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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Geraldine Farrar: Hollywood Glamour Comes To Opera

Geraldine Farrar was born in Melrose, Massachusetts in 1882. She began studying music when she was a small child and was on the concert stage by the time she was a teenager. Her operatic debut was in Berlin in 1901, at the relatively tender age of 19. The opera was Faust, and she is reported to have created a sensation. From youth, she was beautiful, with strong acting as well as musical instincts. In the Victorian age of somewhat regal prima donnas, with only the slightest concern for acting and often with a seeming lack of concern about their appearance, Farrar was a potent force, both on stage and in the movies.

Her earliest roles seem to have been chosen to accentuate these characteristics. She appeared in Thomas' Mignon and Massenet's Manon, as well as Juliette in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Hints of scandalous affairs began to surface almost immediately, and were to become a staple of her career, as she quickly either cultivated or naturally fell into what might be called show business glitz, with all that it implies. By the 20's she would be one of the "modern women"  of that period. She even had young female admirers known as "Gerry-flappers." Her most notorious affair was probably her long-standing affair with Arturo Toscanini, something that finally, if the stories are true—drove Toscanini from the Met when she demanded marriage. She was a mighty strong-minded woman.

All this is not to say that she was without more traditional artistic talents –not at all. In fact, she became an absolute staple at the Metropolitan for almost her entire career, until her retirement in 1922. She sang nearly 500 performances during that period, creating title roles in Mascagni's Amica, Puccini's Suor Angelica, and Giordano's Madame Sans-Gêne. Also, she was the Met's first Cho-Cho-San, in 1907.

Farrar also appeared in many silent movies, including Joan the Woman (1917), in which she portrayed Joan of Arc, and, in 1915, Cecil B. DeMille's adaptation of the opera Carmen. During her career, she made many recordings with RCA Victor.

Before listening to Farrar sing "Un bel dì," it is necessary to point out that she was among the first singing actors at the Met. She did not hesitate to use her voice to support characterization. Therefore, if she needed to portray something ugly and frightening, she did not hesitate to let those qualities be shown in her voice. She was not at all wed to pure lyricism at all costs. Here, in Cho-Cho-San's famous aria, in which she dreams of her husband's return, she deliberately creates the sound of the voice of a 15-year old girl. This will be immediately apparent at the beginning of the recording. It is important to remember what she was doing:

Very few well-known sopranos, then or now, would have the courage or the conviction to attempt this. The result is that we often must contend with hefty 40 year old sopranos singing Cho-Cho-San a tutta forza. Personally, I find Farrar's version very moving. It drives home, in the most direct way, the absolute tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes, as a child, with her own child, is about to have a child's first love betrayed. It's all just too terrible. This is the triumph of acting and characterization over all other considerations!

Here is a recording made in Farrar's youth, when she was only 27 years old. It is easy to see what kind of voice she had—very much in the ingénue category, very lovely and light, perfect for the kinds of heroines she was portraying at that stage of her life. This is the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann, with baritone Antonio Scotti, in 1909:

Mignon, Manon, Marguerite, Juliette—a perfect voice and repertoire choice joined to her youthful beauty.

Finally, Here is the "Jewel Song" from Faust, the opera in which Farrar first attracted international attention to herself as a 19-year old girl. This recording is from 1913, when she was 31, probably at her vocal peak, and shows a voice in full maturity—a rich and ringing operatic sound but with a somewhat forced B natural at the end. She never had a particularly high voice, and she was known to take on a huge schedule, which began to take its toll. She retired in 1922, when she was only 40, and it would seem to be the case that she had abused her voice with too much singing. Also, she always used the voice she had, as mentioned, in support of her acting, and that may have had some effect.

And now, an extra treat:  thanks to one of our faithful readers, my dear Russian friend Natalie, here is a Youtube video of Farrar's Carmen in Cecil B. DeMille's film!

Farrar in a nutshell: Self knowledge, a mighty will of her own, an adroit use of natural gifts, and a first-class career!


corax said...

one of my great heroes of the musical world. how wonderful that she was home-grown, right here in america. what a lovely instrument she had -- and how powerfully she used it. and, as usual, you capture the essence of it all perfectly here.

is it true that GF plucked her eyebrows for the role of butterfly, and thereby set the 20th-century fashion trend for same?

