Opera Scotland

Mary Garden Suggest updates

Born Aberdeen, 20 February 1874.

Died Aberdeen, 3 January 1967.

Scottish soprano.

Mary Garden's fame as an operatic soprano was such that she was almost a household name during the early decades of last century.  Her greatest achievement was that she created the role of Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Though born in Aberdeen, much of her life and virtually all her professional life was spent outside Scotland.  She moved to America with her family at the age of six and after her early schooling she continued her musical education in Paris.  The majority of her stage performances took place in France, in the USA and in England at Covent Garden. 

Her many other major roles included Carmen, Chrysis in d'Erlanger’s Aphrodite; Manon; Marguerite; Violetta; Cherubin (Massenet); and perhaps best known, in 1907 she also gave the first New York performance of Massenet's Thaïs.  They liked me best in Thaïs, she claimed, ‘because I wore least…’   Many of these operas have tended to fade from the repertory, although Thaïs is to be presented in concert performance at the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival. Audio recordings of Garden singing in some of her favourite roles exist, but they suffer from the technological limitations of their time and apparently she never liked them (some extracts can be found on YouTube, and a single CD appeared on the short-lived Romophone label). Accounts of her performance style are consistent in suggesting that she was a creature of the theatre, being a genuine singing actress.  Her gestures also, while carrying great conviction on the stage, seem to have been too theatrical to sit easily in other media.

In the days long before the creation of the Edinburgh Festival (1947) and Scottish Opera (1962), professional opera in Scotland was regularly delivered by touring companies.  There was little indigenous opera and it is hardly surprising therefore that despite her Covent Garden contribution she does not seem to have performed in an opera in Scotland.

Following this glittering cosmopolitan career it was to her native Aberdeen that Mary Garden retired.

Scottish Opera chose to present in their groundbreaking first season Madama Butterfly paired with Pelléas et Mélisande. That year, 1962, marked the centenary of Debussy’s birth and furthermore there had been the intention to make something more symbolic of this Scottish connection by inviting Mary Garden to attend the Scottish Opera premiere. Sadly by the time of the first performance she was in hospital indisposed after a fall, and her health in decline. Mary Garden died on 3 January 1967 at the age of 92.

An award for opera singing at the Aberdeen International Youth Festival is made in her name.

Further reading

Mary Garden’s autobiography, while interesting and readable, is not regarded as reliable. However, Turnbull has written a fine scholarly biography.

Garden, M. & Biancolli, L., (1951), Mary Garden's Story, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Turnbull, M. T. R. B., (1997), Mary Garden, Scolar Press, Aldershot.

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