Mary Garden: The Sarah Bernhardt of Opera

Mary Garden (1874–1967) was a popular Scots-American opera star of the first third of the 20th century.

Born in Abrdeen, Garden moved to the U.S. as a child, first to Chicopee, Massachusetts, then to Hardford, then to Chicago, where her music studies brought her to the attention of well-heeled patrons who sent her to Paris for world class training. She debuted with the Opéra-Comique in 1900 to instant acclaim, praised for a wide vocal range, flexibility, and histrionic ability, for which she was nicknamed “The Sarah Bernhardt of Opera.” Widespread fame followed when she began making record albums in 1903. She was such a bellwether of excellence in her time that the value of her name was idiomatic. For example, for a while Sophie Tucker was billed as “the Mary Garden of Ragtime”  In 1907 Oscar Hammerstein brought her to New York to perform with his Manhattan Opera Company. She returned again in 1909, to perform there in Strauss’s Salome, where her kissing of John the Baptist’s severed head elicited gasps. She then embarked on on a vaudeville tour featuring the highlights of this performance:

From 1910 through her retirement in the early 1930s she was based in Chicago. Initially (1910-1913)  she sang with the Chicago Grand Opera. She started with the Chicago Opera Association in 1915, and was director of the company during its last year of operation (1921-22). In the middle of that experience she starred in two silent films, Thais (1917) and The Splendid Sinner (1918) for Sam Goldwyn. Starting in 1922 she became director and star of the Chicago Civic Opera, with which she remained for nearly a decade. In 1926, she took part in NBC’s very first radio broadcast. After 1934 she spent most of her last 30+ years in Scotland, near the family home of Aberdeen. She also worked as a talent scout for MGM, and gave talks about her experiences, and favorite composers, such as Debussy. 

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and stars like Mary Garden, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,