Although both ladies sang with great success in major opera houses throughout Europe and the United States, it was in Chicago that they had the greatest impact. Mary Garden sang with the Chicago Opera for 21 seasons. Edith Mason became almost as identified with the Chicago Opera as Garden and sang there for 20 seasons.
Edith Marjory Barnes (1892 – 1973) was born in St. Louis, Missouri (Mason was her second husband’s name.) After her father’s death, Edith’s mother, who spoke nine languages, moved the family to Oskaloosa, Iowa where she became a professor at Iowa State University.
Edith had her first exposure to musical theater there and decided that “I’m going to be a singing and acting woman.” Her mother disagreed and sent her to a private school but finally allowed Edith to transfer to a fine arts school, the Eve Barnes Academy in Cincinnati. After a successful singing engagement in a New York nightclub, her mother apparently gave up and allowed Edith to go to Paris and study voice with the great lyric tenor, Edmond Clement.
She made her operatic debut at the age of 20 singing Nedda in “I Pagliacci” for the Boston Opera Company and was given a contract for the season. She returned to Paris for more training and sang in Nice, Monte Carlo, Marseille, and Paris before returning to the United States after the start of World War I. She was signed by the Metropolitan Opera in 1915 and remained there for two years singing a total of 88 performances. But she wasn’t happy. She had a beginners contract at $50 a week and was singing roles such as Sophie in “Der Rosenkavalier” and Musette in “La Boheme.” She wanted to sing Mimi.
Mason may have lacked the sex appeal, flamboyance, and public relations savvy of Mary Garden but she was plain-talking, determined, and quite capable of fighting for what she wanted. The war had ended and she felt her only option was to return to Europe for more training and experience. She asked Guilio Gatti-Cassaza, the Met’s general manager for a release from her contract. When he refused, she went over his head to the Chairman of the Board, Otto Kahn, and got her release.
She married her third husband, the conductor, Giorgio Polacco, and they left the U.S. to tour Central and South America before returning to Paris. She was married four times – five if you count Polacco who she re-married and then re-divorced. One of her husbands was Maurice Bernstein, who was the legal guardian of the young Orson Welles, and whose name Welles used for the guardian of young Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane.”
Unlike Mary Garden (or Maria Callas who Mason had high regard) she was not a master of voice coloring vocal acting. Her Mimi sounded a great deal like her Marguerite or her Cio-Cio San. She simply sang with simplicity and beauty.
She became good friends with Enrico Caruso and it was Mason who Caruso called to bail him out of jail when he was arrested for pinching a lady’s bottom in Central Park.
She was also a favorite of Arturo Toscanini. He brought her to La Scala to sing Mimi in “La Boheme” and later in “Faust and he chose her to sing at the 1935 Salzburg Music Festival.
Everywhere Edith sang she was enormously popular, but after her mother’s death in 1920 she stopped singing. Mason had first sung in Chicago in 1917 but it was in 1921, when Mary Garden hired Polacco as a conductor for the Chicago Opera that Edith returned to the stage and sang Cio Cio-San in “Madama Butterfly.” Chicago became her artistic home for the rest of her career. The composer, Giacomo Puccini coached her in “Butterfly” and she was a sensation in the role. “A couple of those times when I was a delicate little Japanese aristocrat, I tipped the beam at about 250 pounds!”
Puccini originally wanted her as his first Turandot, but she was pregnant with her daughter at the time so Rosa Raisa got to sing the role at the opera’s premiere.
Mason and the highly competitive Mary Garden apparently got along well, probably because their roles rarely overlapped. They even appeared together in two performances of “Carmen” – Garden sang Carmen and Mason was Micaela.
She returned to the Metropolitan Opera in 1935 and 1936 and retired from opera in 1941, giving her final performance in Chicago as Mimi. She taught music at De Paul university for 10 years and gave colorful lectures throughout the country. Her last public appearance was in 1966 at a Metropolitan Opera Gala Farewell concert in which she and other great stars were honored.
Edith Mason died of a stroke in San Diego, California in 1973 at age 80.
The Sarah Bernhardt of Opera – Mary Garden
Mary Garden (1874 – 1967) made her professional opera debut in the title role of Gustave Charpentier’s “Louise”, which had premiered only two months earlier. She said later that just before she had to sing “Depuis le jour” for the first time, she turned her back on the audience and whispered to herself; “Now or never!”
“I started at the top, I stayed at the top and I left at the top”
In the beginning she was a shy, quiet girl but she soon discovered a talent for publicity. She had an ample bosom and a genius for self promotion. When a millionaire admirer looked longingly at that bosom and asked, “Tell me, Miss Garden, what holds that dress up?”, she supposedly shot back, “Two things. Your age and my discretion.” The story may or may not be true but Mary Garden made sure that it received wide distribution.
