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Brünnhilde and “Holde Aida”: The Metropolitan Opera's German Seasons, 1884-1891 February 18 2022

1890-91 The German company. Left and right of the table are Walter Damrosch and Anton Seidl

1890-91 The German company. Left and right of the table are Walter Damrosch and Anton Seidl

 

OPERA IN THE RED


The Metropolitan’s opening season, 1883-84, ended deeply in debt. Henry Abbey’s all-star Italian opera company had been enormously costly. And the impresario had not taken into account the surfeit of opera in New York City, particularly factoring in the starry program, headed by Adelina Patti, of his rival, Colonel Mapleson, at the Academy of Music down on 14th Street.

High ticket prices discouraged prospective Met operagoers and left many seats unoccupied. The official deficit was $600,000; the unofficial loss was $250,000, more than enough to discourage the Met’s board of directors from reengaging Abbey for a second season. What then to do with the spanking new opera house? 


A NEW GENERAL MANAGER


Enter Leopold Damrosch, come to the rescue at nearly the last minute. A luminary in the musical life of New York who headed the city’s Oratorio Society and symphony orchestra, trained as a medical doctor in his native Germany, Damrosch was also a solo violinist, then a conductor, before emigrating to the United States.

Abbey had put on one “Italian” season of stars; Damrosch turned the Met, unquestionably the most prestigious theatre in Gotham, into a venue for a German court company, with an ensemble of singers devoted to the cult of Wagner. In 1883, a showplace for expensive jewelry and bel canto fioritura, in 1884 it became a temple of art.

Leopold Damrosch and his son Walter Damrosch

Leopold Damrosch and his son Walter Damrosch

Not all the stockholders were overjoyed at the prospect of long evenings of emphatically sung music-drama rather than short spans of sweetly sung, hummable, familiar tunes. On the other hand, the financial structure of the Damrosch company was demonstrably sound. There would be no risk of repeating the gorgeous débâcle created by Abbey’s profligacy.


THE GERMAN COMPANY


As opposed to Abbey, who had financial responsibility for the losses of his company and would have enjoyed the profits had there been any, Damrosch was an employee of the Metropolitan and received the relatively modest salary of $10,000 for the season.

The German singers, accustomed to the yearly contracts offered at their court theaters, were satisfied with the Met’s modest fees. The system succeeded; the short-fall incurred in the first German season was minute. Despite substantially lower prices charged for tickets, the total of box-office receipts was double what it had been under Abbey.

While keeping expenses at a reasonable level, Damrosch was extraordinarily generous when it came to the musical and artistic offerings. This was no provincial ensemble he had assembled, but a group of leading artists from the principal German theaters, headed by Amalie Materna who had been Brünnhilde in the first complete “Ring” at Bayreuth and Parsifal’s original Kundry, and the thrilling Marianne Brandt.

The Metropolitan Opera Old Building

The city’s two most influential (and authoritative) critics hailed a new and much higher level of performance.

[Image] The Metropolitan Opera - Probably the earliest photo of the old building

When Brandt made her debut in Fidelio on the second night of the season, she inspired Henry Krehbiel of the Times to write, “every word of her few speeches, every note of her songs, every look of her eyes and expression of her face was an exposition of that world of tenderness which filled the heart of Leonore.”

W. J. Henderson of the Times heartily concurred: “She has the vigorous enunciation and accent of the German school of song, and no little of the fluency and taste of the Italian, and as an actress she is intelligent, impassioned, and forceful.”

The house was filled for this extraordinary event--except for the seats in the stockholders’ boxes. The absence of the wealthiest patrons was a worrisome harbinger of things to come.


NEW YORK'S FESTSPIELHAUS


A confirmed Wagnerite, Damrosch took as his mission to make Richard Wagner the dominant presence in his company’s repertoire. Three Wagner operas accounted for twenty-five out of the season’s fifty-seven presentations.

The opening night performance of Tannhäuser was the first work sung in German at the Metropolitan. Lohengrin was held over from the initial season, in Abbey’s scenery, now in German, too. But it was the American première of Die Walküre, with a production similar to Bayreuth’s, that enjoyed the greatest success.

