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Mary Garden - The "Know How" in the Art of Singing

An Interview Secured Expressly for The Etude with the Famous Opera Prima Donna
[Biographical Note.—Mary Garden was born in Aberdeen. Scotland, but came to America with her parents when she was eight years of age and was brought up in Chicopee, Mass.; Hartford, Conn.; and Chicago, Ill. She studied violin, piano and voice in Chicago and then went to Paris where she became a pupil of Trabedello, Chevallier and Fugère. At the Opera Comique she made a long series of successes, becoming particularly distinguished for her work in Charpentier’s Louise, which she sang over one hundred times. After triumphant appearances in Brussels and Paris, she made her American debut at the Manhattan Opera House in New York, November 25th, 1907, in Massenet’s Thais. Since 1910 she has been connected with many of the greatest successes of the Chicago Grand Opera Company.]
mary-garden.jpg“The modern opera singer cannot content herself merely with the ‘know how’ of singing. That is, she must be able to know so much more than the mere elemental facts of voice production that it would take volumes to give an intimation of the real requirements.
“The girl who wants to sing in opera must have one thought and one thought only—‘what will contribute to my musical, histrionic and artistic success?’
“Unless the ‘career’ comes first there is not likely to be any ‘career.’
“I wonder if the public ever realizes what this sacrifice means to an artiste—to a woman.
“Of course, there are great recompenses—the thrill that comes with artistic triumphs—the sensations that accompany achievement—who but the artist can know what this means?—the joy of bringing to life some great masterpiece?
“Music manifests itself in children at a very early age. It is very rare indeed that it comes to the surface later in life. I was always musical. Only the media changed—one time it was violin, then piano, then voice. The dolls of my sisters only annoyed me because I could not tolerate dolls. They seemed a waste of time to me, and when they had paper dolls, I would go into the room when nobody was looking and cut the dolls’ heads off. I have never been able to account for my delight in doing this.
“My father was musical. He wanted me to be a musician, but he had little thought at first of my being a singer. Accordingly, at eight I was possessed of a fiddle. This meant more to me than all the dolls in the world. Oh, how I loved that violin, which I could make speak just by drawing a bow over it! There was something worth while.
“I was only ‘as big as a minute,’ and, of course, as soon as I could play the routine things of deBeriot, variations and the like, I was considered one of those abominable things, ‘an infant prodigy.’
“I was brought out to play for friends and any musical person who could stand it. Then I gave a concert, and my father saw the finger of destiny pointing to my career as a great violinist.
“To me the finger of destiny pointed the other way, because I immediately sickened of the violin and dropped it forever. Yes, I could play now if I had to, but you probably wouldn’t want to hear me.
“Ah, but I do play. I play every time I sing. The violin taught me the need for perfect intonation, fluency in execution, ever so many things.
“Then came the piano. Here was a new artistic toy. I worked very hard with it. My sister and I went back to Aberdeen for a season of private school, and I kept up my piano until I could play acceptably many of the best-known compositions, Grieg, Chopin, etc., being my favorites. I was never a very fine pianist, understand me, but the piano unlocked the doors to thousands of musical treasure houses—admitted me to musical literature through the main gate and has been of invaluable aid to me in my career. See my fingers, how long and thin they are—of course, I was a capable pianist—long, supple fingers, combined with my musical experience gained in violin playing, made that certain.
“Then I dropped the piano. Dropped it at once. Its possibilities stood revealed before me, and they were not to be the limit of my ambitions.
“For the girl who hopes to be an operatic ‘star’ there could be nothing better than a good drilling in violin or piano. The girl has no business to sing while she is yet a child—and she is that until she is sixteen or over. Better let her work hard getting a good general education and a good musical education. The voice will keep, and it will be sweeter and fresher if it is not overused in childhood.
“Once, with my heart set upon becoming a singer, my father fortunately took me to Mrs. Robinson Duff, of Chicago. To her, my mentor to this day, I owe much of my vocal success. I was very young and very emotional, with a long pigtail down my back. At first the work did not enrapture me, for I could not see the use of spending so much time upon breathing. Now I realize what it did for me.
“What should the girl starting singing avoid? First, let her avoid an incompetent teacher. There are teachers, for instance, who deliberately teach the ‘stroke of the glottis’ (coup de glotte).
“What is the stroke of the glottis? The lips of the vocal cords in the larynx are pressed together so that the air becomes compressed behind them and instead of coming out in a steady, unimpeded stream, it causes a kind of explosion. Say the word ‘up’ in the throat very forcibly and you will get the right idea.
“This is a most pernicious habit. Somehow, it crept into some phases of vocal teaching, and has remained. It leads to a constant irritation of the throat and ruin to the vocal organs.
“When I went to Paris Mrs. Duff took me to many of the leading vocal teachers of the city, and said, ‘Now, Mary, I want you to use your own judgment in picking out a teacher, because if you don’t like the teacher you will not succeed.
