Geraldine Farrar: Opera Diva, Actress, Movie Star: Part 1

In 1898 a sixteen-year-old soprano named Geraldine Farrar auditioned for Maurice Grau, manager at the Metropolitan Opera. Dissatisfied with the provided pianist, she promptly fired him on the spot and then took to the bench to accompany herself. “What my emotions were when I passed in through the stage door I cannot describe,” she later wrote. “I sang as I believe I had never sung before.”

Although Grau was duly impressed, he also thought that Farrar could benefit from European training before a debut. But as a consolation prize, he offered her a slot singing at one of the Met’s Sunday night concerts.

“No, thank you, Mr. Grau,” I replied. (No tame concert appearances after my imagination had been dazzled by a possible début in opera!)

“But it might be valuable to you to have your name on the billboards of the Metropolitan Opera House,” he urged good-naturedly.

“You will see it there some day,” I replied with firm conviction.

Farrar’s unflappable (some would say unfeminine) self-confidence must have been a sight to behold, even in an art form famous for its egos. But that confidence wasn’t misplaced. Geraldine Farrar was exactly right: not only would she soon see her name on the Met’s billboards, she would eventually become one of the greatest operatic performers of her age.

*

Geraldine Farrar was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, on 28 February 1882, a year after her parents’ wedding. Her father Sidney was a haberdashery store-owner and later the first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, and her eighteen-year-old mother Henrietta was the musically inclined daughter of a violin teacher. Both Farrars sang in the choir of the First Universalist Church of Melrose. So it was only natural that their only child would develop an interest in music. As a toddler, little Geraldine banged on piano keys and sang barrel organ airs. At three she sang at her first concert at church. When she finished, she walked to the edge of the platform and asked her mother, “Did I do it well, mamma?” Her audience was entranced by her moxie.

Her parents, sensing incipient musical talent, enrolled Farrar in piano lessons, but she rebelled against them. “I could not force myself to study according to rule or tradition. I wanted to try out things my own way, according to impulse.” Her mother sought to incentivize her studies by promising Geraldine a tricycle if she took the piano seriously. She didn’t, but her father bought her the tricycle anyway, “as well as a pony later.”

“I spent most of my time with books and music, or playing with animals,” she later wrote of her childhood. The Farrar family owned a veritable menagerie which consisted of, in addition to cats and a Newfoundland dog, “a chameleon, a pair of small alligators, guinea-pigs, rabbits, a bullfinch, and a robin with a broken wing.” Geraldine treated her pets like she might have treated younger siblings, dressing the cats up as actresses, and even once attaching a harness to the Newfoundland, who she then instructed to plow the back garden.

Her relationships with humans were somewhat rockier. She was a blaze of energy and conviction, and she got into fistfights with any girl or boy who crossed her. In elementary school, after a ten-year-old admirer fell through the ice, she used his death as a chance to play widow. The verve with which she embraced her role verged on unnerving: “In life this young boy had meant absolutely nothing to me; in death he became a dramatic possibility which I utilized unconsciously as an outlet for my emotion. I was not pretending; I was terribly in earnest. I actually believed in my grief. Who can say that it was ‘only acting’?”

Her interest in acting, as well as in singing, blossomed during her adolescence. In 1894, at the age of twelve, she played the role of Jenny Lind in the local May Carnival. By lucky chance, one of the audience members present was a pupil of a woman named Mrs. J. H. Long, who was a well-regarded singing instructor from Boston. This audience member was so impressed by Geraldine’s performance that she encouraged her to go to Boston to audition for Long. Sidney Farrar was initially hesitant to grant permission, but the women in the family wouldn’t take no for an answer, and soon they were regularly taking the train to Boston. By the time Geraldine reached high school, her mother had convinced the school board to allow her daughter to specialize in the academic subjects most useful to opera singers.

It was in Boston that she saw her first grand operas. She was instantly hooked. “This triumph I had witnessed was that toward which all my hopes, fears, and prayers had been directed.” She had the chance to sing for superstar tenor Jean de Reszke, who suggested that she leave Boston and study in New York. So mother and daughter moved to Manhattan, while Mr. Farrar stayed at home alone in Melrose tending to the hat shop.

Her first teacher was Louisa Cappiani, who immediately wanted Geraldine to sign a three-year contract. Mrs. Farrar, canny and ever-protective of her daughter, said no. Geraldine then moved on to teacher Emma Thursby, who also served as a guide to the glamorous world of New York theater and grand opera.

Eventually Geraldine met and sang for Nellie Melba, who was so dazzled by Farrar that she arranged a performance in front of her manager. That manager also offered her a contract, but again, Mrs. Farrar convinced her daughter to turn it down. She had decided that Geraldine would only embark on a career once she was musically and emotionally mature.

And in the 1890s, there was only one place where a budding soprano could complete her training: Europe.

