Geraldine Farrar: the will to succeed

Leer en español

Geraldine Farrar (1882 – 1967) was an American soprano who reigned at the Metropolitan Opera of New York during 16 seasons, beginning in 1906, after developing the first part of her career in Europe. Her definitive singing studies were in Berlin under the guidance of Lilli Lehmann and she was one of the first operatic artists to reach a massive audience through her participation in radio broadcasts and silent movies —Farrar starred in one of the first two cinematographic adaptations of Carmen, directed by Cecil B. De Mille in 1915. She replaced Emma Calvé at the world premiere of Amica by Mascagni in 1905 and created the title roles in the world premieres of Königskinder by Humperdinck in 1910, Madame Sans-Gêne by Umberto Giordano in 1915 and Suor Angelica by Puccini in 1918. She appeared as Cio-Cio San in the first performance of Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan with Enrico Caruso, supervised by Puccini, and she took part in the United States premiere of Lodoletta by Mascagni, with Caruso as well. She appeared at the Metropolitan Opera premieres of Zazà by Leoncavallo, Louise by Charpentier and Thaïs by Massenet.


“To measure the importance of Geraldine Farrar (at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York) one has only to think of the void there would have been during the last decade, and more, if she had not been there. Try to picture the period between 1906 and 1920 without Farrar, it is inconceivable! Farrar, more than any other singer, has been the triumphant living symbol of the new day for the American artist at the Metropolitan. She paved the way. Since that night, in 1906, when her Juliette stirred the staid old house, American singers have been added year by year to the personnel. Among these younger singers there are those who will admit at once that it was the success of Geraldine Farrar which gave them the impetus to work hard for a like success.”

These thoughts have been voiced by a recent reviewer, and will find a quick response from young singers all over the country, who have been inspired by the career of this representative artist, and by the thousands who have enjoyed her singing and her many characterizations.

I was present on the occasion of Miss Farrar’s debut at the greatest opera house of her home land. I, too, was thrilled by the fresh young voice in the girlish and charming impersonation of Juliette. It is a matter of history that from the moment of her auspicious return to America she has been constantly before the public, from the beginning to end of each operatic season. Other singers often come for part of the season, step out and make room for others. But Miss Farrar, as well as Mr. Caruso, can be depended on to remain.

Any one who gives the question a moment’s thought, knows that such a career, carried through a score of years, means constant, unremitting labor. There must be daily work on vocal technic; repertoire must be kept up to opera pitch, and last and perhaps most important of all, new works must be sought, studied and assimilated.

The singer who can accomplish these tasks will have little or no time for society and the gay world, inasmuch as her strength must be devoted to the service of her art. She must keep healthy hours, be always ready to appear, and never disappoint her audiences. And such, according to Miss Farrar’s own words is her record in the service of art.

While zealously guarding her time from interruption from the merely curious, Miss Farrar does not entrench herself behind insurmountable barriers, as many singers seem to do, so that no honest seeker for her views of study and achievement can find her. While making a rule not to try voices of the throng of young singers who would like to have her verdict on their ability and prospects, Miss Farrar is very gracious to those who really need to see her. Again unlike others she will make an appointment a couple of weeks in advance, and one can rest assured she will keep that appointment to the day and hour, in spite of many pressing calls on her attention.

To meet and talk for an hour with an artist who has so often charmed you from the other side of the footlights, is a most interesting experience. In the present instance it began with my being taken up to Miss Farrar’s private sanctum, at the top of her New York residence. Though this is her den, where she studies and works, it is a spacious parlor, where all is light, color, warmth and above all, quiet.

A thick crimson carpet hushes the footfall. A luxurious couch piled with silken cushions, and comfortable arm chairs are all in the same warm tint; over the grand piano is thrown a cover of red velvet, gold embroidered. Portraits of artists and many costly trifles are scattered here and there. The young lady who acts as secretary happened to be in the room and spoke with enthusiasm of the singer’s absorption in her work, her delight in it, her never failing energy and good spirits.

“From the day I heard Miss Farrar sing I felt drawn to her and hoped the time would come when I could serve her in some way. I did not know then that it would be in this way. Her example is an inspiration to all who come in touch with her.”

