American opera singer Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967) was a lyric soprano with great vocal skills and dramatic flair. Often paired with tenor Enrico Caruso at New York City's Metropolitan Opera, her career was relatively short-lived because her voice had given out by 1920.
Farrar was born on February 28, 1882, in Melrose, Massachusetts, the only child of Sidney "Syd" Farrar and his wife Henrietta. A professional baseball player with the Philadelphia Phillies, Farrar's father later worked as a storekeeper. Both he and his wife were amateur musicians, and when their young daughter exhibited musical talent at an early age, they encouraged her.
To supplement her natural talent, Farrar began music taking instruction in various instruments from age five. However, when the young girl balked at practicing the piano, lessons stopped and her parents resorted to other means of encouraging their daughter in expressing herself musically. Farrar ultimately found her musical expression in singing, and at the age of 12 she played the part of a popular singer of her day, Jenny Lind, in her town's annual May Festival, singing two numbers before an appreciative home-town audience.
Although Farrar was not rigorous in practicing, she continued her lessons as a vocalist, studying with noted vocal instructor Mrs. J. H. Long in Boston in 1894. The 12-year-old Farrar also studied operatic acting and deportment with Victor Capoul, a singing actor. Capoul is credited with changing her development as a performer and inspiring the dramatic flair Farrar later brought to her work on stage. In 1896 Farrar made her professional debut when she was paid $10 to sing a song from Mignon at the Melrose town hall. Later she appeared on a Boston stage to perform a selection from the Barber of Seville.
Trained in New York City, Europe
By the time she was 13 Farrar was living in New York City and studying with Emma Thursby. Under Thursby's tutelage, Farrar began giving recitals when she was 14 years old, and her talent caught the attention of established opera singer Nellie Melba. Melba arranged an introduction between Farrar and Maurice Grau, director of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Although Farrar had the opportunity to be cast in a small role in one of the Met's upcoming opera productions, she turned it down.
On the advice of professionals, Farrar pursued her training in Europe, her parents borrowing money so the family could remain together while Farrar was in Paris pursuing her dream. There from 1899 to 1900, she studied with Trabadelo, a Spanish vocal coach, and also attended plays that starred Sarah Bernhardt. Her studies of Bernhardt influenced the way in which Ferraro approached the staging of her performances when she became an established opera star.
Sang Opera in Berlin
When Farrar had learned all she could from Trabadelo, she went to Berlin, Germany, to study with Francesco Graziani, who was also known for being an important vocal teacher. In 1900 Farrar auditioned and won a three-year contract with the Berlin Hofoper, the city's Royal opera house. Making her debut as Marguerite in Faust in 1901, Farrar was an immediate success and was named "court singer." She was even lauded by the German royal family, the country's crown prince going so far as to become smitten with the beautiful, young vocalist. Farrar would go on to sing the role of Marguerite 60 times over the course of her career.
Soon after her first stage debut, Farrar engaged another vocal coach in Lilli Lehmann. Lehmann was important to Farrar's training because she helped the singer modulate her voice, improving Farrar's diction and forward projection, and giving her greater technical control over her voice. Farrar's roles required that she learn German, although she sung her first three roles with the company in Italian because she had not yet mastered the language.
After her contract in Berlin was up, Farrar moved to the Monte Carlo Opera, where she sang from about 1904 to 1906, making her Monte Carlo debut in Puccini's La Bohéme alongside costar Enrico Caruso, who would later play a significant role as her co-star in the United States. In 1905, on the strength of only five days of rehearsal, Farrar sang in Amica by Mascagni. She also appeared in Paris, Munich, Warsaw, and Salzburg, establishing an international reputation that preceded her when she returned to the United States. While she lived in Europe, Farrar continued to study with Lehmann.
Made Debut at the Met
On opening night of the 1906-1907 season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, Farrar made her debut with the company with which she would be associated for the rest of her career. She would become its leading singing actress. In her debut, Farrar sang in Roméo et Juliette by Gounod.
Over the course of her career at the Met, Farrar became known for her thorough preparation, her staging, and her costumes. Her interpretations and characterizations were often very different from those previously done by operas. In addition to her strong personality, Farrar had different look than other opera singers. Rather than being overweight, she was pretty, slim, and full of grace.
Soon after Farrar arrived at the Met, a new managing director took over the well-known opera house. Arriving from Italy, Guilin Gatti-Casazza brought with him conductor Arturo Toscanini, with whom Farrar immediately became at odds due to both their unrelenting personalities. Fortunately, Farrar and Toscanini eventually resolved their problems, and she became the composer's mistress for the duration of his tenure in the United States, seven years.
In 1907 Farrar made a well-received appearance in the Met's first production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, which the composer even attended. She was acclaimed in the role of Cho Cho San, and the role became the most linked to her name. Farrar had prepared for this role by studying with a Japanese actress named Fu-ji-Ko. New York audiences loved Farrar's interpretation of Cho Cho San, and although Puccini was initially reluctant, he was also eventually won over. Farrar went on to play the lead role in Madama Butterfly 95 more times at the Met. Caruso was also part of the initial production, and their on-stage chemistry made their performances together very popular.
Throughout her career, Farrar was known for her desire to take on new risks and challenges. One of these risks was presented to her in 1910 at the world premiere of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck's Köngiskinder, creating the role of the Goose Girl. She went on to sing this role 30 more times. A year later, in 1911, Farrar sang in the American premiere of Ariane et Barbe-bleue.