“Thus we went around from studio to studio. One asked me to do this—to hum—to make funny, unnatural noises, anything but sing. Finally, Trabedello, now retired to his country home, really asked me to sing in a normal, natural way, not as a freak; I said to myself, ‘This is the teacher for me.’ I could not have had a better one.
“Look out for teachers with freak methods—ten to one they are making you one of their experiments. There is nothing that any voice teacher has ever found superior to giving simple scales and exercises sung upon the syllables Lah (ah, as in harbor), Leh (eh, as in they), Lee (ee, as in me). With a good teacher to keep watch over the breathing and the quality ‘what more can one have?’
“I have always believed in a great many scales and in a great deal of singing florid rôles in Italian. Italian is inimitable for the singer. The dulcet velvetlike character of the language gives something which nothing else can impart. It does not make any difference whether you propose to sing in French, German, English, Russian or Soudanese, you will gain much from exercising in Italian.
“Staccato practice is valuable. Here is an exercise which I take nearly every day of my life:
  “The staccato must be controlled from the diaphragm, however, and this comes only after a great deal of work.
“Three-quarters of an hour a day practice suffices me. I find it injurious to practice too long. But I study for hours. Such a role as ‘Aphrodite’ I take quietly and sing it over mentally time and time again without making a sound. I study the harmonies, the nuances, the phrasing, the breathing, so that when the time for singing it comes I know it and do not waste my voice by going over it time and again, as some singers do. In the end I find that I know it better for this kind of study.
“The study of acting has been a very personal matter with me. I have never been through any courses of study, such as that given in dramatic schools. This may do for some people, but it would have been impossible for me. There must be technic in all forms of art, but it has always seemed to me that acting was one of the arts in which the individual must make his own technic. I have seen many representatives of the schools of acting here and abroad. Sometimes their performances, based upon technical studies of the art, result in superb acting. Again, their work is altogether indifferent. Technic in acting is more likely to suppress than to inspire. If acting is not inspired, it is nothing. I study the human emotions that would naturally underlie the scene in which I am placed—then I think what one would be most likely to do under such conditions. When the actual time of appearance on the stage, arrives, I forget all about this and make myself the person of the rôle.
“This is the Italian method rather than the French. There are, to my mind, no greater actors living than Duse and Zacchona, and they are both exponents of the natural method that I employ.
“Great acting has always- impressed me wonderfully. I went from Paris to London repeatedly to see Beerbohm Tree in his best rôles. Sir Herbert was not always uniformly fine, but he was a great actor and I learned much from watching him. Once I induced Debussy to make the trip to see him act. Debussy was delighted.
“Debussy! Ah, what a rare genius—my greatest friend in Art! Everything he wrote we went over together. He was a terribly exacting master. Few people in America realize what a transcendent pianist he was. The piano seemed to be thinking, feeling, vibrating while he was at the keyboard. Time and again we went over his principal works, note for note. Now and then he would stop and clasp his hands over his face in sudden silence, repeating, ‘It is all wrong— it is all wrong.’ But he was too good a teacher to let it go at that. He could tell me exactly what was wrong and how to remedy it. When I first sang for him, at the time when they were about to produce Pelleas and Melisande at the Opera Comique, I thought that I had not pleased him. But I learned later that he had said to M. Carré, the director: ‘Don’t look for anyone else.’ From that time he and his family became my close friends. The fatalistic side of our meeting seemed to interest him very much. ‘To think,’ he used to say, ‘that you were born in Aberdeen, Scotland, lived in America all those years and should come to Paris to create my ‘Melisande!’
“As I have said, Debussy was a gorgeous pianist. He could play with the greatest delicacy and could play in the leonine fashion of Rubinstein. He was familiar with Beethoven, Bach, Handel and the classics, and was devoted to them. Wagner he could not abide. He called him a ‘griffe papier’—a scribbler. He thought that he had no importance in the world of music, and to mention Wagner to him was like waving a red flag before a bull. It is difficult to account for such an opinion. Wagner, to me, is the great tone colorist, the master of orchestral wealth and dramatic intensity. Sometimes I have been so Wagner-hungry that I have not known what to do. For years I went every year to Munich to see the wonderful performances at the Prinzregenten Theater.
“In closing, let me say that it seems to me a great deal of the failure among young singers is that they are too impatient to acquire the ‘know how.’ They want to blossom out on the first night as great prima donnas, without any previous experience. How ridiculous this is! I worked for a whole year at the Opera Comique, at $100 a month, singing such a trying opera as Louise two and three times a week. When they raised me to $175 a month I thought that I was rich, and when $400 a month came, my fortune had surely been made! All this time I was gaining precious experience. It could not have come to me in any other way. As I have said, the natural school—the natural school like that of the Italians—stuffed as it is with glorious red blood instead of the white bones of technic in the misunderstood sense, was the only possible school for me. If our girls would only stop hoping to make a debut at $1,000 a night, and get down to real hard work, the results would come much quicker and there would be fewer broken hearts.”

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