On November 23, 1924, opera singer Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967) appears in Seattle in Georges Bizet's Carmen at the Metropolitan Theatre, located on University Street between 4th and 5th avenues, on the present-day grounds of the Fairmont (formerly Four Seasons) Olympic Hotel. This is Seattle's first and only opportunity to see the legendary singer in a full-scale opera production. Critics split decisively over Farrar's controversial interpretation, which deviates wildly from the traditional presentation. Although audiences seem generally pleased with the singer's turn as the exotic Spanish gypsy, critics debate the artistic merits of Farrar's attempt to modernize the most famous of all operas.
The Yankee Diva
Geraldine Farrar was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, in 1882, and as a youngster was noticed almost immediately for her exceptional voice. Farrar's formal singing career is said to have begun at the age of 12, when she was selected to perform the ever-popular "Home Sweet Home" at a local pageant. Deviating from the program, the girl astonished the crowd by first performing an aria from Faust (albeit in broken Italian), for which she earned a hearty response. "Home Sweet Home" served as her encore.
The effort was amateurish, but got her noticed. She was soon taking formal voice lessons in Boston, and when her talent showed limitless possibilities, she pursued further training in Europe.
After several years of intense study, Geraldine Farrar eventually became a favorite at the Berlin Opera, where she mesmerized audiences with her tremendous vocal talent and natural dramatic abilities. Her success was all the more astonishing when one considers the considerable prejudice Farrar had to overcome from audiences, critics, and fellow performers, many of whom railed against the presence of an American in what they saw as a strictly European art form. Nevertheless, her career blossomed, and she sang on stages throughout Europe and later in America, performing alongside the likes of Enrico Caruso and other notable operatic figures.
All the Rage
At the height of her early stardom, Geraldine Farrar became such a popular figure that droves of young men -- dubbed "Gerry-flappers" -- obsessed over her every move. Somewhat akin to the teen response that later greeted performers such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, these fanatic opera devotees displayed a form of hysteria that appeared quite shocking and undignified for the era. Even Cecil B. DeMille, who eventually directed Farrar onscreen and who had seen plenty of celebrity figures in his day, was taken aback by the extent of her popularity. He writes in his 1959 autobiography:
"Geraldine Farrar, 40 years and more ago, without the benefit of radio, television, or films, had achieved a height of acclaim which I do not believe has been equaled in my lifetime by any theatrical figure except Maude Adams and Mary Pickford" (DeMille).
An Opera Star on the Silent Screen?
In 1915, with developing voice trouble and the onset of World War I in Europe (which, among other things, limited her concert engagements), Geraldine Farrar shocked everyone by signing a lucrative film contract with Jessie Lasky and Sam Goldwyn. The move horrified the opera world, but the American upstart was undeterred, for films were simply a new medium in which to test her talents, and without straining her increasingly fragile voice.
Under the direction of DeMille, Farrar's screen version of Carmen (her second film but the first to be released) debuted in 1915, playing Seattle's Liberty Theater (1520 1st Avenue) beginning on November 2, 1915. Farrar's Carmen competed locally with the Theda Bara version made for William Fox, which opened the same day at Seattle's Clemmer Theater (1414 2nd Avenue). Both pictures played for a full week.
Carmen made Geraldine Farrar a screen star in addition to a singing star, and she continued to make motion pictures into the early 1920s, spending winters onstage and summers making films. Even though her reputation was still (and would always be) tied to opera, for a brief time she was also a fairly good draw at the box office, although none of her subsequent films compared to the success of Carmen.
Farrar in Seattle, in Carmen
Geraldine Farrar made four appearances in Seattle during her career. She appeared in 1913 at the Moore Theater and in 1922 at the Arena, both solo concert engagements sponsored by the Ladies Musical Club. Each was a one-night performance that brought out prominent members of Seattle society, and although critics felt that Farrar's vocal work was somewhat restrained for both engagements, she was nonetheless the city's attraction-par-excellence during each visit.
For her third local engagement, in November 1924, the singer turned up in her signature production, Carmen, booked for a one-day appearance at the Metropolitan Theatre. The engagement was significant not only because it was Seattle's first and only opportunity to see Geraldine Farrar in a full operatic performance, but also because the company she headed was playing a truncated version of Bizet's famous opera, which the star herself had put together.
