Sheridan, Margaret (Burke) (‘Margherita’) (1889–1958), soprano, was born 15 October 1889 in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, one of two daughters and three sons of John Burke Sheridan (1844–1901), the local postmaster, and Mary Ellen Sheridan (née Cooley; 1853–95). Baptised on 24 October by Canon Patrick Lyons, she was tenuously related to both Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv) and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (qv). The family home overlooks the town mall and bears a commemorative plaque. In 1901 her father died and she became an orphan at the age of 12. Her guardian Canon Lyons arranged for her to attend the Dominican Order's school in Eccles St., Dublin, as a permanent boarder. At school her music teacher, Mother Clement Burke, encouraged Sheridan to develop her talent for singing and sent her to Dr Vincent O'Brien (qv) for more formal training. In 1908 she competed at the Feis Ceol in the mezzo-soprano class and won the gold medal (Chambers, 1989). A number of concerts followed in Dublin.
When she was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy of Music, London, O'Brien organised a benefit concert for her at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, on 20 May 1909. A great success, it raised £600 and Sheridan commenced her studies in September 1909 with a well known professor of singing, William Shakespeare. For the next two years she lived at the Convent of Les Filles de Marie, Kensington, London. On 21 December 1910 she sang the soprano lead in ‘The Messiah’ at the Gaiety, Dublin, conducted by O'Brien. The Irish Times critic wrote: ‘Her voice has gained appreciably in richness and fullness; and in enunciation and expression she has improved to such an extent as to make her singing worthy of a mature artist.’
By 1911 she continued her studies only through the generosity of Lady Palmer. Apart from her Co. Dublin home, Lady Palmer had a property in Wales where Sheridan holidayed and attended dinner parties. At one such party she met Lord and Lady de Walden. Lady de Walden had a fine voice and was, with her husband, a patron of music. Sheridan's singing so impressed them that they arranged additional lessons for her with Olga Lynn, Lady de Walden's teacher. The next few years saw her sing only at private parties and as the Great War started her outlook seemed bleak. However, at a party given by the de Waldens she met the noted inventor Guglielmo Marconi (qv), who advised her that she would only realise her ambition in Italy.
In 1916 she left for Italy with, and under the patronage of, Marconi. Through him and the Italian composer Tosti, she was introduced to Alfredo Martino, who told her that she had a good voice but that she did not know how to use it properly. In her late twenties it was very late for a new beginning, but she studied with Martino until early 1918. At her lodgings in Rome, which overlooked the Costanzi opera house, she practised with her window open. Emma Carelli, the great soprano and manager of the opera house may well have heard her, as she was summoned and asked if she could learn the role of Mimi in four days. When Martino found out he told her that she was not ready, and if she sang he would have nothing more to do with her. Ignoring him, she replaced the contracted singer (who had fallen ill) and made her debut as Mimi in Puccini's ‘La Bohème’ on 3 February 1918 in the Costanzi. Both public and critics gave her a wonderful reception and the success led to several additional performances. In May 1919 she made her Covent Garden debut, again in the role of Mimi, with Tom Burke, and in July sang the leading role in the British premier of Mascagni's ‘Iris’. Probably around this time she met Eustace Blois, a retired army officer and managing director of the London Opera Syndicate. Though Blois was married, he and Sheridan began an affair that had a deep effect on both her life and career.
On returning to Italy she sang in ‘Madama Butterfly’, ‘La Bohéme’ and Boito's ‘Mefistofele’ at the Dal Verme, Milan. In July 1920 Arturo Toscanini was appointed director of La Scala in Milan and he was determined to bring reality, acting, and physical beauty back to opera. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and Boticelli looks, Sheridan matched the physical ideal Toscanini was looking for and, having heard her sing in ‘Madama Butterfly’ at the Dal Verme and again at the San Carlo, he invited her to Milan. Despite initial reservations, the principal music arranger, Ferrucio Calusio, agreed to coach Sheridan for a thirtieth anniversary performance of Catalani's ‘La Wally’. After an initial performance at Teatro San Carlo the main event (6 April 1922) at La Scala pleased Toscanini sufficiently to invite her to return the following year for the world premier of Respighi's ‘Belfagor’.