*

The Farrars weren’t poor, but Sidney’s haberdashery wouldn’t be able to support the costs of foreign study. Luckily, however, through Thursby’s connections, Geraldine and her mother met a wealthy Boston woman, Mrs. Bertram Webb, who offered to loan the family an indefinite amount of money, to be repaid once Geraldine began her career. In all, Mrs. Webb advanced the Farrar family an eye-popping $30,000 (the rough equivalent to a million dollars today) so they could conquer the capitals of Europe in style. (“Every dollar of it was repaid within two years after my return to America,” Geraldine noted proudly in her memoir.)

Interestingly, despite this extravagant loan, when Mr. and Mrs. Farrar and their daughter set out on their European adventure in September of 1899, they took a very humble method of transportation: the cargo liner the S.S. Armenian. “She was a cattle boat,” Geraldine wrote bluntly. “The passengers were merely incidental, the beef was vital.”

Once they arrived in Paris, the ambitious young student ignored the letters of introduction in her pocket and instead went door-to-door to various teachers, preferring to make her first impression in-person and on her own merits. She finally chose as a teacher a colorful Spanish tenor, the Marquis de Trabadello, who had taught great sopranos like Sybil Sanderson and Emma Eames. But the fit wasn’t right, and she struggled.

In the spring of 1900 she heard that one of her childhood idols, Lillian Nordica, was in town, and that Nordica and her husband drove daily in the Bois de Boulogne. Years earlier, as a devoted young fan, Geraldine had cut out Nordica’s picture and put it in a locket. She brought that locket to the park and threw it in Nordica’s lap to get her attention. The stunt worked; Geraldine sang for Nordica; and Nordica suggested that she leave Paris and attempt to climb the social ladder in Berlin instead.

Nordica had one woman in mind who she thought would make a worthy Farrar champion: Frau von Rath, wife of a leading Berlin banker. According to Farrar’s memoir, “Frau von Rath maintained one of the most beautiful homes in the German capital, and her social functions were attended by leading dignitaries and officials of the Court.” There, Nordica believed, her young admirer could gain a professional – and maybe even personal – foothold.

Frau von Rath was instantly charmed by the confident American teenager. Geraldine was asked if she’d like to sing for the Intendant of the Royal Opera, “the personal representative of the Kaiser. He has the private ear of the sovereign, and is supposed to carry out his wishes in the conduct of the Royal Opera.”

Geraldine wrote of the preparations:

With the care which I have always bestowed upon my costumes, I ordered an elaborate blue crêpe-de-Chine evening gown, to be worn with pearls and diamonds. I carefully studied anew the waltz song from “Juliet,” the aria from “Traviata,” and the bird song from “Pagliacci.” Suddenly, to my consternation, Frau von Rath notified me that the audience, which was to be in her ballroom, would have to be held in the afternoon instead of the evening, as some occasion at the Palace necessitated the presence of the Intendant there at night.

I was desolate; but I agreed to sing, first begging Frau von Rath to draw the heavy curtains and turn on all the lights, as though for an evening function, so that I could wear my evening gown with the pearls and the diamonds. I can remember now the suppressed murmurs of “The crazy American!” when I appeared, but I obtained the compliment of immediate attention and created the effect I wished.”

The Intendant, a man named Count von Hochberg, invited Farrar to sing with the Royal Opera. Despite the fact that she had never sung in German before, she was immediately offered a contract lasting three years, to start in the autumn of 1900. Finally here was a contract impossible to pass up. Since she was seventeen and under age, her parents signed it for her.

Geraldine Farrar appeared as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust on 15 October 1901 in Berlin. From this very first performance, she made it clear that she would be not just a singer, but an actress, too. (Indeed, there were rumblings throughout her entire career that she might someday abandon opera entirely in favor of the theater.) Farrar wasn’t afraid to tinker with tradition or her technique to achieve a desired emotional effect: changing entrances, walking around the stage, even laughing in her vocal line. “I am simply trying to make Marguerite a human being,” she said. “She was supposed to be such in the old German drama, but in the opera a singer is criticized if she makes Marguerite anything but a milk-and-water pulverized-sugar dilution of the original.”

Her conviction won the audience over. “The following morning the criticisms were so splendid that I told my mother I would never get any more to equal them – and I did not for a long time.”

Despite her great success, she didn’t have a chance to meet the Kaiser’s family until January of 1903, when she was asked to sing at a palace event. Always a rebel, she refused to observe the mourning dress code of the court, claiming that the required colors of black or lavender simply weren’t “becoming” on her; consequently, she arrived dressed in white. Despite her flout of tradition, the royal family was charmed. It became the first of many visits.

During one of them, she met the Crown Prince Wilhelm, heir to the throne. The two instantly felt a kinship…and maybe something more. Wilhelm immediately developed a sudden passion for grand opera, coming to see Farrar whenever she sang and making (unsuccessful, apparently) attempts to visit her backstage. Rumors about her love life swirled, but Farrar insists (unconvincingly) in her first memoir that nothing romantic ever happened between them.

Her association with the Crown Prince was good for business. By the end of the year she was acknowledged as one of the brightest stars in Berlin. But she was young, ambitious, and hungry to branch out. On a trip to Paris she sang for the directors of the Paris and Monte Carlo operas, as well as the current and future heads of the Met. It was Raoul Gunsberg of Monte Carlo who ultimately offered the most attractive contract.