In a few moments Miss Farrar herself appeared, and the young girl withdrew.

And was this Farrar who stood before me, in the flush of vigorous womanhood, and who welcomed me so graciously? The first impression was one of friendliness and sincerity, which caused the artist for the moment to be forgotten in the unaffected simplicity of the woman.

Miss Farrar settled herself comfortably among the red silk cushions and was ready for our talk. The simplicity of manner was reflected in her words. She did not imply there is only one right way, and I have found it. “These things seem best for my voice, and this is the way I work. But, since each voice is different, they might not fit any one else. I have no desire to lay down rules for others; I can only speak of my own experience.”


“And you would first know how I keep strong and well and always ready? Perhaps the answer is, I keep regular hours and habits, and love my work. I have always loved to sing, as far back as I can remember. Music means everything to me, it is my life. As a child and young girl, I was the despair of my playmates because I would not join their games; I did not care to skate, play croquet or tennis, or such things. I never wanted to exercise violently, and, to me, unnecessarily, because it interfered with my singing; took energy which I thought might be better applied. As I grew older I did not care to keep late hours and be in an atmosphere where people smoked and perhaps drank, for these things were bad for my voice and I could not do my work next day. My time is always regularly laid out. I rise at half past seven, and am ready to work at nine. I do not care to sit up late at night, either, for I think late hours react on the voice. Occasionally, if we have a few guests for dinner, I ask them, when ten thirty arrives, to stay as long as they wish and enjoy themselves, but I retire.”


“There are gifted people who may be called natural born singers. Melba is one of these. Such singers do not require much technical practice, or if they need a little of it, half an hour a day is sufficient. I am not one of those who do not need to practice. I give between one and two hours daily to vocalizes, scales and tone study. But I love it! A scale is beautiful to me, if it is rightly sung. In fact it is not merely a succession of notes; it represents color. I always translate sound into color. It is a fascinating study to make different qualities of tonal color in the voice. Certain roles require an entirely different range of colors from others. One night I must sing a part with thick, heavy, rich tones; the next night my tones must be thinned out in quite another timbre of the voice, to fit an opposite character.”

Asked if she can hear herself, Miss Farrar answered:

“No, I do not actually hear my voice, except in a general way; but we learn to know the sensations produced in muscles of throat, head, face, lips and other parts of the anatomy, which vibrate in a certain manner to correct tone production. We learn the feeling of the tone. Therefore every one, no matter how advanced, requires expert advice as to the results.”


“I have studied for a long time with Lilli Lehmann in Berlin; in fact I might say she is almost my only teacher, though I did have some instruction before going to her, both in America and Paris. You see, I always sang, even as a very little girl. My mother has excellent taste and knowledge in music, and finding I was in danger of straining my voice through singing with those older than myself, she placed me with a vocal teacher when I was twelve, as a means of preservation.”

“Lehmann is a wonderful teacher and an extraordinary woman as well. What art is there, what knowledge and understanding! What intensity there is in everything she does. She used to say: ‘Remember, these four walls which inclose you, make a very different space to fill compared to an opera house; you must take this fact into consideration and study accordingly.’ No one ever said a truer word. If one only studies or sings in a room or studio, one has no idea of what it means to fill a theater. It is a distinct branch of one’s work to gain power and control and to adapt one’s self to large spaces. One can only learn this by doing it.”

“It is sometimes remarked by listeners at the opera, that we sing too loud, or that we scream. They surely never think of the great size of the stage, of the distance from the proscenium arch to the footlights, or from the arch to the first set of wings. They do not consider that within recent years the size of the orchestra has been largely increased, so that we are obliged to sing against this great number of instruments, which are making every possible kind of a noise except that of a siren. It is no wonder that we must make much effort to be heard: sometimes the effort may seem injudicious. The point we must consider is to make the greatest possible effect with the least possible exertion.”

“Lehmann is the most painstaking, devoted teacher a young singer can have. It is proof of her excellent method and her perfect understanding of vocal mastery, that she is still able to sing in public, if not with her old-time power, yet with good tone quality. It shows what an artist she really is. I always went over to her every summer, until the war came. We would work together at her villa in Gruenewald, which you yourself know. Or we would go for a holiday down nearer Salzburg, and would work there. We always worked wherever we were.”