Although Sheridan never sang in opera in Ireland, she gave the only Irish performance of her operatic career in 1922 at a concert in the Theatre Royal, Dublin. One of the principal sopranos at La Scala, she was a favourite of Puccini, who personally coached her for the role of Manon in ‘Manon Lescaut’. She made this role her own and received rave reviews, including that of the critic Aldo Reggi in a special supplement to L'Abbonato (Capuchin Annual, 1959). At the same time she continued to sing in all the important Italian opera houses, where her beauty and emotional performances won over Italian audiences, to whom she became known as ‘La Sheridan’. Her tenor partners, who were some of the principal singers of that era, included Pertile, Lauri-Volpi, Merli, Smirnoff, Zanelli, and Gigli.
In about 1926 she experienced nose and throat infections that recurred the following year and required both medical attention and a break from professional singing. Although her name appeared in programmes for the world premier of Wolf-Ferrari's opera ‘Sly’ (December 1927), she was prevented by illness from creating the part of Dolly. At Covent Garden (1928) she had to be replaced in Verdi's ‘Otello’ and had to visit a Harley St. specialist. During a live broadcast of ‘Madama Butterfly’ on 10 June 1930, illness again struck and after the first act Maggie Teyte took over. In addition to her throat difficulties she had developed gynaecological problems, and these illnesses – combined with the complications of her affair with Blois – slowly undermined her self-confidence and may have contributed to her consistent refusal to pursue a career in America. As a result that country was deprived of a very exciting performer, as her recording of the ‘Madama Butterfly’ duet with Pertile makes clear. A breathtaking performance, it was considered ‘the’ Butterfly recording until the 1950s and its lasting popularity saw it transferred to LP and CD.
Sheridan's last performance was with the Chilean tenor Zanelli in ‘Otello’ at Covent Garden on 16 June 1930, although she did not officially retire until 1936. A late start and incomplete training resulted in her shortened career of only twelve years. Visiting home in 1937 she presented Mother Clement with a complete set of her Butterfly recording, inscribed: ‘To my very best and most careful teacher in memory of my very young and happy days in the Dominican Convent, Eccles Street, Gratefully and lovingly, Margaret Sheridan'. This has survived. She divided the next years between Dublin and New York, where she befriended Ruth and Emerson Axe. The Axes were both financial experts in their own right and founded E. W. Axe & Co. which managed $400 million of mutual funds when Emerson died in 1964. They were enthusiastic supporters of the arts, and Sheridan was encouraged to help in the search for promising young singers. They also gave her use of an apartment on Fifth Avenue and a box at the opera. It was on a visit to New York in October 1956 that Sheridan was diagnosed with cancer, and in April 1957 she returned to Ireland. Shortly after coming home, she developed cancer of the spine. On 16 April 1958 she died at Pembroke Nursing Home, Dublin, on the eve of the opening of ‘Manon Lescaut’, presented by the Dublin Grand Opera Society. A requiem mass was sung for her by Ebe Stignani and Gloria Davy, and she is buried at Glasnevin cemetery. The Margaret Burke-Sheridan trophy cup was presented in her memory by her friend Prince Fernando d'Ardia Caracciolo to the Feis Ceoil. It is awarded annually to the most promising female vocalist. Sheridan was presented with a bronze bust of herself at the San Carlo in 1921, and a number of medals were struck in her honour in Italy. A list of some of her performances and recordings appear as appendices to Chambers, La Sheridan, adorable diva. Numerous photographs of her at all stages of her life were reproduced in the Capuchin Annual for 1959. Numerous portraits and drawings are in existence, including a study in oils by Gaetano de Gennaro (1890–1959) and a drawing by Seán O'Sullivan (qv). A stamp from An Post marked her centenary, and her career was celebrated by an autobiographical documentary by Radio Éireann in 1951 and a TV programme in 1989. L'Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Dublin hosted (20–28 March 2008) an exhibition entitled ‘La Sheridan, adorable diva’, which contained a number of exhibits from Sheridan's personal papers.