Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Geraldine Farrar Opera Prima Donna


By Emily M. Burbank.

Miss Farrar as Zerlina in "Don Giovanni"
On the night of January 28, 1908, the town of Melrose, Massachusetts, was in a state of unprecedented excitement. It was the "home-coming" of Geraldine Farrar, who had left her birthplace at the age of sixteen—unknown, but highly gifted,—to re­turn at twenty-five, one of the world's great prima-donnas. This concert, arranged by her " home people," was given in the Town Hall; and in honor of "The Great American Prima-Donna," the national flag draped the railings of the two long balconies running the length of the building, and waved from every available projection. All Melrose had read of their young friend's triumphs in Berlin, Paris, Monte Carlo, Stock­holm, Warsaw and the principal cities of America; and, to do her honor, the Mayor went to Boston, to act as escort. At 7.3o P. M. the whole town ap­peared to be moving toward the hall, and at eight a motor carrying the prima-donna swung around corners and glided swiftly up to the rear en­trance, scattering groups of curious men and a crowd of small boys—some of them very small, with scant clothing and pinched faces. A big policeman cleared the way with difficulty.

No master of fiction could put more of the picturesque, dramatic and poetic into any fanciful "home-coming" of a prima-donna than animated that occasion. From the moment that the slender, dark-haired girl, with the handsome face, stepped out on the platform, until she had taken by the hand the last of her 1100 ad­mirers, at the close of the concert, not a single insincere or banal note was struck. Geraldine Farrar had come home, and she stood in the midst of her "home people," one of them. She was in perfect voice and sang with enthusiasm and art, but it was not a critical audience. At first, every man, woman and child was under the spell of a lovely vision—a veritable fairy princess in shimmering, clinging satin and gauze of gold from beneath which peeped gold slippers, while a gold fillet held back her black hair. The spray of mauve orchids she wore added to the impression of unreality. Their exotic grace was a hall-mark of that magic art-world now hers. Sev­eral minutes elapsed before the ear gained ascendency over the eye. Then, gradually, the admiring audience found itself, and entered into the spirit of the music; but unques­tionably it was the magnetic vitality, the steady gaze of the frank blue eyes, the laughing mouth and, later, the hearty handshake of their old friend "Gerry" Farrar, which made the abiding impression.


Miss Farrar as Mignon
Many remembered the church fes­tival, when "Deenie" Farrar, aged four, arrayed in white, with a wide blue sash, extending from armpits almost to dimpled knees, sang "When He Tumeth." She had stood then, as to-night, facing a large audience, with a merry smile and courageous eyes; and when she had finished, she called out, "Did I do it good, Mamma?" From that day to this, the mother has remained her daughter's critic and general mentor, always within call. The policeman remarked, when the concert was over: "Of course, she's a great singer. 'Gerry' Farrar could always beat everybody at every­thing! Why, when she was little she sang hymns, ran errands, climbed trees and rode a horse better 'n any kid in town!"

During the reception, a group of old people, seated where they could watch the object of their remarks, reminded one another of where Gerry got her talent. The facts are well known. "It's natural she should sing; on both sides her family was musical. I've heard her mother say that when Gerry was only one year old she tried to imitate the singing of her father's quartette —I mean the snatches of their songs that reach­ed the nursery from the front parlor, where they practiced twice a week." "It is said Geraldine's mother wanted to be a prima-don­na," was another contribution. This is true; but in the mother's case the ambitions were submerged by the steady flow of life's routine, and when she attained to singing in the choir and church concerts, somehow she knew she had reached her height. At seventeen, she married a handsome young neigh­bor, with a fine tenor voice and a comfortable salary, and the smold­ering embers of ambition sprang again into flame. So she took singing les­sons until it fell to her lot to play the role of parent. From the ashes of the mother's voice was to rise a new song-bird.

One old man remarked: "When I saw Gerry Farrar standing on that platform tonight, I was struck by a foreign look about her, and when she sang she was all foreign. And then that story about her grandfather and the Italian fiddler came back to me, and I declare if I don't believe old Dennis Barnes's dreams and her mother's ambitions have come true in her!"

