The Birth of the Metropolitan Opera of New York: Opening Night September 24 2021
THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC
In 1883, the year the Met opened, New Yorkers were used to attending opera in another capacious lyric theater and enjoying performances given by a starry opera company. The Academy of Music on 14th Street boasted a flamboyant impresario, Colonel James H. Mapleson, and a roster of great singers, including the world’s most popular and well-paid soprano, the “Queen of Song,” Adelina Patti.
But the Academy of Music also had a defect it could not correct--it had only 18 boxes, hardly enough to satisfy the needs of Gotham’s millionaires when it became clear to them that public appearances were not necessarily reserved for the performing artists.
On the right: View of The Academy of Music (ca. 1884)
A box at the opera provided the best possible frame for the display of the jewelry and opulent gowns that women of high society were expected to wear. On Patti nights at the Academy, eighteen boxes could not nearly meet the demand. New York had grown too rich for the Academy of Music.
When financier August Belmont, president of the Academy, learned of a serious project to create a new opera house, he offered to supplement the inadequate 18 boxes with 26 more. But the placement of the additional boxes would have been far less prestigious than that of the original 18, and therefore would have no appeal to sponsors interested in the prominence of their exposure. They declined Belmont’s proposal and went ahead with their plans to construct the Metropolitan.
THE METROPOLITAN OPERA COMPANY
The names of Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Roosevelt echo in the history of the city and the nation. They, along with others representing New York’s most influential families, were the initial stockholders who incorporated the new opera house on April 10, 1880. Within ten days, the number had increased to 60 boxholders. A box was initially assessed at 100 shares of stock, each share worth $100. The number of boxes eventually reached 70, and at the final budget reckoning the purchase price of a box had risen to $17,500.
THE NEW OPERA HOUSE
The theater was meant to be constructed on 43rd Street, next to Grand Central Station. The dimensions of the building site were 190 x 200 feet, an absurdly small area for such a structure, and was offered at the bargain-basement price of $300,000 by William Vanderbilt.
Two churches occupied the plot, however, and their boards of directors, not particularly well disposed to the sinful frivolities and passions of opera, also wished to be rewarded amply for the sacrifice of the land. The 43rd Street deal fell through. Another site was secured, no more adequate than the first. With a trapezoidal shape, its small footprint (198 feet wide and 260 feet deep) would haunt the management for the eighty-three-year-long life of the old Met.
Met Opera by 1884
DESIGNING THE MET
Apart from the numerous boxes, what were to be the salient features of the new opera house? Noteworthy architects submitted competitive schemes. One of the proposals called upon three proven models: the shape of La Scala’s auditorium, the seating plan of Paris’s Palais Garnier, and the covered orchestra pit of the Bayreuth’s Wagner-designed Festspielhaus.
This promising synthesis of components was rejected because, in addition to excessive cost and height, the refreshment bar was “situated in the least desirable corner of the building,” and there was not enough space for retail establishments. The sponsors intended that the opera house generate income from the rental of stores.
The commission eventually fell to Josiah Cleveland Cady, an architect who had never before built a theater. In fact, he had never even been to Europe or been inside one of its great opera houses. (The imposing, if hardly elegant, south wing of the American Museum of Natural History is the most important building of Cady’s design that still remains standing in New York City.)
The Met would be his single contribution to the muse of song. Cady was chosen over the others because he promised lower costs, more stores for rental, and better fireproofing. The complicated system of fireproofing, prompted by the recent disaster at Vienna’s Ringtheater (1881) and many incendiary disasters in New York, included an immense skylight, a fire curtain, water pipes, a water tank, and a profusion of emergency exits.
A FRAME FOR THE KNICKERBOCKER ELITE
Cady obliged his clients with an awe-inspiring interior space, one befitting the prosperity and scale of New York’s “belle époque” that would foreground the beauty and taste of the affluent women occupying the boxes.
The Tribune’s critic reported that the architect had succeeded: “[the theater] has a lightness and airiness about it that seems to lift one’s spirit and make one forget anything like business or care. . . . [It] is calculated to show off beautiful dresses and fair faces to advantage.” Cady had a sure sense of his sponsors’ priorities.
The glamour of the auditorium had to take precedence over all other considerations. Therefore, and for many of its attendees, a night the “old” Met would be compromised by the often incompatible audio/visual requirements of grand opera and the social requirements of its wealthy patrons. And woe to the singer whose major aria came early in the evening.
Met Opera Stage
The arbiter of taste of New York’s gentry, Caroline Astor, decreed it obligatory to attend the Met on Monday nights--but never before 9:00 p.m.
