Opera War: Met Opera versus Manhattan Opera House 1906-1910 December 16 2022
The Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager Heinrich Conried’s troubles were not confined to earthquake, fire, and censorship. In 1906 he had to face the strong competition of a rival opera company performing in a brand-new auditorium just a short walk from the Met. This was the start of an “opera war” that made the Mapleson-Abbey struggles of 1883 look like a mere skirmish.
OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN I
Oscar Hammerstein I, German born in what is now Poland, emigrated to America and earned a fortune with his invention of a cigar-making machine. He invested his profits and his passions into producing opera on a grand scale.
[IMAGE] Oscar Hammerstein's portrait from Who's Who on the Stage, 1906
MANHATTAN OPERA HOUSE
Persuaded that opera was a popular art form with appeal to a large urban audience, Hammerstein refused to bend to the social requirements of Gotham’s aristocracy. He wanted nothing like the “Diamond Horseshoe” or any horseshoe at all in the seating plan of his Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street. With its increased proximity of auditors to the stage, some judged the acoustics of the attractive auditorium superior to those of the older theatre.
THE 1906 SEASON
Hammerstein provided fine sightlines and fine acoustics, but was also generous with what people went to the opera to see and to hear--great singers. He assembled a company of stars nearly as illustrious, and certainly as colorful and exciting as Conried’s troupe at the Met. While he couldn’t offer Enrico Caruso, he did open his first season with the tenor Conried almost hired in Caruso’s place, Alessandro Bonci. On this same night, Caruso sang at the Met--of course. The battle was on. Imagine the dilemma of the opera-lover who had to choose between Nellie Melba, Bonci and Maurice Renaud in La Traviata at the Manhattan or Caruso, Emma Eames and Antonio Scotti in Tosca at the Met!
Manhattan Opera House -Exterior View, 1906
Hammerstein’s first season was not a financial success. He was at a great disadvantage in terms of repertoire because he was unable to develop a contingent of German performers. In addition, he was prohibited from presenting the operas of the most popular composer of the day, Giacomo Puccini, whose scores were the exclusive property of the Met. Ignoring the copyright interdiction, Hammerstein put on four performances of La Boheme before Conried brought an injunction against him.
THE 1907 SEASON: L'OPÉRA DE NEW YORK
The following year, Hammerstein opted for recent French works never before performed in New York and mounted them with the singers that could do them justice, Mary Garden, Jean Périer, Charles Dalmorès, Charles Gilibert, Hector Dufranne, artists that made the Manhattan Opera a “Parisian” theatre. In the 1907-08 season, Garden gave the city its first tastes of Jules Massenet’s Thaïs, Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, and Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, the latter with a cast nearly identical to the one that created the work in 1902 at the Opéra-Comique. New York readily capitulated to Hammerstein’s new repertoire. Even Pelléas, a work hardly designed for popular success, was given seven times. And not content to combat the Met with these novelties, Hammerstein stole coloratura Luisa Tetrazzini away from Conried, who had neglected to bind his contract with the soprano. In her sensational New York debut at the Manhattan Opera House as Violetta, Tetrazzini roused the public to the same pitch of hysteria that had greeted her London debut the year before.
THE 1908 SEASON: RICHARD STRAUSS EN FRANÇAIS
Hammerstein, well aware of the power struggle between the Met’s co-directors in 1908, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, and Andreas Dippel, decided to extend the battlefield to nearby Philadelphia. The Met had been performing on a regular basis for years in Philadelphia’s venerable and beautiful (and today still functioning) Academy of Music. Undaunted, Hammerstein built his own opera house, where he presented Maria Labia and Charles Dalmorès in Carmen, in competition with the Met’s La Bohème with Caruso, and Marcella Sembrich at the Academy of Music.
Manhattan Opera House -Internal View, 1906
Nor did Hammerstein neglect his New York audiences. Massenet had been prevailed upon to revise Le Jongleur de Notre Dame so that Mary Garden might exhibit her talent en travesti, and in a “sacred” role. But La Garden also had a duty to those fans who preferred her more usual “profane” mode. Since the Met was too prudish to present Richard Strauss’s Salome, that left the way open to Hammerstein to stage it for Garden. Here, as in Thaïs, the beautiful diva welcomed the opportunity to show off her charms with as little encumbrance of costume as possible. Of her striptease, Tribune reviewer Henry Krehbiel commented, “To have thrown off any more in emulation of Ishtar she would have been all but obliged to doff her cuticle.” Since Garden did not sing in German, Strauss’s opera was presented in French, with the claim that, after all, Oscar Wilde had written his play in French.
No such justification was possible the following year when Strauss’s Elektra had its U.S. première at the Manhattan, again in French. Mariette Mazarin offered considerably more voice to the cause of Strauss than had Garden, but she collapsed after her zealous devotion to the stentorian vocal and emotional tasks set by the composer. The Klytämnestra, Jeanne Gerville-Réache, following the example of Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who had created the role in Dresden, decided that a single encounter with Agamemnon’s vengeful children was quite enough for her.
1909-1910: OPERA'S GREATEST YEAR?
The season of 1909-1910 provided an orgy of performances designed to satiate even the most avid New York fan. The abundance probably constitutes a world’s record. At the Metropolitan, the company put on 136 performances of 38 works.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Manhattan Opera House program Season 1906-1907
To this must be added its appearances in two other theatres in New York City, as well as those on tour in the United States and abroad, for a grand total of 360 performances of 42 operas and 25 ballets. (The increased importance of ballet can be measured by the débuts of the distinguished dancers Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin.) Eight of the operas were new to the Met, including three United States premières and the company’s first performance of a work by an American composer.