“How do I memorize? I play the song or role through a number of times, concentrating on both words and music at once. I am a pianist anyway; and committing to memory is very easy for me. I was trained to learn by heart from the very start. When I sang my little songs at six years old, mother would never let me have any music before me: I must know my songs by heart. And so I learned them quite naturally. To me singing was like talking to people.”


“You ask me to explain the difference between the coloratura and the dramatic organ. I should say it is a difference of timbre. The coloratura voice is bright and brilliant in its higher portion, but becomes weaker and thinner as it descends; whereas the dramatic voice has a thicker, richer quality all through, especially in its lower register. The coloratura voice will sing upper C, and it will sound very high indeed. I might sing the same tone, but it would sound like A flat, because the tone would be of such totally different timbre.”


“If I have any message to the young singer, it would be: Stick to your work and study systematically, whole-heartedly. If you do not love your work enough to give it your best thought, to make sacrifices for it, there is something wrong with you. Then choose some other line of work, to which you can give undivided attention and devotion. For music requires this. As for sacrifices, they really do not exist, if they promote the thing you honestly love most.”

“Do not fancy you can properly prepare yourself in a short time to undertake a musical career, for the path is a long and arduous one. You must never stop studying, for there is always so much to learn. If I have sung a role a hundred times, I always find places that can be improved; indeed I never sing a role twice exactly in the same way. So, from whatever side you consider the singer’s work and career, both are of absorbing interest.”

“Another thing; do not worry, for that is bad for your voice. If you have not made this tone correctly, or sung that phrase to suit yourself, pass it over for the moment with a wave of the hand or a smile; but don’t become discouraged. Go right on! I knew a beautiful American in Paris who possessed a lovely voice. But she had a very sensitive nature, which could not endure hard knocks. She began to worry over little failures and disappointments, with the result that in three years her voice was quite gone. We must not give way to disappointments, but conquer them, and keep right along the path we have started on.”


“Modern music requires quite a different handling of the voice and makes entirely different demands upon it than does the older music. The old Italian operas required little or no action, only beautiful singing. The opera houses were smaller and so were the orchestras. The singer could stand still in the middle of the stage and pour out beautiful tones, with few movements of body to mar his serenity. But we, in these days, demand action as well as song. We need singing actors and actresses. The music is declamatory; the singer must throw his whole soul into his part, must act as well as sing. Things are all on a larger scale. It is a far greater strain on the voice to interpret one of the modern Italian operas than to sing one of those quietly beautiful works of the old school.”

“America’s growth in music has been marvelous on the appreciative and interpretive side. With such a musical awakening, we can look forward to the appearance of great creative genius right here in this country, perhaps in the near future. Why should we not expect it? We have not yet produced a composer who can write enduring operas or symphonies. MacDowell is our highest type as yet; but others will come who will carry the standard higher.”


“The singer must be willing to admit limitations of voice and style and not attempt parts which do not come within the compass of her attainments. Neither is it wise to force the voice up or down when it seems a great effort to do so. We can all think of singers whose natural quality is mezzo, let us say, who try to force the voice up into a higher register. There is one artist of great dramatic gifts, who not content with the rich quality of her natural organ, tried to add several high notes to the upper portion. The result was disastrous. Again, some of our young singers who possess beautiful, sweet voices, should not force them to the utmost limit of power, simply to fill, or try to fill a great space. The life of the voice will be impaired by such injurious practice.”


“What do I understand by vocal mastery? It is something very difficult to define. For a thing that is mastered must be really perfect. To master vocal art, the singer must have so developed, his voice that it is under complete control; then he can do with it whatsoever he wishes. He must be able to produce all he desires of power, pianissimo, accent, shading, delicacy and variety of color. Who is equal to the task?”

Miss Farrar was silent a moment; then she said, answering her own question:

“I can think of but two people who honestly can be said to possess vocal mastery: they are Caruso and McCormack. Those who have only heard the latter do little Irish tunes, have no idea of what he is capable. I have heard him sing Mozart as no one else I know of can. These two artists have, through ceaseless application, won vocal mastery. It is something we are all striving for!”

Text excerpted from Vocal Mastery, Harriette Brower, New York, 1917.