“You come to hear Caruso, you come to hear Melba, but you come to SEE me!”
She was generous to other singers – as long as they were not rivals. She encouraged young singers, sometimes paying for their training, and after her retirement she gave master classes often allowing young artists to attend for free. But when the Chicago Opera offered the opera “Thais” to another soprano, a role she considered she “owned”, Mary Garden threatened to walk out and cancel all her appearances.
While she specialized in French and 20th century operas, she had great success in a wide range of roles including Carmen, Tosca, and Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
She was born in Aberdeen, Scotland to Robert and Mary Garden. Her father was an engineer who became president of Harrolds Motor Car Co. that sold the Pierce-Arrow automobile. Her mother came from a prominent family and when Mary was six years old, her parents emigrated to America, eventually settling in Chicago. She played the violin and at age 12 was playing concerts and singing in Sunday school. She studied music, singing and later piano but she showed promise as a singer and, with the help of a benefactor, left for Paris to further her musical education.
In 1899 she began studying with the American soprano Sybil Sanderson who took Mary into her home and introduced her to the musical world of Paris, including the composer Massenet and the manager of the Opera Comique, Albert Carre.
In 1902 she was chosen to create Mélisande in Debussy’s opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” and appeared that same year at Covent Garden in London. The composer Massenet had seen her at Covent Garden and wrote his opera “Chérubin” for specifically for her. She was also the first Mélisande in Claude Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Debussy said that he had scarcely to tell or teach her anything; it came naturally and of its own accord. He wrote in her copy of the score, “You alone will remain the woman and the artist I hardly dared hope for.” In 1904 she recorded a series of songs and arias by Debussy with the composer accompanying her on the piano.
She also starred in the world premieres of several lesser known works including “le Jongleur de Notre Dame” in which she sang the tenor role! The part was re-arranged especially for her and she sang it up one octave and made her voice clear and almost sexless. It was a triumph both dramatically and vocally. She later wrote, “I danced my country dances, played my fiddle, juggled the three balls, and sometimes I used to let one go and make the people of the village laugh. It made them happier to think I was such a bad juggler.
One critic wrote, “No tenor, no matter how talented, could ever be as boyish as Garden. I would rather hear her sing and then cry and mop her eyes and wipe her nose than listen to the finest tenor on Earth in the part.”
Garden’s American opera debut was in 1907 at Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House for the American premiere of “Thaïs” and she was an immediate success.
By 1910 she was appearing in major American cities including Boston and Philadelphia. When she sang Richard Strauss’s “Salome” in New York, a role she had sung previously in Paris, she performed the Dance of the Seven Veils in a flesh-colored bodystocking and lovingly kissed the severed head of John the Baptist. Shock, outrage, and a sold-out box office was the result. She said: “Men like it (the bodystocking) because they can’t figure out where it ends and I begin.”
In 1921 Mary Garden was named “directa” of the Chicago Opera and staged the world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges.” She also managed to run up a loss of a million dollars during her one year reign which almost bankrupted the company.
“We finished the way Mr. McCormick wanted us to finish – in a blaze of glory. That ‘s what he asked for and that’ s what he got. If it cost a million dollars, I’m sure it was worth it.”
A financial savior was found (millionaire Samuel Insull) and Garden was re-hired as director of the re-named Chicago Civic Opera. She ruled the Chicago Opera like a queen. In all, she sang in Chicago for 21 seasons.
“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.”
She made two silent movies (“Thais” and “The Splendid Sinner”) which she was the first to admit were terrible, but “Thais” became the first film ever to be shown in the Vatican – at the express request of Pope Benedict XV.
Her diet never varied, even when she was in her seventies – a thin soup, grilled fish or meat, one vegetable, and two glasses of champagne with fruit. Her figure remained as slim as a girl’s. “I feel right this way; why should I spoil it!” After retiring from opera in 1934, she worked for a while as a talent scout for MGM, gave lectures and recitals, and in 1951 wrote published a successful (and highly innacurate) autobiography, “Mary Garden’s Story.”
While she never married, she was rumored to have had many lovers – a subject which she carefully kept to herself but equally carefully never denied, usually saying only that she and whoever were “just friends.” At the age of 75 she was asked if romance had ever come her way. “I always put it in the scales and weighed it against art. It was always the same. Down went the gentlemen and up went the art … there were four men in my life, but, I’m not telling who they were. Anyway, I wouldn’t want any man trailing after me as Mr. Garden.”
Mary Garden spent the last 30 years of her life living in Scotland. She died in 1974 at the age of 90.