Miss Farrar as Violetta in "Traviata" (March 1908)
Dennis Barnes, Mrs. Farrar's father, is well re­membered by the old people as a picturesque figure about town. Tall and thin, his head crowned by a mass of long, white hair, he is said to have mov­ed about quite oblivious of time, facts or family obligations, his sole interest being the training of his little orchestra, composing music for it, and his violin pupils. The Italian fiddler was his first music-teacher. Wan­dering into the village and at­tracting the at­tention of the dreamy, thin-leg­ged boy, who loved music, he made a home for himself in a cave in the Barnes pasture—a cave once used by the Indians. It was there that Dennis was introduced to the mysteries of the violin, and taught to regard his teacher's Cremona as a possession worthy of awe. If the Italian ever told where he got his precious instrument, it has been forgotten. His extensive repertoire he had learned as violinist in an Italian opera-house; and Dennis Barnes listened by the hour, in the cool shade of the cave, to musical excerpts from many operas, their stories, and descriptions of Italy's great singers. Those days were re­sponsible for the dreams of a long life, and they opened up vistas which, it may be, were passed on, leading out the third generation into the world of art. A natural enough progression for talent: dreams—desires—deter­mination!

The day following the concert, Geraldine Farrar, by special invita­tion, visited the schools of Melrose, where she had once been a student. The scene at the Horace Mann School was touching in its homely sincerity. The two hundred little upturned faces, upon whose smooth surfaces neither Time nor Experience had recorded a single stroke, beamed with suppressed excitement, as the children waved their flags by way of welcome. The littlest of them knew about their guest, for her desk is kept as "Honor Desk," and is occupied by the child who stands highest in his or her studies. On the blackboard was writ­ten, in white chalk, "1895 "—the date of the singer's last year in the school. Few have accom­plished so much in twelve years; yet it is not diffi­cult to understand that the admiration and adoration of those children, with their illusions and delusions, proved more formidable than any au­dience with emperor or king; and with the reali­zation of this sweeping over her, Miss Farrar, the prima-donna, was forced back into the role of "Gerry" Farrar, the little schoolgirl. And so she remained for days after —so sensitive and mercu­rial is the artist nature!

Miss Farrar at age 19 in "Traviata"
The Principal of the Horace Mann School had much to relate concerning her former pupil. "With Gerry it was always she would learn or she wouldn't, never could or couldn't. Bells, study hours, pre­scribed tasks, were seldom heeded; but when, for some reason of her own, she chose to put her mind to it, she led her classes, and we counted on her high marks to keep up the standard of the school. Her desk was directly in front of mine because she was so mischievous, but she was the best monitress we ever had. You should have seen how she made the other children keep to their books! Then she knew every march going, and the children kept together better when she played."

This reference to her playing started her first music-teacher to "reminis­cing" in her special province. She told how Mrs. Farrar had come to her when Geraldine was seven and ar­ranged for the child to take lessons on the piano. Never had she had such a pupil! The notes were learned in an incredibly short time, and every hour indoors was passed picking out hymns. But playing was one thing and practicing another, and practice Geraldine would not! Reasoning, bribes and threats were all in vain.

"But that's not music," she insis­ted to her mother. "Don't you see, Mamma, this is not a piano; this is a world, and these keys are angels—white angels and black angels; and you see the white, good angels are the most, so they’ll win, and all my music will be beautiful music" —as opposed to the monotony of scales, etc.

"There was nothing gained by arguing with a child like that," Mrs. Farrar added; "so after twenty les­sons, the teacher and I agreed that it was better to wait until Geraldine was old enough to appreciate her ad­vantages. When I told the child this, she didn't say a word, but went straight to her piano, and banged out "Onward, Christian Soldiers!" with such joy and vigor that it sounded like a real battle-cry! Those were the only piano lessons she has ever had."