Metropolitan Opera Inaugural Night 1883

After two months of rehearsals, Walküre, the second title in the Ring, entered the repertoire and was heard no less than five times in a period of eight days--always with the same cast. Materna’s Brünnhilde, who was singled out for her “wild, impetuous, exultant freedom of voice,” set the standards of an ensemble that attested to the stamina of many dedicated German singers.

[Image] Metropolitan Opera Inaugural Night Clip 1883 

In 1884, the Germanophilic press and the large contingent of German immigrants living in New York were happy with a steady diet of Wagner, Beethoven, and even lesser German composers. But the rest of New York’s operagoers expected to hear their favorite operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and Gounod. Therefore, following Abbey’s season in which the French and German operas were sung in Italian, audiences now heard the French and Italian texts sung in German.

During the seven years of the German régime, Verdi’s Ethiopian slave sang longingly of her “Heimat,” not her “patria.” The Met premières of Aïda, Un Ballo in maschera, Norma, Guillaume Tell, and La Juive, among others, were presented auf Deutsch.


THE DEATH OF DAMROSCH


One of the most dramatic moments of the first German season transpired off-stage. Leopold Damrosch, in addition to engaging the singers, planning the repertoire, and managing the company, conducted every one of the fifty-two performances given during the first months of the season.

Exhausted, he fell asleep in an unheated room and caught a chill. This did not prevent him from attending a rehearsal of the Oratorio Society, during which he collapsed. He died of pneumonia five days later, on February 15, 1885, but not before instructing his replacement, his son Walter, in the intricacies of conducting Walküre. Funeral ceremonies were held on the stage of the Met.


The death of Leopold Damrosch left the company in confusion. Anton Schott, the leading tenor, who was foiled in his attempt to lead the company, also lost face when Amalie Materna bettered him in a curtain-call feud. Edmund C. Stanton, secretary of the Board of Directors, took over as director, and young Walter Damrosch became assistant director, with some conductorial duties. 


ANTON SEIDL


Anton Seidl studying a score at his New York home

In the summer of 1885, Stanton and Walter Damrosch put together the organization that guaranteed the glory of the Met during this period.

Anton Seidl, who had been Wagner’s acolyte/secretary/copyist, one of the overseers of the first Bayreuth festival, and who went on to lead key performances of the “Ring” in Europe, was engaged as principal conductor.

[Image] Anton Seidl studying a score at his New York home

Seidl, who would become a dominant and beloved figure in New York’s musical life, was named music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1891 and was on the podium for the world premiere of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony in 1892.


LILLI  LEHMANN


Seidl’s Met casts were the best in the world. But it was the archrival of Marianne Brandt, the phenomenally musical Lilli Lehmann, who became the principal figure of the German Met. Her New York career spanned 1885 to 1899; she starred in the German seasons and in the “International” seasons that followed.

A soprano who could and did sing nearly everything, as adept in Mozart and Bellini as she was in Verdi and Wagner, Lehmann made her astonishing debut as none other than Bizet’s Carmen. After she became the first Met Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, Henderson of the Times asserted that “the dramatic force of the role was never so fully displayed before to a New York audience.

Lilli Lehmann signature and Met Opera program clip

Lilli Lehmann signature and Met Opera program clip for a performance of Siegfried in 1889

Her singing was equal to anything that could have been done by a great Italian singer, and her acting was far beyond that which the Italian stage has been in the habit of associating with Verdi's earlier works.” In a spectacular display of versatility, her Norma was a highlight of the 1889-90 season.


THE QUEEN OF SHEBA


The novelty of the 1885-86 season, Karl Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba, starring Lehmann, was also its most popular opera, presented fifteen times in New York and ten more on tour. Replete with sumptuous scenery and melodies grateful to fine singers (who can forget Leo Slezak’s recording of “Magische Töne!”), for many, Goldmark’s opera was a welcome relief from the rigorous diet of Wagner, even gloriously sung and actedWagner, whose works accounted for half of the repertoire.


THE FIRST TRISTAN


Met Opera Inauguration Article in Harper's Weekly

Prime among the cherished musical landmarks of the remaining German seasons was the company’s first Tristan und Isolde, with Lilli Lehmann and Albert Niemann, a gigantic presence among the first generation of heldentenors. Lehmann, famously chary of praise, enthused over Niemann’s Tristan: “'it was certainly the most sublime thing that has ever been achieved in the sphere of music drama.” It is hard to imagine higher praise from a more exigent and informed source.