At the time of its construction, the Metropolitan Opera House was the largest auditorium in the world, with 3,045 seats. (The opera stages in Paris and St. Peterburg were larger; their seating capacities considerably smaller.) Gas lighting still prevailed, though provision for imminent electrification was in place.
Of the three graceful and majestic horseshoe tiers of boxes, two were reserved for the stockholders, who drew lots to determine their places. A balcony and gallery rose above the ranks of boxes. (By mid-20th-century, two of the three tiers of boxes were transformed into balconies, the Grand Tier and the Dress Circle.)
Met Opera Exterior (No Grand Staircase)
What of the rest of the old Met? The foyers and promenades were of meagre proportions. And the most spectacular avenue for audience display in most opera houses, the grand staircase, was absent because there was simply no space for it.
Even more drastically neglected were the practical needs of a great lyric theater--modern stage machinery, rehearsal space, backstage areas, proper dressing rooms, storage space.
Met Opera Cross-section by 1898
ABBEY'S ITALIAN OPERA COMPANY
In 1883, the business of the Metropolitan Opera Company was, strictly speaking, real estate--it owned the Metropolitan Opera House but it had little to do with the presentation of opera. That was the responsibility of Henry E. Abbey, a Broadway producer who leased the building to indulge in his first fling as an opera impresario.
It was Abbey who hired the singers, chose the repertoire, and eventually, suffered the huge financial loss. But there was no intimation of failure on October 22, 1883, the opening night of “Abbey’s Italian Opera Company”--the entire season of twenty operas was sung in Italian, although eight were drawn from the French repertoire and two were German.
New York audiences were accustomed to, in fact expected the hegemony of the Italian language. Although the house was not sold out (there were many empty places in the upper galleries) the box office receipts totaled the astronomical figure of $15,000, worth more than seven times that amount in early 21st-century dollars.
View of the building ca. 1914
And this sum did not even include the most expensive seats. The stockholders owned the boxes and were free to occupy them or sell them and keep the money. Not that they needed the extra income. The collective worth of the stockholders was estimated at $450,000,000!.
Abbey’s inaugural production reflected the conservative taste of his public. The cast of Gounod’s Faust, one of the most popular works in the international repertoire, was headed by Christine Nilsson and Italo Campanini, two world-class stars who had sung their roles previously and often, and with fresher voices, at the Academy of Music.
On the Met’s opening night, the tenor had only sporadic use of his “old-time sweetness” and the soprano’s phrasing in the love music was sometimes labored. Abbey had had to offer Nilsson $2,000 per performance in order to woo her away from Colonel Mapleson’s theater.
On the right: Christine Nilsson as Marguerite
Adored by audiences in New York, London, and Paris, she had, in fact, created the role of Marguerite at the première of Gounod’s revised grand opéra version on March 3, 1869. Nilsson’s “Jewel Song” elicited the first extended ovation of the very long evening (the performance lasted five hours); the artist was immediately inundated with garlands of flowers and presented with a girdle of leaves and berries wrought in gold. (At the final concert of the old Met in 1966, Birgit Nilsson [no relation to Christine] wore the same jeweled sash).
THE JUDGEMENT OF THE FIRST-NIGHTERS
According to the Times, the first two acts proceeded sluggishly and were sung “with little or no applause.” The Tribune awarded the palm for “the most artistic singing of the evening” to the mezzo Sofia Scalchi in the secondary part of Siébel. There was positive agreement on the becoming costumes and the richly decorated scenery.
On the left: Sofia Scalchi as Siebel
But not unexpectedly, the reactions of the public and the critical establishment to the new opera house were varied. The Met management, of course, pronounced itself thoroughly satisfied with the performance and the auditorium; Colonel Mapleson voiced his skepticism about the quality of his new rival and a theater in which “they say one can neither see nor hear.”
Although the newspapers devoted a large amount of space to the register of box-holders and the brilliance of the public, the reviewers also reported their impressions of the acoustics and sightlines. The Tribune judged the sound to be excellent. The Times found it disappointing. “In the upper rows of the boxes and in the balcony only the high voices were distinctly heard.” The Nation authoritatively predicted that “only the strongest voices have an opportunity of asserting themselves, and that even they will have to make a constant effort, which in the long run will prove detrimental to them.”
Many decades later, when the Met had become an old theater and its auditorium had submitted to a series of modifications, general opinion pronounced the acoustics miraculous. In fact, for such a cavernous space, the truth was, at the beginning as it was in its final days, somewhere between excellent and disappointing, depending on where you were seated.
