Gladys Swarthout

Biography

Born: December 25, 1900 Died: July 7, 1969
Lovely of voice and physically most attractive, mezzo contralto Gladys Swarthout achieved celebrity but failed to scale any artistic heights. Unfailingly well-prepared, she lacked the spark that marks the difference between a good artist and a great one. Regarded as having been in thrall to her singer husband, Frank Chapman, she too infrequently crossed paths with those who might have galvanized her gifts and made something truly special of them. Still, she was immensely popular and carried a reputation for always dressing in style. Notwithstanding her giving 1904 as her birth year, Swarthout was born at the dawn of the twentieth century. Gaining notice for the voice she exhibited in a church choir, she was dispatched to Chicago to study. Good fortune later led her to conductor Leopoldo Mugnone, who provided her with easy, fluent voice production and the courage to resist forcing, however loud conductors might permit their orchestras to play. Swarthout also credited conductor Giorgio Polacco -- a true singer's conductor -- for withholding roles for which she was not ready. At the Chicago Opera, she made her 1924 debut as the Shepherd in Tosca. For the next season at Ravinia Park, she was engaged to sing Carmen. By the time Swarthout was signed by the Metropolitan Opera in 1929, she was thoroughly seasoned and able to cope with voice projection in large house. Although she considered herself a mezzo, she agreed to make her debut as la Cieca in La Gioconda and appeared before a New York opera audience for the first time on November 15, 1929. Critics were pleased by her attractive, well-produced voice, although her appearance as the old woman concealed her good looks. Those were better displayed in a succession of modest parts, several of them trouser roles such as Siebel, Stephano (Roméo et Juliette), and Frédéric (Mignon) for which her trim figure was well-suited. Gradually, she was assigned more interesting -- or at least more glamorous -- parts, such as Adalgisa, Carmen, and Preziosilla, although her refined demeanor scarcely made her a natural choice for the later two. The singer enjoyed the roles, however, and determined to confine herself to a lyric repertory, leaving the larger parts to dramatic mezzos. When she moved upward to the title role in Mignon, she found a character entirely congenial, one whose vocal requirements were also easily managed. Other interesting operas that came her way were Deems Taylor's Peter Ibbetson and Howard Hanson's Merry Mount. Gradually, Swarthout reduced the number of her opera appearances. Concerts and recitals proved more lucrative and in concert performance, audiences could better appreciate the immediate warmth of her voice, her movie-star looks (she did have a brief film career), and the aura of elegance she brought to these events. Moreover, feeling a particular affinity for arias from the Baroque period, she was comfortable to a degree not possible for her on the operatic stage. Given the operatic repertory of her time, too few opportunities presented themselves for a mezzo desiring more than secondary roles impersonating boys and old ladies. She retired from the Metropolitan Opera in 1945 to concentrate on the concert stage, the occasional guest appearance in other opera houses, and extended periods of rest. Following a heart attack in 1954, Swarthout retired to Florence, Italy