Discovered in Chicago

Margery Mayer grew up in Chicago with her parents and older sister Ethel during the depression. Her father, Gottlieb ,was a pianist who performed in movie houses for silent films and on Lake Michigan cruise boats and her mother, Lillian, was a seamstress who served affluent clients on Chicago’s North Side. Her parents attempt to stimulate Margie’s innate musicality with piano lessons resulted in increased resistance, but then chance encounter with her high school music teacher revealed an inner personal desire to perform when she asked: ‘Do you think you could teach me to sing!”

Thus began vocal studies with the famed Viennese-born voice teacher and children’s opera director Zerlina Muhlman Metzger.  Mme Metzger found that Margie had a large sound that was constrained in range, but within two years of vocalises designed to unfold and expand range, the potential of the voice’s quality began to emerge.

Margie had advanced sufficiently in technique and study of art songs and language to be able to win the very first singing contest she entered. This enabled continued vocal training with Metzger who further elongated and refined her range while coaching her in more advanced operatic and art song literature.  Additional contest wins and performances subsidized attendance at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she studied sight-reading, harmony and music theory with composer Leo Sowerby.

As word spread of this uncommonly deep and mature voiced talent, the young Miss Mayer caught the attention of renowned operatic soprano Mary Garden, then a talent scout for Metro-Goldwin-Mayer. First summoned for a private audition, Mme Garden then arranged for Miss Mayer to audition with Louis B. Mayer (no relation) in Chicago, who offered her a four-month contract with the MGM studios in the spring of 1937.

Margery with Mary Garden at time of contract signing with MGM.Source: Source: MGM Publicity Photo

Margery with Mary Garden at time of contract signing with MGM.

Given assurances that she would be properly cared for, her parents acquiesced  so Miss Mayer boarded the train bound for Hollywood and was met by Mme Garden’s chauffeur at the train station.Taken under the personal attention of Mme Garden Miss Mayer received coaching by several top MGM coaches. On several occasions she sang at sponsored functions with Judy Garland and other MGM entertainers and attended the 9th Academy Awards luncheon.

Following screen tests, which revealed her refined singing talent but also some undesirable screen shyness and exaggerated weight, the studio offered her off-screen voice-over singing parts. As she recalled later, this was a defining moment when she realized that singing in a studio booth was not enough. She really wanted to sing and act live on stage.  Her studies with Mme Metzger had kindled an appreciation for how she could connect with a live audience through her voice and musicianship.  With that realization, Margie set her sights on becoming an opera singer.

Following her instincts, Miss Mayer returned to Chicago, resumed intensive study with Mme Metzger and within less than a year she had the opportunity to appear on radio singing with a studio orchestra.  Within a short time she was asked to join more experienced singers from Chicago Opera in a series of one hour broadcasts of operas performed in English with radio actors moving the plot forward. Margie’s big break was in being heard coast to coast over radio singing title roles in Carmen and Samson and Delila and as Ortrud in Lohengrin.

The sensation created by the radio appearances prompted the Chicago Opera Artistic Director Paul Longone to offer the 20-year old Mayer a contract for the following 1938-39 season.  Prepared and accompanied by Mme Metzger, in the spring of 1938 she also presented an enthusiastically received début recital (see program below) and was then hired as featured soloist with WGN Radio singing opera and classical programs with orchestra.

At age 20, Miss Mayer débuted with the Chicago Opera Company as Niclaus in Tales of Hoffman with Lawrence Tibbett famously playing three male roles, and over the next two months appeared in Lakme (Lily Pons), Romeo and Juliet, Die Walküre (Manski, Kipnis), Hänsel and Gretel” and L’Amore Del Tre Re, and early in 1939 was signed to perform in the popular radio program, Hymns of All Churches.

At age 21, Miss Mayer continued performing on radio programs; as soloist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Grant Park; and with the Chicago Opera Company, during which period she was sometimes affectionately called “the baby of the Chicago Opera”.  From her debut in 1938 to 1945, by which time she was singing leading roles (Carmen, Il Trovatore and Aida), Miss Mayer had the  opportunities to appear with and learn the operatic craft from many of the renowned leading singers of the period. These included Grace Moore (Louise, Faust, Tosca), Lily Pons (Lakme) Kirsten Flagstad (Die Walküre) Dorothy Kirsten (Carmen), Giovanni Martinelli (Otello, Tosca), Leonard Warren (Il Trovatore), Lawrence Tibbett (Tales of Hoffmann, Rigoletto), Igor Kipnis (Faust) and Ezio Pinza (Faust).