Edmund St. Austell said...

How nice to hear from you, my dear friend! You stumped me! I had not heard the plucked eyebrow story, but perhaps one of our readers will know, and in the meantime I'l see if I can run it down! Given her intense interest in acting, and believable characterizations, I would not be at all surprised if the story is true. And she certainly had the audience, from the Gerry-flappers on down, to create a trend, so it just might be! Let me check it out! Thanks again for the comment!

JD Hobbes said...

You are correct when you say that her performance makes us realize the plight, shame, and fear expressed by such a young girl.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes. Yes,there is something special that happens when she decides to play Cho-Cho-San for what what she actually is--a girl, who belongs, as Sharpless says in the first act, "to the age of toys and candy." It's positively chilling.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. She was a very interesting person and an excellent singer. I like her voice: the timbre is very pleasant and the singing is skillful. Her Cho Cho San is very moving and very Japanese. And she was very different in her roles; she sang Carmen with absolutely different expressiveness. I found a video of her film “Carmen’ (directed by S. B. De Mille)
She was a very courageous lady, and a good actress.

Looks like Farrar could combine movies and great operatic career and did it very ‘decently’. She didn’t try to sing until her 70’s and left the stage as soon as her voice started to decline. I saw a documentary on silent film , where there was a bit about Farrar. They told how she had left movies. When box office results for her films declined , her producer tried to persuade her to agree to smaller salaries in the next film. She replied “Let’s cancel it ”. The producer was happy and shocked at the same time, because he hadn’t expected that she could refuse from her film career so easily.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Great comment! And a very informative one! You know, I was thinking of you when I wrote this piece, because I know of your interest in Hollywood during the 1920's:-) Speaking of which, did you see that "The Artist" walked away with 5 awards last night at the Oscars? I don't know if our film awards make the TV news in Moscow or not. The first silent film since 1929 to win an Oscar:-) Anyway, all you say about Farrar is true, and the information on her acting in Carmen, and the story of her walking away from her film career so easily is interesting and much appreciated! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

'Speaking of which, did you see that "The Artist" walked away with 5 awards last night at the Oscars? I don't know if our film awards make the TV news in Moscow or not. The first silent film since 1929 to win an Oscar:-)'

No, I haven't seen the film yet, though I know about 5 Oscars. Great!
Oscar ceremony is very popular in Russia too, there are many sites, where dresses are discussed:)


Verdiwagnerite said...

Another great post Edmund!

It's fascinating to hear about her relationship with Toscanini while he was at the Met. I would have thought, at that time, that this could have seriously affected her future career prospects, but obviously not?
Having said that, Melba didn't suffer too much given her affairs and status as a married but obviously separated woman, about a generation before.
Maybe, again it comes back to character - 2 very strong, determined women!
Her voice sounds incredibly child-like in the Butterfly aria!
Well done, again.


Darren Seacliffe said...

Well, to be honest, I feel that the Cio-Cio-San Ms Farrar's performing is just as old as the Marguerite she's singing. Nevertheless, it's an eye opener.

For many years, we've been treated to this aria by so many dramatic and lyric sopranos that we tend to associate this aria with a soprano with a deeper and richer voice. It's really surprising that the first Cio-Cio-San was someone who had a really different voice altogether, a girlish bell-like voice. The type you'd see more often in coloratura sopranos.

Hmm..for a 15 year old girl, she does sound as though she's deliriously happy, thinking of Pinkerton's return. That's some vocal acting there. During her time, this might be considered groundbreaking since no one actually acted out the roles they sang but if any singer were to do that now, I feel it's considered overacting.

Her dramatics might be excessive here but it was this type of performances which led to the better and more dramatic performances that came after.

I feel Ms Farrar's best performances were in the coloratura showpiece, The Jewel Song. She's definitely a lyric coloratura rather than a lyric soprano. No wonder she chose to specialize in roles in Manon, Mignon and Juliette. Those roles were made for her. What's more, I'm sure her beauty and her histrionics must have made the audience jerking tears over her performances.