At his Manhattan Opera House, Hammerstein had a repertoire of 30 works for a total of 118 performances. He, too, had his fair share of novelties: Elektra, Massenet’s Grisélidis and Sapho for Garden, the New York première of Massenet’s Hérodiade with the gorgeous Lina Cavalieri, and an assortment of French opérettes.
The rivalry of the two companies had intensified to truly “operatic” proportions, to the joy of a greedy public that had the luxury of attending the Met’s opening night La Gioconda with Emmy Destinn and Caruso or merely a Lucia at the Manhattan with Tetrazzini and John McCormack! On one night in January the jaded opera lover might have heard Caruso sing Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina” in one theatre and then have strolled down to hear McCormack sing the final acts of La Bohème in the other.
THE NEW THEATRE
In what may be construed as an effort to vanquish Hammerstein by mere force of numbers, the Metropolitan Opera Company also went into competition with itself. On some days, it gave simultaneous performances at the Met and in a new, smaller auditorium--though hardly small, with a capacity of 2,318--aptly called the New Theatre.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Scottish soprano Mary Garden -one of the guest stars of the Manhattan Opera House.
Designed to accommodate both the prose and lyric arts, the richly designed and decorated New (later renamed the Century, and then demolished in 1929) was meant to have a relationship to the Met similar to that of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, the Salle Favart, to the larger Palais Garnier.
The Met’s activities at the New were administered by Dippel, another sign that Gatti had taken full command at the home base on 39th Street. Dippel was also involved in the management of the recently created Boston Opera Company, a venture in which the Met’s principal sponsor, Otto Kahn, had a financial interest. But following this season, Dippel left New York to head the Chicago-Philadelphia Grand Opera. It performed regularly at the Met itself on Tuesday nights when the Metropolitan Opera Company was in Phildadelphia.
The opening performance at the New Theatre, on November 16, 1909, was Werther with Geraldine Farrar and Edmond Clément in his American début. The Met then tried to shake Hammerstein’s hegemony in contemporary French opera with the premiere of Alfred Bruneau’s L’Attaque du moulin at the New. Bruneau was no Massenet, however, and Hammerstein held the rights to nearly all of Massenet’s works. The Met performed at the New only 39 more times, in this single season.
The New’s mixed repertoire ranged from the intended “light” operas (Albert Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann, Charles Lecocq’s La Fille de Madame Angot, Daniel Auber’s Fra Diavolo) to works also regularly presented in the larger theatre. The elegance of the New Theatre, with dimensions appropriate for opera less than grand, was not sufficient, however, to counteract poor management, exceptionally poor acoustics, and a location considered inconvenient, 62nd Street on Central Park West. That inconvenient address was a prophetic stone’s throw away from the future site of the Met at Lincoln Center. (Over the succeeding years, the Met would continue to look for a smaller venue, suitable to operas less than grand, an equivalent to the Opéra-Comique.)
FAREWELL TO HAMMERSTEIN
What turned out to be the most important event of this event-packed opera season was not a performance of opera at all.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Italian tenor Alessandro Bonci - first class competitor of Caruso in New York hired by the Manhattan Opera
In April 1910 Otto Kahn succeeded in taking over Hammerstein’s contracts, decors, costumes--Hammerstein’s total operatic enterprise, with the exception of the Manhattan Opera House. Hammerstein also agreed not to engage in any operatic activities in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago for the ensuing 10 years. His Philadelphia Opera House was sold to the Met as part of the deal.
Hammerstein did not capitulate merely for financial gain. Four years of war with the Met had depleted his resources. Furthermore, furious with millionaire Clarence Mackay, one of his most powerful supporters, Hammerstein removed all the boxes at the Manhattan so as to drive away his high-society audience. This act of self-indulgence proved suicidal. It also drove away his principal conductor, Cleofonte Campanini.
A hefty portion of the $1.2 million Hammerstein buyout came from a wealthy Met patron who contributed to the demise of the rival company in order to banish from the stage one of Hammerstein’s divas, Lina Cavalieri. This expensive gesture put an end to the extra-musical love duet Cavalieri was having with the gentleman’s son. The soprano was only repeating history. She had been exiled from the Met in 1908 after her marriage to a member of the distinguished Astor family.
Prohibited from producing opera in the major cities of the United States, the indefatigable Hammerstein turned to London where he, not unexpectedly, had an opera house (now the Stoll Theatre) built for himself. This unfortunate London venture lasted only two years. In 1913 he attempted to defy the injunction against him in the U.S. and planned a season of opera in English at the Century Theatre (formerly the New), at popular prices. When the Met blocked this initiative, he built yet another opera house in New York, the Lexington, that was used for movies and vaudeville until 1917, when it was leased by the Chicago Opera.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Manhattan Opera House - Program for a performance of Massenet's Thaïs starred by Mary Garden
Hammerstein lost the Lexington and died in 1919, just six months prior to the end of his 10-year enforced exile from the operatic arena, but not before he had announced his intention to resume his battle with the Met. The extraordinary Oscar Hammerstein represented, in fact, the only serious competition the Met ever had to face in New York until the bright seasons of the 1960s and 1970s when the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center unfurled its star power with the likes of Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Norman Treigle, Patricia Brooks, Jose Carreras, and other great singers.
By Charles Affron
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