The Conried Met, 1906-1908: Farrar, Caruso, and Salome July 22 2022
AN AMERICAN DIVA
Geraldine Farrar was the only opera singer to rival Enrico Caruso’s popularity at the Met. Born in Melrose, Massachusetts in 1882, an authentic American diva, she studied in New York, came to the attention of soprano luminaries Nellie Melba and Lillian Nordica and, not yet twenty years old, had the temerity to refuse a Met contract.
Farrar, who knew she needed further training, followed the path of many American aspirants to Europe. She won her artist’s spurs and somewhat infamous but certainly newsworthy reputation in Berlin where she became a student of the exacting prima donna assoluta, Lilli Lehmann. Beautiful, vibrant, charismatic, Farrar was signed by the Court Opera and was so promising a star that she was given permission to sing her roles in Italian until she learned German, the theatre’s official language.
Soon Farrar was rumored to be having an affair with Crown Prince Wilhelm. If in 1904 the New York Times reported that the Women’s Club of the American Church in Berlin had dismissed the charge and dubbed Farrar “a young woman of rare purity and honor,” the story of her liaison with the Prussian royal continued to hover over the soprano’s biography, along with other sexual narratives.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Geraldine Farrar as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust.
Farrar made stringent demands before she agreed to sing at the Met. (She eventually wangled a unique privilege—a dressing room that was hers alone. It may have been not much bigger than a closet, but the key belonged to her.) Conried engineered her prestigious New York début on opening night in 1906 in Roméo et Juliette, the single season opener in which Caruso did not appear during the eighteen years of his Met career. The Tribune judged the new Juliette “a beautiful vision.”
FARRAR AND THE VERISMO REPERTOIRE
A future movie star, Farrar certainly looked enchanting as Gounod’s heroine, but it was not here, in the Melba-Eames lyric/coloratura repertoire, that the soprano would make her most indelible mark. Although she sang her fair share of Manons and Marguerites, Farrar’s exuberant personality, stage smarts, and sensuality would inflame the public as Bizet’s Carmen, and in the newer Italian operas, Leoncavallo’s Zazà, Giordano’s Madame Sans-Gêne, and in particular, Puccini’s La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly, works that instantly became central to the company’s core repertoire.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Geraldine Farrar as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly
PUCCINI IN NEW YORK
In January 1907, Giacomo Puccini, at the height of his popularity, came to New York for the occasion of the Met’s first Manon Lescaut, with Caruso and Lina Cavalieri, as well as for the Madama Butterfly premiere. Because his boat was delayed in docking, the composer arrived at the theatre after the curtain had risen on Manon Lescaut. During intermission, the orchestra announced Puccini’s presence with a fanfare and incited the audience to such a prolonged demonstration that he had to retire from view so that the opera could continue.
The most important event of Puccini’s visit to New York was his encounter with David Belasco, a renowned stage director and one of the authors of the play that was the source of his Butterfly. The composer decided to base his next opera on another Belasco Broadway hit, The Girl of the Golden West.
Two years later, when it came time to cast the title role in Puccini’s “American” opera, the most likely candidate was Farrar. A bona fide Connecticut Yankee, she could not claim to be exactly a “girl of the golden West,” yet this American beauty with a decided flair for melodrama seemed to have been destined to play Belasco’s feisty Minnie. But dissatisfied with her singing in Butterfly, Puccini refused to cast her in the role.
THE MET'S FIRST BUTTERFLY
The public, however, did not concur with Puccini about Farrar as Cio-Cio-San. She donned the geisha’s kimono 139 times with the company, a record no other soprano has come close to reaching. She also holds a more encompassing company record: in her sixteen Met seasons she starred in 672 performances, more than any soprano who sang nothing but leading roles with the company.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] David Belasco -the American theater producer and playwright (1853-1931) who adapted the short story of Madama Butterfly for the stage.
CARUSO AND FARRAR
Cio-Cio-San’s callous husband, Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, was Caruso. Thus was born one of the most powerful artistic partnerships and box-office attractions in the history of the Metropolitan. They co-starred in New York and on tour well over one hundred times. Farrar and Caruso also become the darlings of mass media, the first opera stars to profit from the exposure of mechanical reproduction through recordings and movies. Caruso’s international career had been, in fact, launched by the initial discs he made in Milan in 1902. He would eventually earn a million dollars with his phonogenic voice, heard in the countless living rooms that boasted a Victor Talking Machine.
FARRAR AND THE MOVIES
Farrar was also a prolific recording artist, but she truly excelled in a medium in which Caruso failed—cinema. Over the top, to be sure, her flashing eyes and uninhibited body captivated Don José (Wallace Reid) and the moviegoing public in her maiden effort before the camera, Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen (1915, available on Youtube). She starred in fourteen features between 1915 and 1920.
An extract of the fight scene in the film "Carmen" by Cecil B. De Mille starred by Geraldine Farrar.
During Farrar’s first Met Carmen following her return from Hollywood, the always rambunctious soprano injected movie realism into her portrayal, aggressively shaking a chorus girl in the Act I fight and biting Caruso’s hand in Act III. He threw her to the floor in retaliation. Their feud, which made the newspapers, was apparently resolved by the next performance, when the untamed, violent gypsy had relearned her operatic manners.
