Geraldine Farrar: Opera Diva, Actress, Movie Star: Part 2

Part 1 covers Geraldine Farrar’s background, childhood, and European training. This second part looks at her American career in opera and film.

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During the Gilded Age, in contrast to their European counterparts, American musicians were often viewed as fundamentally incompetent and incapable of great artistry. This anti-American prejudice was so strong that in 1905 an agent forced Texan pianist Lucy Hickenlooper to adopt a foreign pseudonym before her debut; for the rest of her career, she was known as Olga Samaroff.

But Massachussetts-born soprano Geraldine Farrar never used a pseudonym or shied away from her American roots. Instead she embraced them and even used them to fuel her ascent. She presented herself professionally as a kind of real-life embodiment of the American Gibson Girl ideal: independent, self-assured, often self-absorbed, magnetically charismatic, stunningly beautiful, and inarguably talented.

One of the great ironies of Farrar’s career was that, despite her brash Americanness, she came to prominence while playing a gentle Japanese character. In the words of her first memoir:

The real bright spot in the season was the first production of “Madame Butterfly” on the 11th of February, 1907. This charming opera was to endear me later to all my audiences and firmly establish me in the favor of the whole country.

Farrar was always interested in the extramusical aspects of operatic performance, so before appearing onstage as Cio-Cio San, she threw herself into researching Japanese culture (albeit in a very Eurocentric way). Her preparations included buying Japanese art and clothing, as well as reading French and German books on Japanese culture.

She also hired, in her words, “a clever little Japanese actress, Fu-ji-Ko” to serve as her maid and adviser on all things Japanese. However, as Mari Yoshihara writes in Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism, Farrar’s “performance of Japanese femininity was fraught with power dynamics based on racial, national, and class differences between herself and the Japanese woman she hired as a ‘maid.'” Unfortunately Fujiko’s identity and biography have been lost to history, including more specific knowledge of how she did or didn’t influence Farrar’s benchmark performance. Farrar was more interested in touting Fujiko as a symbol of her own hard work than in preserving a record of any input Fujiko may have given her. Indeed, while editing the images in her book Such Sweet Compulsion, Farrar’s publisher noticed that the signature on her photograph of Fujiko didn’t even read Fujiko! Instead of getting to the bottom of the matter, the publisher just replaced “Fujiko’s” photo with one of Farrar’s mother. In the end, Yoshihara writes, “Farrar’s conception of her role inherited and perpetuated the existing Orientalist discourse in the form of literature, arts, and material culture.” Given how influential Farrar’s Cio-Cio San turned out to be, that perpetuation proved culturally consequential.

The juxtaposition between Farrar’s Americanness and her portrayal of Japanese womanhood, and how the two intertwined in her interpretation, caused intense debate among turn-of-the-century opera lovers. As Yoshihara writes, “Some raised the concern that Farrar’s strong-willed interpretation wasn’t faithful to the character of Japanese women who had been crushed by the patriarchy. Others retorted that Farrar’s portrayal was demonstrating the effect an American husband could have on a Japanese woman.”

Geraldine Farrar publicizing her recordings

Throughout these debates, Farrar’s appeal (especially to women) was a given constant, and often linked to her Americanness. “The bright, vital, intelligent, resourceful, self-assertive American girl sees herself represented on stage and promptly falls head over heels in love with Geraldine Farrar,” Yoshihara reports Musical America as writing. The Woman’s Journal agreed: “Every maiden in the land from subdeb to Aunt Sarah, saw herself and all her dreams and desires projected in the person of this hundred percent American prima donna. She became at once an ideal and an idol.”

Farrar’s female following was so devoted that they soon garnered a nickname: the Gerry-flappers. They stalked the Met’s stage door, waving flags and tossing flowers and love notes. One photograph now in the Library of Congress depicts a crowd of mainly women holding banners that say “WE WANT YOU” and “ALWAYS WITH YOU” in all-capital letters. The passionate connection between Farrar and her female fans crackled with an unusual intensity. In the words of Yoshihara, “The phenomenon of diva-worship, where young, anonymous female fans pursued their idols from opera house to opera house, was a unique terrain of potentially subversive gender norms and sexuality… The flappers’ worship of Farrar, whose career was established by her role of the Japanese heroine, suggests that the performances of alternative femininity, especially in the form of Asian heroines, were not only compatible with but solidified the identity of New Women in the early twentieth century.”

