The following is a guest post from Senior Music Cataloger Sharon McKinley.
As a cataloger, I don’t generally become intimate with the Library of Congress’s special collections, but sometimes magic happens. Several years ago, I encountered American soprano Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967) quite by accident in the course of creating a bibliographic record for her collection. She proved to be a fascinating subject, and I eventually got to take a peek at the collection and her life.
Much of the collection contains what you would expect: photos, letters, drafts of her autobiography, her original compositions, contracts, radio scripts, and dozens of programs. Ah, but we also have some gorgeous fans she used as Madama Butterfly in its first Metropolitan Opera production in 1907. We hold her medals and awards, and the drawings of airplanes she made while serving as a ground observer in World War II.
What a personal collection like Farrar’s does is give you an idea of what the person was like in the context of the time, and the social history here is fascinating. She was first and foremost a fine singer, with a career that ran from 1901 to 1922; however, Farrar did much more than sing in operas. She composed songs, arranged pieces by composers from Bach to Tchaikovsky, made political speeches, and gave lectures — quite an active woman!
Farrar was a true diva. There were wars with singers and conductors. She had screaming female fans, called “Gerryflappers.” The collection includes telegrams, including one from the group on the Union Pacific Limited who had caught her in a Saturday afternoon Met broadcast and sent its congratulations. The scrapbooks contain everything from reviews of her performances to society columnists’ comments on her glamorous Christian Dior dresses.
Farrar was an astute manager of her own career and reinvented herself several times: as an opera singer, concert artist, and silent film star. When she retired from performing, she became a commentator at the Met—they called her a “raconteuse”—and earned rave reviews as a radio personality.
Books on Farrar’s life such as Such Sweet Compulsion : The Autobiography of Geraldine Farrar and Elizabeth Nash’s biography, Always First Class: The Career of Geraldine Farrar, highlight some spectacular love affairs, in particular with Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, Arturo Toscanini, and Enrico Caruso. Her loyalty to Wilhelm is especially touching. We have his thank-you notes for the care packages she sent after World War II. She also performed public service during that war and was active in the Red Cross and the American Women’s Voluntary Service of the Army Air Force. One more piece of trivia: Farrar is buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, along with some of my ancestors. It’s fun to rub elbows with the rich and famous, however vicariously!
What a privilege it has been to meet this great woman. I learned a lot about a ground-breaking artist who is little-known today, while helping to present her to Library users. We are lucky to have her memorabilia—especially those beautiful fans. And now, after reading about this remarkable musician, enjoy a 1916 recording of Farrar singing the entrance of Cio-Cio-San from Madama Butterfly!