Meet San Francisco Opera’s original Gretel, Queena Mario
Of the five seasons Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel has been performed on the San Francisco Opera stage, three featured a familiar face: that of popular American opera singer Queena Mario.
The daughter of a Civil War drummer boy, Mario started her career as a New York City newspaper columnist, sharing interviews and advice and later in expanding into murder-mystery writing. It was only after two failed Metropolitan Opera auditions that her singing career started to take off, with the encouragement of an operatic titan, Enrico Caruso.
Her stage debut came in 1918 with the San Carlo Opera Company, which toured North America, making several stops in San Francisco. There, she worked alongside another key figure in American opera: a young Neapolitan conductor named Gaetano Merola.
That encounter would prove fortuitous: Merola went on to found San Francisco Opera, and he invited Mario to perform at the company’s first-ever opening night on September 26, 1923. She starred as Mimì in La Bohème opposite another big star of the age — Giovanni Martinelli — though likely at a fraction of celebrity tenor’s rate.
The lyric soprano returned to the company on numerous occasions, performing in 17 different operas, from La Bohème to Faust. But the role she became best known for was Gretel in Humperdinck’s fairy-tale confection.
Her second appearance as Gretel with at San Francisco Opera in 1930 presented a particular challenge: The night’s performance was a double bill. Mario had to tackle the title role in the American premiere of Maurice Ravel’s L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, before switching gears to close the night as Gretel.
The next year, Mario would reprise the role for a historic occasion: On Christmas Day 1931, Hansel and Gretel would be the first network broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, launching a radio tradition that continues to this day. It also attracted crucial new audiences to the Met at a time when arts institutions across America struggled under the pall of the Great Depression.
After a career that spanned 17 years at the Metropolitan Opera, Mario chose Gretel as her farewell role, giving a final performance in 1938 to what the New York Times described as “thunderous applause.” She passed away in 1951 at age 54.