Suffered Vocal Problems
Among Farrar's strengths as an opera singer was her very wide vocal range, especially the upper register. Unfortunately, in 1913 her voice broke during a performance, prompting much discussion of why this had happened. While some blamed her vocal stress on the fact that Farrar had studied under many vocal coaches with different teaching methods, others blamed it on her wide-ranging and sometimes odd-beat repertory. In fact, Farrar had never taken care of her voice in proportion to the work she demanded of it, and although she rested, after 1913 her voice never regained the strength and vitality it had once possessed.
Despite the diminished quality of her voice, Farrar's popularity was such that she continued to be offered starring roles. In 1914 she made her debut in the title role of Bizet's Carmen, although that role had already been linked to another star singer. Farrar played the role 65 times on stage before appearing in the silent film version in 1915. After shooting the film, her stage versions of Carmen became more animated, as Farrar added more acting touches than were normally found in opera. One time, for example, she physically slapped Caruso, who played Don Juan opposite her Carmen.
Made Film Debut
Farrar's film debut in Carmen was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, one of the leading silent film directors of the day. Even without the sound of Farrar's voice, Carmen was a hit at the box office, earning her fans that were not necessarily opera fans. Discussing her performance in this film from a historical perspective, critic Richard Dyer wrote in the Boston Globe that "Farrar had a real screen face that the camera loves—alluring, vital, and in every moment expressive. Her face tells the story, and you can't take your eyes off her." In short, she possessed "star quality."
Farrar's agreement to appear in Carmen gave a varnish of respectability to a young film industry that many viewed as somewhat suspect as a credible art form. She went on to have a second career as film actress, appearing in 13 films that included Maria Rosa (1916), Joan the Woman (1917), The Woman God Forgot (1917), The Turn of the Wheel (1918), The Hell Cat (1918), The World and Its Woman (1919), Flame of the Desert (1920), and The Woman and the Puppet (1920). None of these films were opera roles; all confirmed Farrar's aptitude for acting.
While Farrar gave the silent film dignity, she also brought opera to many outside that music's traditional audience. During the Met's off-season she traveled throughout the United States in her own Pullman railroad car, singing operatic arias to crowds in small towns which had never heard such performances. By the time Farrar was 30 years old she was a celebrity.
Because of the U.S. public's interest in Farrar's life, she penned an autobiography titled Geraldine Farrar: The Story of an American Singer, by Herself. The book was published in 1916, the same year she was married to Lou Tellegen, a Dutch actor. The marriage was short-lived, and the couple endured a bitter divorce in 1923.
Retired from the Met
By the early 1920s Farrar's upper range had been compromised, forcing her relatively early retirement as an opera singer. Her final performance at the Met was in April 1922. She sang in Zazá by Leoncavallo, a role she first sang in 1920 after working with stage director and producer David Belasco. Her farewell performance was a big event; it was sold out almost immediately, and scalpers made huge profits as the singer's many fans paid huge amounts to witness her performance. After the final curtain, Farrar was followed in her open-topped car by a mob of admirers that extended up Broadway.
During her time at the Met, Farrar sang in 23 roles for 493 performances. She even had a following of teenaged groupies, dubbed the "Gerryflappers." Her best roles were considered to be in Mascagni's Amica, Saint-Saëns's L'Ancêtre, and Puccini's Suor Angelica.
After retiring from the Met, Farrar continued to perform in concert tours throughout the United States. While her voice had lost many vocal qualities, she retained her technical abilities, and she continued to perform in concert until November of 1931, when she took the stage at Carnegie Hall for her last concert. She remained connected to opera by serving as intermission commentator for the Met's Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts during the 1934-35 season and was active in civic activities, charity work, the Republican party, and some public speaking. During World War II Farrar volunteered for the Red Cross and corresponded with serviceman. In addition to music, Farrar explored several forms of writing, including poetry and songs. In 1938 she expanded her 1916 autobiography into a second book, Such Sweet Compulsion, in which she credited the spirit of her now-deceased mother with inspiring her writing.
Though Farrar no longer sang, fans could still hear her voice due to the number of recordings she made as early as 1904 and primarily during her prime. These popular recordings let fans showed how great her voice really was. Her records, like her tours, brought a larger audience that numbered in the millions to listen to opera. Referring to listening to her voice on recordings, Tim Page wrote in the New York Times, "Farrar's voice was one of great warmth; her high notes had a brilliant gem-like quality. There is a serene confidence to her singing, a subliminal awareness of her splendid technique and the seamless skein of her register. Hers was startlingly original singing, full of verve and passion, yet very modern, with none of the swooping into notes so prevalent at the time. Her singing always had a sense of center, a sense of control, which is one of the reasons her disks are more enjoyable to listen to today than those of many of her contemporaries."
Farrar died on March 11, 1967, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where she lived in her retirement. To sum her life, a representative for Opera News quoted the singer as saying, "If I can live so that those who come in contact with me find encouragement and enrichment, that is all I ask of life. For more important to me than being a great artists will be, when the final curtain is drawn, to have succeeded in being a great human being."
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Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, editors, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1986.
Nash, Elizabeth, Always First Class: The Career of Geraldine Farrar, University Press of America, 1981.
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