The Met’s Golden Age in the Gilded Age: 1891-1903 April 01 2022
Each generation of music-lovers tends to look back longingly at the recent past and reminisce about what seemed to them a “Golden Age.” But commentators of opera in New York tend to agree that the true ”Golden Age” corresponds to what has been called “the Gilded Age,” the late 19th century, a moment of unusual economic and lyric affluence, of extravagance and elegance in both fashion and in singing.
THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL SEASON
Following the seven German seasons at the Met, 1884-1891, a new company was headed by none other than Henry Abbey, the first impresario to present opera on 39th Street, now ready to try his luck once again, John B. Schoeffel, and Maurice Grau. They engaged a band of singers much more illustrious and versatile (particularly the male contingent) than the roster Abbey had assembled in 1883. The management initiated the “international” tradition with their inaugural performance, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, the first French opera to be given in its original language at the Met. (The language policy would continue to be erratic for years to come, however. Some French operas were performed in Italian; the chorus sang everything in Italian.)
The Metropolitan Opera during a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin (1898)
Juliette was the beautiful American soprano Emma Eames, fresh from her successes in the light lyric repertoire in Paris and London. But it was the debut of Polish tenor Jean de Reszke as Roméo that had the greatest impact on the destiny of the company. Admiration for de Reszke, for his style, his acting, his musicality, his sincerity, bordered on delirium whenever he sang. While de Reszke was active in New York, he was undoubtedly the Ieading singer of the Met. The management was also canny enough to retain the enduring star of the German seasons, Lilli Lehmann, who now sang Norma in Italian and Berthe (Le Prophète) in French. Her other roles ranged from the stratosphere of Philine (Mignon) to the dark “Miserere” of Verdi’s Trovatore Leonora. Soon, New York would present nearly its entire repertoire in the original languages of the operas, a practice not generally accepted in the major European theatres until well into the second half of the 20th Century. Audiences in Milan, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin preferred their opera in the vernacular.
THE MET IN FLAMES
The momentum generated by the successful 1891-92 season was interrupted on August 27, 1892 when the interior of what had been advertised as a “fireproof” theatre was destroyed in a blaze. The echo of the Met’s vaunted fireproofing was more than ironic. Because it had been deemed invulnerable, the building had been insured for a measly $60,000, only a fraction of its value. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars was estimated for the reconstruction. Not all the stockholders were prepared to refinance the project. The original company was dissolved and replaced by the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company.
The Met Opera - Fire destroyed the interior of the building on August 27th, 1892
THE MET REBUILT
The reconstruction (during 1892-1893) included both negative and positive alterations: an “Orchestra Circle” was installed, with rows of seats uncomfortably positioned around the perimeter of the parterre; so was electricity, flattering to the cream-colored interior décor. The enhanced décor, and the jewelry that gave the “Diamond Horseshoe” of boxes its name. The seating capacity of the theater was increased to 3,400, with additional room for 600 standees. And an area was cut out of the second tier of boxes for the members of New York’s version of the Paris Jockey Club, the Vaudeville Club, an exclusively male institution now called the Metropolitan Opera Club (and no longer exclusively male).
Met Opera - Interior destruction by the fire of August 27th, 1892
NEW DIVAS: EMMA CALVÉ AND NELLIE MELBA
In 1893, Abbey, Schoeffel, and Grau offered the public a roster of singers even more brilliant than their first. To Jean de Reszke they added sopranos Emma Calvé and Nellie Melba, among others. Calvé, although adept in the lyric French repertoire favored by Met audiences, also represented a new and flamboyant style of lyric utterance and theatricality when she assumed the roles of Santuzza and Carmen. In her début as Lucia di Lammermoor, Australian Nellie Melba proved herself a worthy successor to Patti. Although Melba’s voice and talent best served music favored by her fabled technique and evenness of tone production, she was also committed to contemporary music: Nedda in the company’s first Pagliacci, a few years later, she would be the first to sing “Mi chiamano Mimì” at the Metropolitan.
"THE NIGHT OF THE SEVEN STARS"
In these privileged seasons, the exacting Met audiences came to expect that the artists who created their roles at La Scala, at the Opéra in Paris, and elsewhere, would promptly recreate them in what New Yorkers now felt justified in calling the world’s greatest theatre.
[IMAGE] Original program for a performance of Wagner's Rienzi at the Metropolitan Opera (1890s)
Among the most notable of these imports were Francesco Tamagno’s Otello and Victor Maurel’s Iago and Falstaff. The list of premières, of debuts, of gala evenings, continued at a heady pace. The level of the company’s excellence was most ostentatiously publicized and demonstrated in performances of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, each billed as “The Night of the Seven Stars.” Seven stars indeed: Nellie Melba, Maine-born dramatic soprano Lillian Nordica, Sofia Scalchi, Jean and Edouard de Reszke, Pol Plançon, Victor Maurel!
