman.”

James Huneker


As Marguerite in “Faust”


Again as Marguerite


“I believed in myself, and I never permitted anything or anybody to destroy that belief... I wanted liberty and I went my own way... I never really loved anybody. I had a fondness for men, yes, but very little passion and no need.”

Mary Garden


As Salomé in Massenet’s “Hérodiade”


Mary Garden was convinced that her artistry, the combination of singing, playing and effectivness on the stage, was unique... Whether Mary Garden even had a notable voice has been a subject of debate since her American debut. Some people claimed her instrument was a mirage, others said that she was at best a sort of inspired “diseuse.”

Nowadays we have to “judge” by her recordings (Mary Garden herself was not at all pleased with her records).

Her records were made between 1903 and 1929 and reflect a mixture of Scottish folk song, a little traditional operatic fare and the French material with which she was so closely associated. In my opinion, there is much to admire here!


As Carmen (!)

My favorite recordings:

- Il est doux, il est bon (Salomé in Hérodiade / Massenet / Columbia 1911)

- L’amour est une vertue rare (Title role in Thaïs / Massenet / Columbia 1911)

- Depuis le jour (Title role in Louise / Charpentier / Columbia 1912)

On Romophone you can hear her in late recordings (she was by the time 53 years old). The voice had turned to a mezzo and the former sheen may not be the same as before, but what an artist she was!

 Depuis le jour (Title role in Louise / Charpentier / Victor 1926)

- Dieu de grâce (La Résurrection / Alfano / Victor 1926)



In the title role of Février’s “Gismonda”



Recital (Arias and songs by Massenet, Verdi, Charpentier, Alfano, several Scottish songs)


Complete Victor Recordings 1926 - 1929 (Arias by Charpentier, Alfano, several songs)


Great British Singers


Legends of Opera Live Performance


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




Reigning queen at the Chicago Opera