CARUSO AT THE ZOO
Caruso’s 1906-07 season, with glamorous co-stars Farrar and Lina Cavalieri, and roles in three Met premieres (Fedora, Manon Lescaut, and Madama Butterfly), began in scandal. He had been arrested for accosting a woman in the monkey-house in the Central Park zoo. At his trial he claimed the incident was the result of a misunderstanding because he spoke no English. Though he was convicted and fined, minimally, an adoring audience exonerated the tenor with an ovation at his first appearance of the season.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Enrico Caruso as Canio in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" -one of his famous roles at The Met (Cabinet photograph by Aimé Dupont).
THE SALOME SCANDAL
Caruso’s scandal was pale indeed when compared to the ruckus caused by Conried’s decision to stage Richard Strauss’s Salome. When it was turned down by Farrar, the role of the Judean princess fell to Olive Fremstad, a dramatic soprano whose Sieglinde and Kundry had struck critics and audiences by their intensity. Frightening in her total devotion to her art, Fremstad would go to any lengths for the sake of dramatic illusion. Her preparation for the Strauss opera included a visit to the city morgue where she judged the true weight of a human head. One of Fremstad’s most trenchant bits of business was raising in triumph, on a silver platter, John the Baptist’s severed head above her own.
Conrad had not reckoned with the puritanical sensibilities of his patrons. It was one thing to fight adversaries who had no direct control over his activities, Cosima Wagner and a band of New York protestant ministers, for the right to present Parsifal. It was another to ignore the strait-laced taste of financier J. P. Morgan and the board of The Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company, the men who owned the opera house in which his company performed. With stupefying tactlessness, Conried scheduled the semi-public dress rehearsal of Salome for a Sunday morning. Many went to the Met directly from their devotions in church. Thus, following hymns and pious sermons, the patrons found themselves obliged to swallow the double dose of decadence concocted by Oscar Wilde, the playwright responsible for Salome, and Richard Strauss. Rumblings of displeasure began immediately.
Two days later, the first night audience was treated to a pre-opera concert with Caruso, Farrar, and the rest of Conried’s stars. Then came Salome’s erotically charged encounter with religion and death. Members of the audience reacted in horror when Fremstad voraciously kissed the severed head of John the Baptist at the front of the stage. An observer described the stunned reaction at the conclusion of the performance: “Many faces were white ... many women were silent, and men spoke as if a bad dream were on them.... The grip of a strange horror or disgust, was on the majority.”
[IMAGE] Swedish-American soprano Olive Fremstad as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
Although Krehbiel, the influential critic of the Tribune, hated the opera on moral grounds (he thought the final scene “ought to be relegated to the silence and darkness of the deepest dungeon of a madhouse or a hospital”), he had great admiration for Strauss’s craft. Fremstad’s performance was judged a “miracle.” The directors of the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company were categorical, however, in their condemnation of Salome. They found it “detrimental to the best interests of the Metropolitan Opera House” and protested “against any repetition of this opera.” The “protest” of these powerful men was, in fact, an interdiction that Conried and his own board of directors struggled in vain to have lifted. They lost the considerable investment of time and money spent on the elaborate production--Salome danced only this single night in 1907, not to return to the Met for 27 years.
CONRIED'S MET NOVELTIES
The premieres of Conried’s final season at the Met were poorly received verismo vehicles for Caruso. Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, with the gorgeous Lina Cavalieri and the tenor in the role he had created in Milan, eked out a miserable total of two performances; it would not reenter the company’s repertoire until 1963 when an all-powerful diva, Renata Tebaldi, demanded its revival. Since then it has proved to be a favorite with audiences and singers, returning seven times for a total of more than eighty performances. Iris fared slightly better than Adriana in its first Met season, but Mascagni’s intriguing foray into operatic orientalism has only been revived twice and has not been presented by the company since 1931.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Italian soprano Lina Cavalieri shown as Adriana Lecouvreur in Cilea's opera -A photograph signed by her in 1907.
By the end of his tenure, Conried had become the object of harsh criticism for his governance of the Met. His vulgar personality was inimical to the genteel manners of the Gilded Age patrons who were disappointed in the performance standard of their beloved French operas. The legion of learned journalists decried his ignorance of opera. The company’s financial losses were higher than the Board would tolerate. He had mismanaged the Met’s rivalry with Oscar Hammerstein’s upstart Manhattan Opera Company (the subject of a future post).
Conried was also taken to task for the small number of premieres he presented in New York, merely twelve in five seasons. Although Maurice Grau had brought a whopping thirty-two operas to the 39th Street stage between 1891 and 1903, nearly half of them disappeared from the repertoire almost immediately.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] American tenor Paul Althouse (1889-1954), whose career as a Wagnerian heldentenor was closely associated with the Metropolitan Opera. Here is shown as Siegfried in Der Ring.
Only one of Conried’s novelties, Lucrezia Borgia, has enjoyed no Met afterlife; Parsifal, L’Elisir d’amore, Fledermaus, Manon Lescaut, Salome, Madama Butterfly, and Hänsel und Gretel entered and have stayed in the company’s active repertoire. (In 1905, Conried invited Engelbert Humperdinck to New York to supervise the premiere of his evergreen fairy-tale opera.) The unpopular impresario had, in fact, made smart choices. He had bet on sure things. Most of the new titles had proved successful in Europe before they crossed the Atlantic.
His health failing, Conried resigned in February 1908. The Board bought out the rest of his contract. Depressed and exhausted, he retired to Europe where he died of a stroke one year later. The debuts of Caruso, Fremstad, and Farrar, the engagement of internationally acclaimed tenor Alessandro Bonci and bass Fyodor Chaliapin, and a podium graced by one of opera’s most eminent conductors, Gustav Mahler, throw positive light on Conried’s tarnished reputation.
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.
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