[Image] Met Opera Inauguration Article in Harper's Weekly 1883


THE OPERA PATRONS REVOLT


Along with the musical gold, there also was a heavy portion of dross--operas dimly recalled today, and some completely forgotten: Nessler’s Trompeter von Säkkingen, Smareglia’s Vassalo von Szigeth, Goldmark’s Merlin. Segments of the public tired of the steady fare of Wagner (ten of his operas were given in the 1889-90 season), in fact, of opera altogether.

The German-American population of New York may have been satisfied by performances of Verdi in German, but the numerous Italian-Americans wanted their Aïda “celeste,” not “holde.”

Attempts to vary the repertoire were often resounding failures. The final German season, 1890-91, opened with the unknown, murky Asrael by Alberto Franchetti, an Italian composer partially trained in Germany and influenced by Wagner. But Diana von Solange, a thirty-five-year-old divertissement composed by Ernst II, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha for his own theatre, was the scandalous low point.

metropolitan patrons

Metropolitan Opera Patrons and Boxholders

The Duke was rumored to have paid the Met to put it on. Three hundred patrons signed a petition against Diana and the opera was withdrawn after two performances.

The company also had to put up with the discontent of the rich boxholders who wanted less gloomy fare, their discontent voiced in loud conversation, in laughter, in rude comments, in noisy indifference to what was happening on stage, much to the consternation of those listeners enraptured by Beethoven and Wagner.

First Met production of Meistersinger in 1883 with Auguste Seidl-Kraus and Emil Fischer

Those very Germanophilic listeners protested even more loudly the announcement of a return to what they considered the outmoded lyric theater of Italian opera.

[Image] First Met production of Meistersinger in 1883 with Auguste Seidl-Kraus and Emil Fischer

And while it is undoubtedly true that the seven seasons of Wagner’s reign at the Met were excessive, it is also true that this hegemony created a public taste for seriousness in opera that would have permanent and positive effects on the musical life of New York. 

Towards the end of the 1890-91 season, each remaining performance of Wagner was the occasion for an impassioned demonstration on behalf of music director Seidl, who represented the glory of the Wagnerian ethos.

The very last offering of the German seasons was, fittingly enough, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, an opera that explicitly celebrates German art. After Emil Fischer, the evening’s Hans Sachs, sang his praise of “die heil’ge deutsche Kunst” (holy German art) in the finale to Act III, he was inundated with flowers.


INTERNATIONAL OPERA AT THE MET


Amalie Materna as Brunnhilde - Bayreuth Inaugural Festival 1876

A new company was headed by none other than Henry Abbey, ready to try his luck at the Met once again, John B. Schoeffel, and Maurice Grau.

Quite soon, the marvelous Anton Seidl returned to 39th Street, conducting Die Meistersinger, albeit in Italian.

[Image] Amalie Materna as Brunnhilde - Bayreuth Inaugural Festival 1876

But finally, at long last, acceding to the wishes of its leading tenor, who was determined to sing the title role in the original language, in 1895 Seidl led Jean de Reszke and Lillian Nordica in a triumphant Tristan und Isolde that initiated a second Golden Age of Wagner at the Met.

Three years later Seidl died of food poisoning at the age of fifty-two. Beethoven’s funeral march was played as his funeral cortege progressed through mid-town Manhattan, from his home on East 62nd to the Metropolitan; during the ceremony in the opera house, the grieving mourners heard Siegfried’s funeral music. 


  • By Charles Affron, co-author (with Mirella Jona Affron) of Grand Opera: The Story of the Met, University of California Press, 2014. See also blog Operapost.

 

SEE ALSO:

Metropolitan Opera Inaugural Night and 2nd Night Clips 1883

Met Opera Inauguration Article in Harper's Weekly

Auguste Vianesi (Inauguration Night Conductor) Autograph Note Signed 1892

Louise Lablache (Inauguration Night soloist) Cabinet Photograph

Irving Kolodin - The Story of the Metropolitan Opera 1883-1950 Signed Book

Metropolitan Opera 1883-1966 - Piece of the Curtain of the Old Met

- The Birth of the Metropolitan Opera of New York: Opening Night (Blog Article)

Grand Opera - The Story of the Met by Charles and Mirella Affron - Book Review (Blog Article)

 

 

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