In addition to inciting new ideas about what an American woman should or could be, Farrar also embraced new ideas about opera. Her exponentially increasing fame could be traced, in part, to her embrace of new technology. In an era when many musicians were skeptical or even fearful of recording, she signed a contract with Victor Gramaphone. Over the course of her career, she ultimately recorded dozens of excerpts from eighteen operas.

A high-quality 1927 electrical recording of Farrar

The increasing demand for her performances, and her penchant for overworking herself, ultimately backfired. By the autumn of 1908, Farrar’s reserves of energy were almost entirely depleted. In addition, she began battling with the Met’s new conductor, the forty-one-year-old Arturo Toscanini. As legend goes, Toscanini brought a rehearsal of Madama Butterfly to a halt to correct Farrar, who retorted, “Maestro, you must conduct as I sing, for I am the star.” Toscanini replied, “The stars are in heaven.” “But the public pays to see my face, not your back,” she returned. (Farrar was later satisfied to see Toscanini conducting another soprano in Butterfly to a less-than-full house.) She loathed her arrogant new colleague so intensely that she offered to buy out her own contract, but the Met administration turned her offer down.

Luckily during a Chicago performance of Butterfly, the two mysteriously and suddenly reconciled. She wrote in her memoirs, “When two ardent and honest workers are desirious of eliminating misunderstandings it is not difficult to arrive at a solution. The various phases of the seething disquiet that had prevailed between us were discussed with commendable frankness on both sides. I need not add that the result was a happy one, and I thereby gained a firm friend and an invaluable ally in my work.”

She had also gained a lover. Toscanini and Farrar were together for seven years. The relationship ended in 1915 after Farrar reportedly issued an ultimatum, demanding that he choose between her or his wife and children. He chose his family. Between the breakdown of their relationship and his fury at cost-cutting being pursued by Met management, he submitted an unexpected resignation letter and bought a ticket for the Lusitania‘s final voyage. He was so irritated by circumstances that he rebooked passage on another ship leaving a few hours earlier, just to hasten his departure from New York. His impatience likely saved his life.

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Despite her frequent bouts with overwork and exhaustion, Farrar’s tenure at the Met was full of artistic triumphs. One of her most iconic roles was that of the Goose Girl in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Königskinder. “Professor Humperdinck was not a little taken aback when I first mentioned that I intended having these live geese which were, according to my plan, to move naturally and unconfined about the stage,” she wrote in her memoirs. A tank of water was installed backstage, and food withheld from the flock until the performance. By the time Farrar took to the stage with a pouch of corn around her waist, the hungry birds would follow her anywhere. At the end of the show, she took a final bow with a placid goose under her arm. The audience was mesmerized, and Königskinder became a fixture at the Met throughout the 1910s. However, the opera, written by a German, faced the programming axe once America entered WWI and German works were struck from stages across the country.

Farrar as the Goose Girl

Farrar endured dramatic health trouble during the 1913/14 season. First an attack of bronchitis prevented her from singing in the opening night production, then she collapsed during a performance of Faust. She was later diagnosed with stomach trouble and measles. When war broke out in the summer of 1914 she was convalescing at a Munich sanatorium. She escaped Europe via Italy, where she met up with other Met employees, including her lover Toscanini. She brought so many jewels and gowns that when she passed through Switzerland, the train conductors mistook her for a member of a fleeing royal family.

On the ocean voyage home, Toscanini proposed that Farrar make her debut as Carmen on the opening night of the 1914/15 season. It was an intimidatingly iconic role that she had previously avoided tackling, but the timing, it seemed, was finally right.

Here was indeed an occasion to refute many an unkind rumor that I had lost my voice and would never sing again. And as for the acting, and looking – well, I smiled into the miserable little glass in my stateroom that did duty as a mirror, and blew myself a kiss of congratulation!