OPERA ONCE AGAIN "AUF DEUTSCH"
One further step was necessary before the Metropolitan earned its right to be called an international opera house--its stars had to perform in German as well as French and Italian. Greedy operagoers were not completely satisfied by the exquisite Italian Lohengrins and Walter von Stolzings of Jean de Reszke. Their taste for authentic Wagner had not died with the demise of the German company in 1891. Two thousand New Yorkers petitioned the Met management to include performances in German in its regular repertoire. Their wish was granted on yet another signal evening, one destined to earn a place of distinction in the history of world-wide opera performance. On November 27, 1895, Jean de Reszke and Lillian Nordica sang the title roles of Tristan und Isolde for the first time in their careers, not as Tristano and Isotta as would have probably been the case just a year or two earlier, but with the names and the words that Wagner originally intended. Their achievement came after careful preparation. Under Cosima Wagner’s supervision, Nordica had recently performed Elsa in Bayreuth’s first Lohengrin. De Reszke and his brother, bass Edouard, had spent the previous two years speaking German to each other so as to perfect their command of the language.
Nellie Melba would soon prove that lyric voices venture into the heroic mode at great risk. On December 30, 1896, she performed her one and only role in Wagner’s “Ring,” the Siegfried Brünnhilde.
[IMAGE] Nellie Melba - Signed Photograph, dated in 1895
Melba’s Marchesi training, with its emphasis on the production of silvery, instrumental tones, had not prepared her to compete with the composer’s full orchestral barrage. Her failure, one of the most frequently discussed fiascos in the history of the Met, ended in a seriously strained voice and a drastic curtailment of her remaining engagements for that season. Various hypotheses have been offered to explain Melba’s foolhardiness: misplaced ambition, envy of Nordica’s success, even a plot by de Reszke to avoid singing the opera’s final duet opposite a huge-voiced Brünnhilde after having had to labor strenuously as Siegfried for over four hours. The tenor later stated that he had meant for her to be the Forest Bird in Siegfried, a brief, lyric role eminently suited to Melba’s voice type.
The Siegfried controversy erupted even before the fatal performance, for when Nordica learned that Melba had been granted exclusive rights to Brünnhilde, she cancelled her entire Met season. The increasingly portly De Reszke was concerned over the effect he would produce as the boyish Siegfried. He made the supreme sacrifice of his moustache to the cause of theatrical illusion.
THE MAURICE GRAU OPERA COMPANY
With the death of Abbey in 1896, Maurice Grau took on the reorganization of Abbey, Schoeffel, Grau (Ltd.) and informed the Metropolitan that, due to the unavailability of the de Reszkes, Calvé, and Melba, he would not lease the opera house during the 1897-98 season.
[IMAGE] The Polish tenor Jean De Reszke
In 1898-99 the Maurice Grau Opera Company took up residence on 39th Street. The returning Melba, Nordica, and the de Reskes were joined by new artists of the highest caliber in the German wing, making possible an international cast for the “Ring cycle.” His company now bulging with major singers, Grau endeared himself to critics and public by reengaging the beloved Marcella Sembrich after an absence of 15 years. The soprano discovery of Abbey’s first season displayed a voice as gorgeous as it had ever been.
De Reszke last sang on 39th Street in a gala, in Act II of Tristan und Isolde with Nordica. On that sultry evening, April 29, 1901, the heat and the excitement sent sixteen women into a state of collapse. During the tenor’s seven seasons with the Met he had taken on 17 roles in more than 300 performances. The vast preponderance of French and German operas in which he appeared tells us much about his impact on the taste of the public. On 9 performances of Aïda and Otello is the paltry sum of Italian works that featured the company’s principal artist.
After the retirement of de Reszke, and then Grau in 1903, Met performances may have been slightly less golden than those of the “fin de siècle,” but whose musical styles are those that still govern our own. For the age of de Reszke was almost immediately followed by the age of Caruso.
Met Opera - Closing scene of Faust, circa 1900
Charles Affron, co-author (with Mirella Jona Affron) of Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014)
- The Metropolitan Opera's German Seasons, 1884-1891 (Blog Article)
- Maria Callas Debut at The Metropolitan Opera (Blog Article)
- The Birth of the Metropolitan Opera of New York: Opening Night (Blog Article)
- Gustav Mahler vs Arturo Toscanini at the Metropolitan Opera (Blog Article)
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