The Times also strongly complained about the poor visibility, hardly a surprise since the Met had the horseshoe shape of a European court theater, only much bigger. “In many of the boxes the occupants of the rear seats had to stand and lean over the ladies in front, and from the sixth row of the balcony and above the only animated thing visible to the occupant was the expanse of Signor Vianesi’s [the conductor] cranium.”
Wagner’s democratic seating plan at Bayreuth had definitely not been adopted. The sightlines would continue to plague much of the audience until the final days of the Old Met in 1966.
On the right: Met Opera Exterior View by the 1960s
One more feature reminded New Yorkers of the Met’s aristocratic disposition--the uppermost gallery, eventually called the Family Circle, was isolated from the rest of the auditorium. Its staircase communicated with the street far below, not with the rest of the opera house. Therefore, the hoi polloi who bought the cheapest seats were prevented from mixing with the swells during intermission. This arrangement also prevailed until 1966, when the old Met closed its doors for the last time.
THE ORCHESTRA PIT
Bayreuth’s example had not been totally ignored by the architect. The Met was constructed with a sunken orchestra pit, partially covered by a shell, based on Wagner’s design. When Maestro Vianesi and his orchestra musicians, imported from Venice, Naples, London, and Leipzig, had its first rehearsal one week before opening night, they protested the revolutionary arrangement. Management acquiesced.
The orchestra was raised to the level of the parterre and relieved of its shell, further compromising the sightlines of patrons sitting in choice parterre seats. So much for proper balance of sound and stage visibility. The Tribune vociferously inveighed, unsuccessfully it turned out, for the Bayreuth shell to be put back in place, but the pit was soon lowered to a more audience-friendly elevation.
THE "YELLOW BREWERY ON BROADWAY"
With its yellow bricks and its revenue-producing apartment towers, the façade of the Met suffered the severest attacks. Although his opinion was hardly impartial, rival impresario Colonel Mapleson coined the phrase that stuck to the building throughout its life when he called it a “yellow brewery on Broadway.”
Exterior view by the 1910s
But the sober, unadorned pattern of bricks and windows that greeted the first-nighters was positively elegant compared to what later generations of operagoers remember. In 1943, the integrity of the original design was comically violated by the “moderne” metal and glass storefront of a fabric establishment lodged on the ground floor, at the prominent corner of Broadway and 39th Street!.
THE OPERA WAR: THE MET VS THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC
Colonel Mapleson had good reason to be irked by the upstart Metropolitan Opera House since he had no intention of ending his entrepreneurial activities at the Academy of Music. His season defiantly opened on the same night as the Met’s. Some patrons decided to hedge their bets and leased boxes in both theaters.
On the right: The Academy of Music playbill for a performance of Gounod's Faust, 1879
A few energetic individuals managed to attend part of both opening performances, and one hardy soul claimed he had visited the National Horse Show as well. A few weeks later, New Yorkers could choose between two very illustrious prime donne, Patti at the Academy, and Nilsson at the Met.
The competition for spectators was so keen, and Patti so essential to Mapleson, that he paid her the staggering sum of $5,000 per performance. She was surely generous with her repertoire: La Gazza ladra, Aïda, La Traviata, Crispino e la comare, Semiramide, Les Huguenots, Roméo et Juliette.
So, in late October 1883, New York had two major opera companies vying with each other, often on a daily basis. But all-star opera was enormously costly then just as it is now. Abbey and Mapleson, the embattled impresarios, ended their seasons with ruinous debts.
Abbey had grievously overestimated the capacity of New York to absorb so much opera. He had also pitched the price of tickets too high and therefore many seats were often unfilled.
On the left: Met Opera Inaugural Night in 1883
Mapleson, who hadn’t had to invest in expensive scenery and costumes, was able to survive for several more years.
Abbey reported his loss at $600,000. The more likely deficit of $250,000 was sufficiently disastrous to terminate his tenancy at the Metropolitan Opera--for the time being.
1884: NEW MANAGEMENT
The Met board found a surprising solution to the financial crisis—a German music director and a company of artists that would offer the entire repertoire, Italian, French, and German, auf Deutsch, and at a reasonably frugal budget that saved the enterprise from deficit. The public at the theater on 39th and Broadway would, in the company first performance of Verdi’s Aïda, hear the tenor sing the praises of “Holde Aïda”!
Met Opera Full House View
--Charles Affron, co-author (with Mirella Jona Affron) of Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014)
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