The Conried Met: 1903-1906 July 09 2022
A NEW MANAGER
From 1891 to 1903, Maurice Grau had been an urbane and knowledgeable steward for the Metropolitan’s transformation into an international opera house. The style of Heinrich Conried, his successor in the manager’s office, could not have been more different.
Grau had made the Met a congenial home and a showcase for the world’s greatest singers; Conried, who although he certainly knew the value of the star system, was primarily a showman. He had had no experience presenting grand opera. His brief, extremely colorful regime, only five seasons in length, is remembered for news making spectacles, controversy, and even a natural disaster that had a serious impact on the company. Fond of big gestures and big personal profit, Conried paid scant attention to the essentials of opera management.
Born in Silesia in 1855, raised in Vienna, Conried began as an actor in Germany before becoming a successful impresario. It was as a manager that he launched his New York career in the German-language theatres that catered to the enormous population of the city’s Kleine Deutschland. He was adept at promoting German Kultur, all the while indulging his taste for operetta.
[IMAGE] Heinrich Conried in his mature years
Conried’s relationship to the owners of the opera house, the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company, differed from that of his predecessors. Henry Abbey and Maurice Grau merely leased the theatre; Conried became a member of the newly formed board of directors that was responsible, financially, and artistically, for the production of opera at the Met. In fact, 1903-04 was the first season in which the word “Metropolitan” appeared in the name of the resident company--The Conried Metropolitan Opera Company.
THE MET REMODELED
The new manager would one day be made to bow to the power of his board, but not before enjoying the amenities and glamour of an extensively remodeled theatre. For the remaining sixty-three years of the life of the edifice on 39th Street and Broadway, operagoers would sit in an auditorium sporting a maroon and gold color scheme.
[IMAGE] The Metropolitan Opera in the 1900s
Framing the stage was a new proscenium arch that bore the names of composers then privileged in opera history--Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, and Beethoven. The stage machinery was modernized at huge expense, ushers were made to wear evening clothes, public rooms were lavishly renovated. Nor did Conried stint on his own comfort. The manager’s office was fitted out with extravagant decoration.
STARS, OLD AND NEW
Along with Grau’s stock of opera scenery, Conried took on some of the company’s established stars, among them sopranos Marcella Sembrich, Emma Eames, and Lillian Nordica, contraltos Louise Homer and Ernestine Schumann-Heink, baritone Antonio Scotti. And in the first two performances of Conried’s initial season, he offered the debuts of two singers whose contracts he had acquired from Maurice Grau and who soon became favorites of the audience and the musical press: Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso in Rigoletto (Conried falsely claimed that he himself had had the foresight to engage Caruso) and Swedish-American soprano Olive Fremstad in Die Walküre.
Yet even the brilliance of the stellar roster was eclipsed by the premiere of an opera new to the New World, in fact heretofore the property of a single theatre in Bavaria. The Met’s Parsifal was the first to be staged outside of Bayreuth.
Conried’s defiance of Cosima Wagner’s interdiction against performing the “Bühnenweihfestspiel” (“stage-consecrating festival drama”) outside the hallowed walls of the Master’s own theatre generated world-wide publicity. Wagner’s widow was, however, unsuccessful in her attempt to bring an injunction against Conried because Parsifal was not protected by copyright in the United States. She was not alone in her wrath.
A group of Gotham’s clergymen attacked Parsifal as sacrilegious, and the mayor was petitioned to revoke the license of the Met to present the opera. He did not comply.
[IMAGE] German tenor Alois Burgstaller as Parsifal in a Bayreuth production in 1899.
Conried’s avalanche of publicity would have buried him had Parsifal not been the overwhelming success it turned out to be--twelve sold-out non-subscription performances at specially raised prices in the first season alone. The Times called it “the most perfect production ever made on the American stage,” in fact deemed superior to the presumably authoritative version in the theatre for which it was intended, Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus.
The cast featured leading singers who had successfully sung their parts at the Bayreuth Festival: Alois Burgstaller in the title role, Milka Ternina as Kundry, and Anton Van Rooy as Amfortas. All were henceforth banned by Cosima from returning to Bayreuth, punishment for their treason at the Met.
Conried was so sure of his Parsifal that he refused the opportunity to make the occasion even more lustrous than it already was. The beloved tenor Jean de Reszke would have returned to the Met to create the “guileless fool” but refused Conried’s offer of performances that did not include the première! The manager’s stinginess cost New Yorkers this unique opportunity to hear Caruso and de Reszke in the same season.
[IMAGE] Polish tenor Jean de Reszke, a Metropolitan star, as Siegfried in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen
Conried took great comfort in the financial boon Wagner’s opera generated. In the next season, 1904-05, he repeated it in New York eight times, and featured it on a national tour for no less that nineteen performances in fifteen cities.
Neither of the novelties of Conried’s second season, 1904-1905, was greeted with favor. Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia failed to survive its first performance, even with Caruso in the cast. The Germanophilic critics loathed the bel canto rarity and the soprano, Maria de Macchi, the eponymous poisoner. Recalling his experience in operetta, Conried also programmed Die Fledermaus, a title that seemed to offer greater promise of reward.
A clause in the singers’ contracts obliged them to perform without compensation once during the season, a perquisite of which he had taken advantage during the lucrative run of Parsifal. The company’s stars were enlisted to give a concert during the Act II Fledermaus party. Then, the assembled Met stars raised their voices in Johann Strauss’s “Du, du, immerzu" and danced the irresistible waltz. But following the first night, without the lure of the Caruso, Nordica, Fremstad, and the others, Fledermaus was performed a scant four times, not to return to the Met until 1950.
