NY: Teaching Career

Margery Mayer (Steen’s) first experience teaching voice was to undergraduates at Luther College during the 1947-48 academic year, where her husband, Sigvart J. Steen, a conductor of choirs and band, had been appointed Chairman of the Department of Music.  After moving to New York City in 1949, she continued as an instructor in voice at Wagner College. By 1961 Mayer was promoted to assistant professor and subsequently granted tenure in the Music Department where she taught until the spring of 1977. Over the typical two to four year window, in one-on-one weekly lessons, Miss Mayer helped many Wagner College undergraduates gain an appreciation for art song and opera literature as she instructed them in the fundamentals of voice production.

Margery Mayer, teaching students to sing. Photo: Staten Island Advance, 1951Source: Photo: Staten Island Advance

Margery Mayer – Teaching Students to Sing
Photo: Staten Island Advance, 1951

For beginning voice students, especially young, often shy, undergraduates, the process of cultivating a healthy and expressive technique was closely related to the students’ readiness to release inhibitions. Recalling her own journey to become vocally proficient and emotionally confident, Miss Mayer’s teaching approach alternated patient encouragement with occasional prodding to reach for a new plateau, often deflecting self conscious tensions by using herself to demonstrate a technique or posture. Weekly one-on-one instruction consisted of studying the fundamentals of vocal physiology, forming the voice through repeated vocalise patterns to extend range and flexibility and the study of songs, arias and foreign language pronunciation. In addition there were periodic informal recitals in which students performed for each other to build confidence and the poise to really communicate with an audience.

Margery Mayer believed it was vital for young singers to have regular performing opportunities recalling the maturing effect that her nationwide tours with San Carlo Opera and regular radio broadcast opportunities had in solidifying her singing technique and confidence.  She organized periodic informal recitals to underscore the benefit of regular performance including supportive feedback from peers.

An early member of the National Association of Teachers for Singing, and ardent supporter of training and standards for vocal teachers, she attended NATS annual meetings by the early 1960’s.  This initiated a period where Miss Mayer immersed herself in self-study to understand the emerging scientific research of the time and the diverse approaches to pedagogy of voice training represented in new works by William Vennard, D. Ralph Appelman, Burton Coffin and others. She regularly incorporated her new learning into her voice lesson curriculum.

However, her techniques for developing the voices of her students remained firmly grounded in the innate understanding of her own voice.  She practiced vocalises daily which she had learned by rote from her first and only voice teacher, the Viennese born Zerlina Muhlman Metzler who also wrote a small but very thought provoking guide to singing entitled: Individual Voice Patterns: A Reflection Book.

Of more than 500 students under her tutelage during her Wagner years, she identified and challenged many talented students to sing and perform to the best of their abilities. Many went on to enjoy singing as an avocation and source of enrichment throughout their lives. She was passionate about one-on-one coaching believing her contribution––teaching the basics and instilling confidence––would blossom over time, particularly for those who persevered.

As if passing the torch from her mentor, Mary Garden, to the next generation, two of her most talented students won Fulbright Fellowships: One relocating permanently to Europe, and the other receiving acclaim for her leading role performances at the Metropolitan, La Scala and San Francisco Opera Companies before transitioning to become a stage director and opera company general manager.

Miss Mayer also developed a very popular course in opera appreciation at Wagner, which was enhanced by guest lectures from renowned New York City artists, in-class opera scene demonstrations, trips to opera performances in Manhattan as well as Mayer’s vivid stories from her ‘behind the curtain’ perspective.

Miss Mayer retired from Wagner in 1977 after 28 years of teaching and moved with her husband, George Voutsas, to Carmel Highlands, California.

"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