Miss Farrar says that it was not until she had seriously begun to have her voice trained for opera that she learned the value and necessity of concentration and routine work. As a child she could sing anything she heard, and played "opera-singer" by the hour after being taken to hear one or two operettas in Boston. The year that her daughter was twelve, Mrs. Farrar subscribed for seats at the matinee performances of grand-opera given in Boston by the Savage Company. Geraldine's first opera was "Faust," with Madame Calve as Marguerite. After that she had but one idea—to be a singer of grand-opera herself. Scores were bought and fearlessly approached; arias were picked out and attempted; and she harmonized chords in the bass with the melodies, showing a skill and a sense of harmony astonishing to those who heard her. That year she sang Mignon's song, "Kennst Du das Land," at a concert at the Melrose Church—sang it badly, but with feeling and individuality. A few weeks later she repeated it at a charity concert given in Mechanics Hall, Boston. That was her first "pro­fessional" engagement; and she re­ceived ten dol­lars for it. She had begun to study, that win­ter, with a Bos­ton teacher.

Miss Farrar at age 18
She was tall for twelve years old, and had the straight, slim roundness of a boy. The night of the concert, her dark hair was tied back from her handsome brow with a blue ribbon the shade of her eyes—eyes so clear and expressive that one could never forget them, or the unswerving courage and con­viction they ex­pressed.

During those years, Mr. Farrar owned a retail business in Melrose; and in the sum­mer he let the clerk take charge while he "caught" on the Philadelphia Base-Ball Team. So the little family lived a part of each year in the Quaker City. They owned a camp in the Adirondacks, too, and in that high, pure air, living the free life of a deer young Geraldine grew brown and strong.

Time failed to make a better student of her, however; she grew more and more restive under the restraint of schoolroom routine, neg­lecting the ordinary class work for any passing fancy. She wrote stories for the school paper, tried over new music, or read books; always at work, but at work of her own plan­ning. Examinations she managed by strict attention and cramming just beforehand. Here her naturally keen intelligence, power of concentra­tion and phenomenal memory served her well. One day Mrs. Farrar, ever ambitious for her child, announced that she must go to the High School, and must be made to study.

"Well, how are you going to manage it?" her husband asked. "Why, I 'm go­ing to the School Board and tell them they must let me select the studies Geral­dine takes. She is always good in history, mu­sic and litera­ture."

"But you can't do that, for every other child will want to have the same thing done for it, don't you see?"

"Well, why not?"

And, sure enough, the ex­ception made in Geraldine Farrar's case proved so successful that the High School of Melrose adopted elective courses. For this, among other rea­sons, her one year there had distinc­tion, and the reception accorded her by its faculty and pupils on Jan­uary 29th, was a dignified acknow­ledgment of the attainments of a gifted representative.

Miss Farrar at age 12
Miss Farrar was about fourteen when someone took her to sing for M. Jean de Reszke. It was her first experience of the kind, but she met it, and similar occasions which followed, with a courage based on belief in herself, in her gifts, which has been as important a factor in her career as her beautiful voice. She says that, as a young girl, she knew that she was to be a grand-opera singer. She never trembled in the presence of artists, because she felt that she would eventually be one of them. She ex­pected them to recognize this and to make allowances while she was grow­ing up! She laughs now when she tells of her first interview with Reut­linger, the famous Parisian photog­rapher. She had just arrived with her mother to begin her student days, and quite natur­ally M. Reutlinger declined to give an unknown young girl from America professional rates. "But it is to your own interest, Mon­sieur," she said. "I am not famous now, but I am go­ing to be famous!" Something—per­haps the conviction in the young voice, induced M. Reut­linger to take the risk.

Geraldine Farrar has never out­grown her love of fairy-tales: there is a long list of them, resorted to over and over again, when child and mother, united in unspoken sympa­thy, are bridging some chasm, some climax in the work. After she has learned the music and text of an opera, is convinced as to the proper interpretation of a role, and every detail of stage "business" has been decided upon, she rests, preparatory to her debut. As "rest" with her consists in forc­ibly disengaging every tendril of her mind from the task before her, and entering completely into another vein of thought, nothing serves her purpose so well as a story which touches her imagination. There are days, when she will listen by the hour to the repetition of the rhymed ad­ventures of a certain fabulous China­man. Once started, her imagination sweeps like a simoon across the plains of Oriental myths, and action fol­lows introspection before the latter exercise a devita­lizing power.

