Mario Chamlee (1892-1966) was born Archer Cholmondeley in Los Angeles. The son of a minister, Chamlee graduated from University of Southern California in 1914, where he earned a science degree. He also dabbled in singing while at USC and studied voice in Los Angeles and New York. Using the stage name “Mario Rodolfi”, the young tenor made his debut as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor for the Lombardi Opera Company.
Chamlee’s budding operatic career was interrupted when he was inducted into the service during WWI. After returning home, he resumed his artistic efforts in New York and appeared in several productions with the Scotti Opera Company during the 1919/1920 season. Catching the attention of the Metropolitan Opera, he was soon put under contract, making his debut as Cavaradossi in Tosca in November of 1920. Sadly, Chamlee had the misfortune to begin his MET career during the final few weeks of Caruso’s tenure there. In fact, Chamlee appeared as Pinkerton in the Christmas Eve matinee of Madama Butterfly that preceded Caruso’s unforeseen swansong in La Juive that same evening. Needless to say, Chamlee’s debut season was overshadowed by the tragic events that were to unfold in the weeks and months to come
Singing the role of Christian in the U.S. premiere of Weis’ “The Polish Jew”, Chamlee (lumped together with the rest of the cast) was described by Richard Aldrich of the New York Times as “…only moderately competent…” In the very next season, however, Oscar Thompson, reviewing the MET’s La Bohème for Musical America, praised Chamlee’s “Caruso quality” and went on to opine that, “If he were an Italian, he would be a celebrity now.” Chamlee went on to sing 168 performances of twenty-two operas, including Tosca, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Mefistofele, Faust, Manon, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Boris Godunov, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, L’Africaine, La Gioconda and Cavalleria Rusticana. There were also over fifty Sunday Night concerts and special events, as well as a single Verdi Requiem. However, assuming the mantle of Caruso did not seem to be an honor reserved for him. The MET was brimming with world class tenors during the 1920s…Gigli, Martinelli, Lauri-Volpi, Schipa…and Chamlee struggled to gain a foothold.
After the 1927/28 season, Chamlee was conspicuously absent from the MET roster for a few seasons. The tenor busied himself with appearances in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Prague, Paris, Vienna, Brussels and Vienna. When he returned to the MET in 1933, it was for Gatti-Casazza’s 25th Anniversary Gala. Chamlee sang the Act I duet from Madama Butterfly with Thalia Sabanieeva in what is probably best described as a conceptual staging. The couple sang in silhouette, behind a screen and with their backs to the audience, while stagehands played cards. A year later, he was invited back for the Operatic Surprise Party of 1934. The tenor was given even less to do this time…he joined the entire company for a rousing chorus of “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here.”
Chamlee sang three more seasons with the MET between 1936 and 1939. Although Rabaud’s opera Mârouf was revived for Chamlee (for which he received some of the best reviews of his career), the tenor was now mainly relegated to contemporary works such as Menotti’s Amelia Goes to the Ball and Richard Hageman’s Caponsacchi, which gave him little chance to shine. Weary of what he perceived as a lack of respect from the MET’s management, Chamlee quietly allowed his contract to expire. At the relatively early age of 47, Mario Chamlee decided to bid farewell to the opera stage.
Chamlee and his wife, the former Ruth Miller (a soprano who had sung with Chamlee in the early days of their careers as “Francesca Milena”), returned to his native Los Angeles, where they opened a successful voice studio. Mario Chamlee spent a busy quarter of a century in his studio until his death on November 13, 1966.
Chamlee’s recording career spanned most of the 1920s and yielded dozens of discs. Here, Chamlee sings the old tenor warhorse, “‘O sole mio”. This Neapolitan favorite was recorded in 1920 for the Brunswick label in New York.