Rehearsals began in the ship’s dining room. She made her debut as Carmen at the Met on 19 November 1914, to great success. She became one of the great Carmens of her era, and her ensuing fifty-seven Carmens were sold out.

Unfortunately, by the next spring she was back to dealing with the crippling physical effects of overwork. But unlike the year before, Europe was at war, and she couldn’t recover in a luxurious overseas sanitarium. “It was in the midst of this discouraging condition that motion pictures were suggested to me,” she later wrote. Before the ascent of talkies, film actors only needed to worry about their physical performances, not their vocal ones. That summer she left for Los Angeles.

The Met was apoplectic. Foreshadowing debates that would occur a hundred years later over the Met’s Live in HD broadcasts, the company argued that Farrar’s appearance in films would decrease the demand to see her in-person. However, Farrar wasn’t persuaded by this argument, and she cheerfully rebelled against her employer, partnering up with pioneering director Cecil B. DeMille to shoot an ambitious hour-long movie adaptation of the story of Carmen. Musicians performed as she shot her scenes because she was so used to acting against a backdrop of live music.

The entire 1916 movie

This movie version of Carmen was premiered at a gala event in Boston on 2 October 1915 before an appreciative audience of 2500. Farrar requested that the movie be shown across the country at reduced prices so that those who couldn’t afford a ticket to the opera could at least see her at their local theater. Despite (or maybe because of) the ticket prices, “Carmen” became the production company’s best-performing film.

Buoyed by the success of “Carmen”, she soon returned to California to shoot two additional movies: Temptation and Maria Rosa. (During the filming of the latter, she met and quickly married an actor named Lou Tellegen. The marriage was not a happy one.) But her most ambitious onscreen turn came in 1916, when Farrar was cast in DeMille’s epic Joan of Arc film, titled “Joan the Woman.” It was to be the biggest Hollywood movie yet. Farrar was thrilled: she told DeMille she anticipated the film would be “the greatest work of her life.”

She threw herself into the Joan of Arc project with all her customary energy. She reportedly gained fifty pounds so that she could wear an eighty-pound suit of armor. (Even then, she struggled to wear the costume for more than a few minutes at a time.) In the jail scene, sugar was sprinkled over her body and live mice let loose to eat the trail.

However, the most striking evidence of her commitment to the role was in how she approached her shocking death scene. Before shooting, her skin and clothes were soaked with an inflammable fluid, and ammonia-soaked cotton inserted into her nose and mouth to protect her lungs from the smoke. DeMille later wrote:

Geraldine Farrar…stood amid the smoke and flame until the very end of the scene, when, of course, a dummy made of wood was substituted for the actual burning of Joan’s body. Geraldine wrote later that it was a ‘truly terrifying’ experience; but she did not weaken for a second until, standing aside after her part was over, she saw the dummy being burned where she had stood a short time before. Then she had to go to her dressing room and be sick. That was how thoroughly she had put herself into her role.


The final effect, with its colored flames, remains horrifying a hundred years later.

Excerpts from “Joan the Woman.” The whole movie is also available on Youtube.

“Joan the Woman” was premiered on 25 December 1916. It has since claimed a place in cinematic history as Cecil B. DeMille’s first historical epic, making it a noteworthy forerunner to later classics like “Samson and Delilah” and “The Ten Commandments.”

Playing Carmen and Joan proved to be the high-water mark of Farrar’s movie career. After filming a few more movies, she left the industry. Her actor-turned-director husband had failed to distinguish himself professionally, and she was uninterested in appearing onscreen without him. In addition, although she was well-known in large cities where she had previously sung, she was relatively unknown in smaller cities. Since she could only make so many films a year thanks to her Met commitments, increasing her name recognition in rural areas proved challenging, and this eventually showed in the box office receipts.

That said, her sojourn in California had opened the doors for other “serious” singers and stage actors to explore the new medium, lending it much-needed prestige and legitimacy.