Controversial in its interpretation, Farrar's version of Carmen concentrated the action on three main characters and eliminated the chorus altogether (which many, as one publicity notice read, "have always looked upon as a needless lengthening of a weak breach in the operatic scenario"). Farrar also cut several minor characters, altered traditional musical arrangements, and used highly stylized sets and costuming. An overt effort by Farrar to make grand opera more accessible to the average theatergoer, the production, assured one advance notice, "unfolds the story much in the manner that [is] employed in the unfolding of a motion picture story ...."
The star's schedule for the Carmen tour was grueling. In her memoir she writes that she gave 123 performances in 125 days and says, "I shouldn't care to repeat it" (Such Sweet Compulsion).
Yet, despite the tremendous respect for her talents, Geraldine Farrar had taken perhaps the most beloved of all operatic works and altered its style and content in a manner that would undoubtedly displease purists. "To look for the traditional in Farrar," the Seattle Daily Times warned, "would be like expecting an orchid to blossom as a lily, and the conventional-minded should approach her new Carmen with shock absorbers properly adjusted."
Local reaction to Geraldine Farrar's operatic experiment was decidedly mixed. The Star was quite open to the new production, noting that the singer's performance was equal to her work in the traditional version of Carmen, excepting, perhaps, that her vocal range was less powerful than it once had been. The crowd at the Metropolitan seemed generally pleased with the changes.
The Times was also in the singer's camp. It focused on several differences between the Farrar production and the full opera: The third act was missing entirely and two of Carmen's notable arias, her card and gypsy songs, were given to another character. Yet, "[n]o great violence ... has been done to Prosper Merimee's story." The changes seemed to have suited everyone, since:
"nine-tenths of her audiences go to see and hear `Farrar as Carmen' rather than `Carmen with Farrar,' the performance is what the doctor ordered, and it fascinated the majority of its patrons yesterday afternoon. And of that public there were doubtless many who feel that one who can condense any one of the old grand opera classics into two hours and still retain the continuity of its story and the loveliest of its music, has performed a public service" ("Farrar is Fascinating").
Farrar's Carmen's Critics
A public service to some, appalling to others. Everhardt Armstrong of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer disapproved of such a lowbrow approach to traditional opera. His respect for Farrar and her talents tempered his response to the production, which he found "in the main pleasurable," but he disliked even the premise of modifying Carmen:
"Oscar Wilde, when urged to alter a scene in one of his plays, replied with blasting irony: 'Who am I to tamper with a masterpiece?'
What Wilde refused to do with his own drama, Geraldine Farrar has not hesitated to do with one of the noblest of grand operas, Bizet's Carmen. Refashioning it to her own taste with the utmost freedom, she has produced an emphatically 'modern' paraphrase. Not only has the work been abridged, but the sequence of the arias has been changed, and various liberties taken with the story. Ensembles have been eliminated; also, several of the characters. More, two of Carmen's numbers were ruthlessly torn from their context and have been assigned to Mercedes.
But to catalogue the details of Miss Farrar's revision would be futile. The only justification for radical alteration of any work of art is actual improvement in its quality. Is Farrar's Carmen superior to Bizet's? I enlist among the heretics. I prefer Bizet's music as he wrote it, and I think the Meilhac and Helevy adaptation of Merimee's immortal story far superior to Miss Farrar's" (Armstrong).
Seattle's dailies couldn't even agree on the backdrops. Selected by Farrar and based on the paintings of Spanish artist Ignacio Zuloaga, they were "impressionistic settings, in great splashes of color, [which] are most effective" in the eyes of the Times. But, in the eyes of Everhardt Armstrong of the Post-Intelligencer: "[O]f scenic investiture there was virtually none, color masses and lighting effects taking its place."
Geraldine Farrar returned to Seattle for the last time in 1929, and performed a single concert on the evening of February 19, 1929, again at Metropolitan. Then nearing 50, the singer could no longer demonstrate the vocal range she once possessed, but she had nonetheless grown more graceful and elegant, launching a new phase of her career that appeared to hold significant promise.
According to the Star, audiences at the Metropolitan "were greeted, not by the fiery, black haired Carmen of yesterday, but by a poised, matured singer, whose gray hair was admirably offset by the white brocade of her robe .... After her finale, the paper reported, the singer "received an ovation surpassing that accorded any artist heard here in a long time."
Geraldine Farrar spent her last few years as a stage performer giving concert recitals similar to her 1929 Seattle performance. But she soon gave up the stage altogether. For one season she served as a radio commentator for broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and eventually retired to her home in rural Connecticut.
Geraldine Farrar died in March 1967.