As for the Carmen, I think people are there to watch her perform rather than to hear her sing. Her beauty and her personality must have made her performance very different from the other sopranos. I think, judging from what I've heard of her, Carmen was a role she really liked, isn't it? The role suits her femme fatale personality.

Based on these videos, I agree that she's pretty and has personality but I feel that rather than winning points, these are actually points to compensate for her ordinarily beautiful voice. In this sense, she reminds me of Grace Moore.

Speaking of The Artist, it seems to present a very different perspective on how silent stars were hit by the advent of sound from ''Sunset Boulevard''. It might be interesting if they choose to remake the movie at this point after the success of The Artist.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Interesting comments, Darren, as usual! Yes, her Carmen was very popular, and I suspect you are right about the role her vivacity and looks played.

As for Sunset Blvd, it may well be time for a remake!

On the general subjet of film, France has certainly surged thematically of late. The Artist, Midnight in Paris, and Hugo, which I just finished watching for the 3rd time. I think Hugo could wind up being one of my all time favorite films!

Thanks for a great comment!

Edmund St. Austell said...

P.S. On the subject of her girl like portrayal of Cho-Cho-San, I have always thought that a courageous thing to do would be to feature a child in the role. There are 15 and sixteen year olds out there who could do a respectable Cho-Cho-San if the people around her would keep their voices down and not play every scene as Aida. Child singers often have very penetrating voices. I'm sure she could be heard, and the emotional impact would be tremendous.

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Kate: thank you so much for another superb comment, Kate. Sorry this answer is so far removed from the comment. If I fall behind on answering the comments, they pile up, and what comes out is chaos as far as sequence is concerned! I try to use the little time markers, but with things foming in from so many countries, they seem to get messed up. Sigh........ :-)

Darren Seacliffe said...

Hello Edmund, I hope you've noticed that the first comment I posted was similar to the second one. I really appreciate it if you could remove it for me. I forgot that I could sign in after posting my comment.

You must really love children a lot, especially child singers, judging by your articles on child singers and your comments on a 15 year Cio-Cio-San

About the PS, I think that you can have a 15 year old Aida the same way that you can have a 15 year old Cio-Cio-San. Hmm..actually if we could have 15 year old soprano singing the tragic roles, the age of the singer could accentuate the tragedy. Think about it, a younger woman involved in a tragedy solicits more sympathy than an older one because she's psychologically weaker, having experienced less.

Speaking of Aida, don't you think a girl-like Aida like Welitsch, Rethberg and Milanov make Aida more compelling than the noble tragic figure Price, Tebaldi and others make her to be.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I thnk, Darren, to be honest, Aida is beyond the range of any child singer. It would be like asking a child to sing Wagner. Something like that could only be done on film (an interesting idea) or in a very small experimental theater, where all kinds of adjustments could be made to orchestra size, orchestration, etc. (No grand march with elephants:-) Traditional performances would be out of the question.

Anonymous said...

In riguardo a bambini in stagione. Allora non avevo qundici anni, ma dicianove, quando cantavo il Iago di Verdi in opera Otello per un stagione al teatro. E` ver, era un teatro piccolo, ma c'era l'orchestra ed altri voci. Per me la voce era sempre sana, ma i critici hanno detto in tutti, "ah questo Signorino Fiuri, canta con forza, non sia amena in questa interpretazione."

E` così per i giovanissimi cantatori.

Aguri Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio

Edmund St. Austell said...

Tuttavia, è un risultato significativo poter cantare un tal ruolo a 19! Molto impressionante! Penso che una ragazza avrebbe avuto maggiori possibilità di avere successo, a seconda del ruolo. In particolare, Butterfly e Lucia vengono in mente, anche se ammetto che ci sono pochi adolescenti che sarebbero in grado di cantare tali ruoli.

Gerhard Santos said...

Thank you very much for sharing this A Wonderful and Very interesting article. I do love so that you may share more interesting facts from the "Great Opera Singers". Thank you also for the Great Privileged to read your Great Collection you have done. Thank you and More Blessing ! Have a Beautiful week. *GOD BLESS*

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Gerhard. Very kind of you, and I appreciate it.