Even more unlucky was Strauss’s Zigeuenerbaron, limited to a single evening in the following season. It, too, featured an interpolated all-star concert, capped by Caruso and Scotti in a duet from La Forza del destino.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Italian tenor Enrico Caruso as Duca in Verdi's Rigoletto - his Metropolitan debut in 1903
That same season, 1905-06, during a performance of Carmen, the audience witnessed a coup de théâtre unaccounted for in the libretto when a bridge collapsed, sending 15 choristers nearly nine feet to the floor below. Although there were no fatalities, many were injured. Happier evenings included a new edition of Les Huguenots, a “Night of the Seven Stars,” a banquet of great voices headed by Caruso.
The audience that heard five stars (Nordica, Caruso, Homer, Scotti, Plançon) in the 1905 opening-night Gioconda also saw the Met’s new gold curtain, one of the theatre’s most memorable adornments.
Caruso reigned supreme, singing forty performances that season, as he would in most of those remaining in his Met career. He added three roles to his New York repertoire, two of them as evidence of his bel canto credentials, La Favorita and La Sonnambula, and Martha. Reviewers were typically condescending, if not dismissive, to the resurrection of the Donizetti and the Bellini works, and to Flotow’s tuneful score, but were laudatory of the casts and, in particular, of Caruso.
CARUSO AND FREMSTAD
Caruso had risen to idolatrous popularity immediately after his debut in Rigoletto. Conried cast him in nearly thirty performances that first season, in eight operas, including what would become his calling-card roles of Canio in Pagliacci and Nemorino in L’Elisir d’amore. The latter, a Met premiere, was the only novelty in 1903-04 outside of Parsifal.
In his fevered promotion of the tenor, the impresario further alienated an unfriendly squad of music critics by invading the press room and threatening to banish anyone who left to file a review before hearing the Tosca Act III aria, “E lucenvan le stelle.”
Assessing Caruso’s popularity, critic W. J. Henderson wrote, “The public has gone to the opera in the season just ended, almost solely for the purpose of hearing Enrico Caruso. The public has not cared a rap what opera was sung.” In the case of Caruso, fame and public adulation were incitements to a deepening of the tenor’s art. For Conried, Caruso’s celebrity had no small part in the monetary profit he enjoyed.
[IMAGE] Swedish star soprano Olive Fremstad autograph photo as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
Fremstad, who swiftly became the darling of the musical press, made her mark primarily in Wagner, her debut season being the occasion of a new production of the Ring. She would soon show her versatility in works as disparate as Gluck’s Armide and Bizet’s Carmen. A singing-actress of uncommon magnetism, she is the inspiration for at least two novels, Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, and Marcia Davenport’s Of Lena Geyer.
HUMPERDINCK IN NEW YORK
Three events distinguished the 1905-06 season. The first was the company premier of Hänsel und Gretel, supervised by Engelbert Humperdinck. The composer’s happy curtain calls were followed by superb reviews from the city’s most prestigious critics who hailed the score’s affinity to the music of their hero, Wagner. The “Witch’s Ride” was favorably compared to “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Die Walküre.
THE MET CHORUS ON STRIKE
A strike of the choristers was the second headline happening. It compromised a performance of Faust at which popular diva Emma Eames was making her initial appearance of the season. Before the curtain rose, Eames pleaded with the strikers to desist, but to no avail. They were demanding a weekly salary raise from a paltry $15 to $25, union recognition, and sleeping car accommodations on the tour’s overnight trains.
Following the opening scene of Faust, Conried, adamantly anti-union, announced from the stage that he would “not permit a labor union to dictate what artists shall or shall not sing at this opera house.” Just three days later, again at a performance of Faust, Conried came before the curtain, this time to announce that the chorus would sing. He had not acceded to the union but had awarded the choristers raises to $20 per week as individuals, as well as sleeping car berths on tour.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Italian tenor Enrico Caruso autograph photo shown as Raoul in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots
The large audience that had been deprived of much of the music in the Faust Kermesse scene and the familiar “Soldiers’ Chorus” was there to hear Caruso sing a French role in French for the first time. Two months later, he was praised more highly for his Don José in Carmen. Faust, Carmen, and a good number of other French titles would constitute an important area of Caruso’s Met career.
DISASTER IN CALIFORNIA
The third historic event took place in San Francisco. The Met had its part in the earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906. The company had only recently arrived for its series of tour performances when the tremors struck, just hours after the conclusion of a Carmen with Fremstad and Caruso. The sets for nineteen operas were destroyed in the conflagration, a loss that no doubt contributed to the troubled finances of Conried’s last years at the Met.
Newspapers were filled with colorful, and often conflicting accounts about how the stars endured the disaster, often in déshabillé, emerging from their hotels at risk of life and limb, wandering through the devastated city, some of them coming to the aid of the wounded.
Many lost wardrobes and valuable costumes; musicians lost their precious instruments. Soon after the company’s return to New York, Marcella Sembrich gave a benefit concert at which, as per her custom and virtuosity, she sang and played both the violin and the piano. She donated most of the proceeds to the orchestra for the purchase of new instruments, and the rest to the choristers and technicians.
The San Francisco earthquake served as a disastrous coda to Conried’s first three seasons as head of the Met. It was also a harbinger of the two extremely vexed seasons that remained to him.
Charles Affron, co-author (with Mirella Jona Affron) of Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014). See also the Affron’s blog, OperaPost.
- Enrico Caruso Signed Photo in Rigoletto, his Met Debut Role
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