In March of 1904, she arrived there to sing La Bohème. “I was introduced for the first time to a tenor of whom I had never heard before. He was somewhat stout, not over-tall, but with a wonderful voice and a winning smile. His name was Enrico Caruso.” Caruso didn’t sing in full voice until the actual performance, and hearing that voice for the first time absolutely stunned Farrar. According to her memoirs, the conductor actually had to rap his baton on his desk to get her attention. Farrar and Caruso would both enjoy long and intimately intertwined careers. (They too may have slept together.)

Her European reputation grew so rapidly that in the spring of 1906 Richard Strauss himself asked her if she’d take on the role of Salome in Berlin. He was so eager for her to do so that he offered to rewrite the part for her. “You, Farrar, have such dramatic possibilities, [you] can act and dance half-naked, so no one will care if you sing or not.” Despite that compliment (if that’s what it was…), she ultimately turned down the offer, afraid that the demanding part would injure her voice.

At this time, she was seeking instruction with perhaps her greatest mentor, soprano Lilli Lehmann. Years later she wrote:

Beautiful Lilli Lehmann—stately and serene as a queen; with a wonderful personality which seemed naturally to dominate every presence in the room; past the meridian of life yet with an unbroken record of world achievement behind her; greatest living exponent of Mozart, of Brahms, of Liszt, of Wagner—what more can I say of her than that I approached her with the deference and respect which were her due? I was an eager and humble beginner; she of another generation. My desire to secure her as my instructor seemed almost presumptuous; yet, after hearing me sing, Lilli kindly consented to take me, and I am happy and proud to state that I have been her pupil at all times since that first meeting.

Farrar may have been gifted with a blinding self-confidence, but as her overwhelming admiration for her most talented colleagues prove, she always gave credit where credit was due.

*

After taking Europe by storm, there was one important stage left to conquer: New York’s Metropolitan. Heinrich Conried, the Met’s director from 1903 to 1908, wanted badly to present her, but Farrar drove a hard bargain. She wasn’t about to return to America until she got everything she wanted, and so negotiations continued on-and-off for years. Her mother carefully studied the relevant law to ensure that any resulting contract would be beneficial for her daughter. The concessions the Farrar women ultimately won were staggering:

Besides my guaranteed operatic performances I was to sing in no private houses unless agreeable to me and only for special compensation; and I incorporated every possible clause imaginable about dressing-rooms, drawing-rooms on trains, carriages, railroad fares for my mother and my maids on tour, and in fact every conceivable concession which the most arrogant prima donna might demand. Not that I really cared about such items of expense, but I was determined to enter the Metropolitan en dignité, and I did.

In November 1906 the family sailed back to America in style on the Kaiser Wilhelm II. The contrast to their voyage via cargo ship seven years earlier was glaring.

Geraldine Farrar in a car
Farrar leaving Berlin for America

The frantic press met Farrar at the dock:

“An avalanche of questions, almost all pointedly personal, were hurled at me, everybody talking at once. The rôle of the modest violet was not to be mine, I could see from the outset…. Yes, I loved Berlin…. Yes, I had sung for the Emperor…. Yes, the Crown Prince and the Crown Princess were a charming couple…. Yes, I hoped to duplicate my European successes in my own country…. No, I was not engaged…. Nor secretly married…. Why?… Well, because I just wasn’t. And so on—endlessly, it seemed. Pencils scribbled unceasingly and cameras clicked at all possible angles. I did not care for that, since I wore a most fetching little turban and some beautiful furs (the pictures wouldn’t be unattractive). I was hardly settled at my hotel when the editions of the papers were being sold, and their readers learned from the notices, profusely illustrated (the turban really did come out well!), that “Geraldine Farrar had arrived.”

Despite the great expectations and her sky-high stress level, Farrar acquitted herself in Roméo et Juliette. It was a role that she was hesitant to make her debut with; she’d pushed for Tannhäuser, which she had just performed in Europe. But Conreid held firm and Farrar acquiesced, although she doesn’t seem to have remembered much about the debut she’d spent years awaiting:

I cannot remember distinctly all that occurred that auspicious evening. There seemed to be cart-loads of flowers; and again and again I smiled out from the great yellow curtains. Mr. Conried congratulated me, and the great evening was over!

I was at home.

*

But Farrar’s first true professional highlight at the Met came in February of 1907, when she starred in the company’s first production of a recently-written Italian work. It was set in Japan and called Madama Butterfly.

*

More on Geraldine Farrar’s adventures in the next entry (which will drop either in one or two weeks; not sure on the schedule yet thanks to the holidays)!

As always, a huge shout-out to the patrons who make this series of articles on forgotten musical women possible! It wouldn’t happen without you. If you want to support the series for as little as a dollar a month, click here. Entries (typically) come out every other Wednesday.

Sources:

Geraldine Farrar: The Story of an American Singer, by Geraldine Farrar

Geraldine Farrar: Opera’s Charismatic Innovator, 2d ed., by Elizabeth Nash

“Three American Singers: Louise Homer, Geraldine Farrar, Olive Fremstad,” by Willa Cather

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