By age 23, she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera and the next year toured the east and mid-west with the San Carlo Opera singing many roles including Aida, Carmen, Faust, and Il Trovatore.

"Margery Mayer sang Amneris with such opulence, conviction and assurance that her protrayal stood out as the most artistic and praiseworthy of the night." - The New York Journal American

"Margery Mayer who sang the title role ('Carmen') for the first time here is the most satisfying newcomer in the part to be heard in many a year.

Her voice fits the song, which is to say that it is warm and luscious in tim- bre, flawlessly produced, with an innate refinement in the phrasing of the immortal Bizet melodies. Miss Mayer's perfect singing dominated the performance with ease." -Glenn Dillard Gunn, Washington Times-Herald

"A voice of rich and sensuous beauty. Miss Mayer shone especially in songs requiring emotional surge. Add to this excellent musicianship and artistic phrasing." - Chicago American

"Her dramatic contralto im- parted wonderful resonance and tonal contrast to every note. Here is a grand voice, always gauged to the music, and well controlled in every phase of emotional expres- sion. Certainly Miss Mayer has one of the best contralto voices in the busi- ness." - The Pittsburgh Press, 2/1954

"The mercury has risen on Miss Mayer's impersonation of Carmen since she first sang this role two years ago. Fiery pace has shar- pened and the tones throw off more heat. Phrasing and style were on a high level last night and so was grasp of mood. Miss Mayer's Carmen is one of the best in town - at any price." - Louis Biancolli, New York World-Telegram

"Miss Mayer sang beautifully, almost as if her voice matched the viola that is Hindemith's chosen instrument." - Claudia Cassidy, Chicago Tribune, 12/1945

"Miss Mayer Splendid: ... To sing such difficult and polytonal music so impeccably was an outstanding feat." - Sun-Times, 12/1945

Within the first week of the 1943 tour, Margery Mayer was cast to appear in 7 operas in 7 days, leading off with her début in the role of Amneris in Aida and culminating with another début in the role of Azuchena in Il Trovatore.

The company's impresario, Fortune Gallo, had known Miss Mayer from the Chicago Opera where he had just finished the season as Artistic Director. Conjecture might be that these two debut's bookending five other operas under fire were both an initiation and a test before assigning her the title role of Carmen.

As a sign of the confidence this clever showman had in the 25 year old singer, he reserved her début in this title role to be sung in front of the high profile New York audience and critics at the Broadway Theater. By the end of this tour, Miss Mayer had sung 7 Amnerises, 5 Azuchenas and just one Carmen ( title role).

Based on her success, the following year, on a coast to coast tour of the United States and Canada, Gallo entrusted the three roles to Miss Mayer exclusively on the next years eight month tour for a total of 47 performances (see Map 2).

"Miss Mayer was what made last night's Carmen different. She has a lush contralto voice which has been excellently trained and which she used with consistent merit. It is one of really beautiful timbre, has ample power and range, and Miss Mayer made effective use of it both vocally and dramatically." - San Francisco News (Editor's comment: thawing out from Canadian winter, Carmen burns bright and hot in Frisco as per excerpt from review of 1/8/45)

In the coming decade, while Miss Mayer had become a regular member of the New York City Opera, Mr. Gallo secured her services on four occasions for another 3 Carmens and four each of Amneris and Accucena for a total of 71 performances across the three roles, with more than 50% of these in what was to be her signature role, Carmen.

"Margery Mayer made the most of her opportunities as Suzuki .." (In her NYCO debut with Camilla Williams) - The New York Times, 5/1946

"The outstanding perfor- mance was that of Margery Mayer as Amneris." - Boston Herald

"The role of Azucena was sung by Margery Mayer with superb effect." - Washington Evening Star

"...the work we did in class laid the groundwork for my understanding and appreciation of the works we saw performed. The class is scheduled to attend a rehearsal of Verdi's Falstaff, in which work Margery Mayer starred as Mistress Page and Dame Quickly, with the Montreal Opera and the New York City Opera. Miss Mayer communicates her love for the opera, as well as her grasp of the material at hand, as she performed the roles herself." - Quote from student enrolled in Prof. Mayer's graduate level course: 'Exploring Opera in New York' at Wagner College, 1975.

Mayer as Amneris in 'Aida'. Photo: G. Nelidoff, Chicago