It has been re­marked upon as curious that, though Miss Farrar is only twenty-five years old, she seems to have no young companions. "No, she hasn't," Mrs. Farrar has often explained. "But she doesn't miss them. She is too busy. Get lonesome? 'Well, I should say she didn't! You ought to live with her to see how her time goes. Why, she is never idle a min­ute, unless she is asleep. No, she doesn't get up late, except the days she is going to sing an opera. As a rule her day begins at six in the morn­ing, and she is busy till she goes to bed, any time between eight and twelve at night. As soon as she is out of bed, she is apt to turn on the gramo­phone. She always puts in the first roll herself. In that way I can tell what mood she is in, and keep putting in new ones—sometimes for a whole morning. While the music is going on, she writes letters, learns the words of an opera, acts some of her parts, or dances, improvising steps. Her breakfast is brought in soon after she gets up, but if she is occupied she lets it go, and eats it when she happens to think of it.

Of course, it is cold, but she doesn't mind that when it’s her own fault! In Berlin, if it is a lesson day, she goes to Madame Lilli Lehmann at eleven o'clock. In the afternoon she drives. You see, in the season she can't afford to use up her strength in walking. If we dine alone, Geraldine often reads while she eats. Some nights she is so full of energy that she wants to keep right on, so we go to the theatre, cafĂ©-chantant or opera-house. She is passionately fond of the theatre. On other nights she goes to bed and to sleep at eight o'clock, unless she happens to take a notion to move the furniture about in the apart­ment, in her untiring search for new "effects." Yes, it's awkward if the rest of us want to go to bed, but as it is a harmless sort of dissipation, I just` congratulate myself that she has got this kind, and let her move away! My child has energy enough for a dozen—she always did have; but it is this that has carried her forward in her profession."

Geraldine Farrar at age 12
Miss Farrar remarked recently, to the writer, that her mind had so ac­quired the habit of work that many experiences which serve as relaxation for others only fatigue her. When tramping over the roads of the Austrian Tyrol, or Switzerland, during her short vacations, the sight of a sunset, or the gathering of a storm, excites emotions which the ever watchful student-mind makes note of, and stores away, to be referred to when similar conditions present themselves on the stage. In the same way human experiences of every sort serve one so constituted. The ma­chinery never stops; the only rest lies in keeping it fed with material which has been proved to be diverting.

Miss Farrar often expresses a keen desire to travel unbeaten paths, in order to study the people and absorb the atmosphere of strange countries. Especially does she feel drawn toward the Orient. She is full of the joy of living and has the enthusiasm of a buoyant nature and active brain.

If one is asked what her interests are, it is safe to reply, all those things which directly or indirectly contribute to her art. Up to the present time her creative faculties have expressed themselves only in connection with her profession, but those who know her best feel that her operatic career has represented but a fraction of her richly endowed nature. She has set for herself the 'highest standards, and is impatient when she fails, in her own estimation, to reach heights attained by mature artists. Her great ambi­tion permits her to make no allowance for her youth. Like many of us, she feels the crying need for con­structive rather than destructive criti­cism, but she is by no means one of those who yearn for the halycon days when "Art passed over the face of life unspoiled by the spirit of criticism." On the contrary, she courts criticism, and enjoys nothing half so much as the work of conquering along lines up­on which she has been "condemned."

On March 29th, while this magazine was on the press, Miss Farrar received word by cable, from the Emperor of Germany, that she had been decorated Kammersangerin (Court singer) as a reward for her singing in the Prussian Capital. Miss Farrar is younger by fifteen years than any one upon whom this honor has previously been conferred, and is the first American to receive it.

From Putnam’s Magazine, May 1908.