She turned her attention back to performing opera. In February 1917 she sang the lead role in the Met premiere of Massenet’s Thais. She also performed in Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Suor Angelica. She made a particular sensation in Leoncavello’s Zazà, perfuming her bloomers and changing clothes onstage, and allowing her tenor co-star to touch her bare back. Her interpretation was so steamy that her father always chose that particular moment to take a smoke break in the lobby.

Despite these ringing successes, in the early 1920s she began pondering retirement from the Met. In her sixteen years there, she had appeared an astonishing 493 times in 29 roles. (That breaks down to a Met performance roughly once every twelve days.) In addition, she was yet again struggling with poor health, plus she was in the midst of a difficult divorce with Tellege. (The end to Tellege’s story was tragic. In 1934 he committed a bizarre, dramatic suicide by stabbing himself seven times with dressmaker’s shears. Depending on your source, Farrar’s comment to the press was either “I have nothing to say and am not interested” or, more brutally, “why would that interest me?”)

The announcement of her retirement devastated her audience, especially her devoted Gerry-flappers. After her last performance of Carmen, she invited the throng of hundreds of fangirls into her dressing room and gifted them with various souvenirs. She also gave away expensive costumes, wigs, and jewelry to other Met employees.

Geraldine Farrar’s final Met performance occurred on 22 April 1922. The house was full for hours before the curtain rose. Police were dispatched to the house’s entrances. After the second act, a group of Gerry-flappers unrolled a banner reading “None but you, Jerry! From the Gerryflappers!” She took to the stage, asking her audience not to cry, but according to the New York Times a woman yelled back in a cracking voice, “I c-c-can’t help it, I’ve wept bushels!”

Obviously Geraldine Farrar had become more than a singer: more than an opera star, even. Her self-assured attitude, talent, work ethic, and larger-than-life personality had resonated with and inspired many American women, in ways that deserve further analysis and study.

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Farrar’s departure from the Met’s stage didn’t keep her from performing elsewhere. From 1924-25 she actually toured with her own personal opera company. Interestingly, she wrote her own English libretto to the Carmen story, then inserted Bizet’s music as appropriate. She also designed the sets and the costumes and hired the musicians, singers, and dancers. The tour was a success, but physically draining to pull off.

She also sang Lieder until her retirement from performance in November 1932, when she told the Saturday Evening Post: “We are all pretty well fed up with those so-called farewell tours upon which the final curtain never drops until the undertaker is standing in the wings… So, quite simply, I am escaping from the tyranny of the theatre in order to see the world before I need spectacles.” One of the things she did in her seventies was learn how to drive a flashy blue Thunderbird.

In 1934 she returned to Met…in a fashion. She was hired to host intermissions during Saturday broadcasts. The personable broadcast below from January 1935 has survived, and it alludes to a studio especially constructed for her in box 42 with a piano inside:

Her final major contribution to the art centered around issues of race in opera. In the late 1930s she was one of the many Americans who protested Marian Anderson’s being barred from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington on account of her race. Farrar also began championing a young African-American soprano named Camilla Williams. “You have the most beautiful voice, and I’m going to write a letter to my former manager, Arthur Judson, telling him what I think about your singing,” Williams remembered her saying.

When Judson received that letter, he called Farrar to let her know that someone had forged it in her name. He was shocked to discover that Farrar had indeed written it and was serious. In 1946, when Madama Butterfly returned to the repertoire, Williams was hired to sing the title role with New York’s City Center Opera. After the performance, Newsweek asked Farrar if Williams could be one of the great Butterflys. Farrar replied, “I would say that already she is one of the great Butterflys of our day.” To put those remarks in perspective, the conductor of New York’s City Center Opera had received death threats for booking Williams, and black singers would not begin appearing at the Metropolitan Opera until 1955.

A tribute to Camilla Williams

On 11 March 1967, Geraldine Farrar died of a heart attack at her home in Connecticut. She was 85 years old. Although many have forgotten her name, her influence – at times inspiring, at other times problematic – has nonetheless echoed in opera and music for generations.

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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

“Yellowface and Racialized Performance in Madama Butterfly”, Casting Controversies blog

Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism, by Mari Yoshihara

The Toscanini Mystique: The Genius Behind the Music, by Kenneth A. Christensen

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