A Brief History of New York's Metropolitan Opera

The largest classical musical organization in North America, and perhaps the most recognizable "brand" throughout the music world, the Metropolitan Opera Association of New York (The Met) is considered one of the top venues for opera on the planet. The company was founded in 1883 by some of the most prominent families of "new money" in New York City. These early patrons included such iconic names as Astor, Vanderbilt, and (J.P.) Morgan. Their wealth built the association's first opera house on 39th Street at Broadway, which gave its premiere performance on October 22, 1883. The production was Faust by Charles Gounod and starred Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson. Under the management of Charles Abbey, the company elected to sing everything in Italian for the first season, even operas composed originally in French and German. After suffering severe fiscal distress from the first season's cost overruns, for several years thereafter Abbey engaged a troupe of relatively inexpensive German singers to perform The Met's repertoire, although this time in German no matter the language of the original libretto.

Approaching the end of the 19th century, the Metropolitan Opera was already enjoying a reputation for showcasing the best opera singers of Europe. Continental stars such as Nellie Melba, Lilli Lehmann and Emma Calvé sang alongside the De Reszke brothers (Jean and Edouard), Mario Ancona, and Pol Plançon. Enrico Caruso made his house debut in 1903. By the time he died in 1921, he had sung more performances at the Met than at all other opera houses combined. This era also saw the rise of important American opera singers, and each wanted his or her voice heard on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Early stars included Emma Eaves and Lillian Nordica, followed a bit later by Geraldine Farrar and Rosa Ponselle.

The Met enjoyed a lengthy string of impresarios as general managers, each putting his unique stamp on the repertoire the opera company produced and the singers who performed it. The years 1908-1935 saw the Metropolitan Opera run by Giulio Gatti-Casazza, a larger-than-life administrator whose skills at organization and ability to attract the top singers helped create what became known as the Met's "Silver Age." This era saw the rise of such luminaries as Laurence Tibbett, Beniamino Gigli, Lauritz Melchior, Maria Jeritza, and many more. Gatti-Casazza convinced both Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini to sign lengthy conducting contracts with the organization.

Rudolph Bing was another dynamic general manager, serving from 1950-1972. His modernization efforts eliminated many of the old practices that had cost the company dearly, such as the Met's regular weekly performances in Philadelphia. Under his direction, the first African-American opera singers were prominently featured in U.S. productions. Contralto Marian Anderson made her belated debut in 1955, paving the way for such future stars as Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, and George Shirley. If Gatti-Casazza's tenure was the Silver Age, then Bing's was certainly the Golden Age. The Met attracted singers like Joan Sutherland, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Carlo Bergonzi and Nicolai Gedda, singing a wide range of operas that included the revival of many bel canto works (by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini) that had not been heard on the Met's stage for decades.

Joseph Volpe was the general manager from 1990 to 2006, the first to hold this post after having risen through the ranks of the organization from the position of set-building carpenter. He helped expand the opera company's international touring schedule and was also involved in offering more world premieres (4) and company premieres (22) than any previous director since Gatti-Casazza. Among the singers who came to prominence under Volpe's tenure were Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, Anna Netrebko, Ben Heppner, and Bryn Terfel.

In 2006, Peter Gelb assumed the role of general manager. Using his background as a former music executive with Sony International, he truly helped bring the Metropolitan Opera into the 21st century. His innovations included the scrapping of staid, outdated productions dating all the way back to the early 1970s in favor of fresh interpretations by some of the most exciting stage directors around. In the 1930s, Texaco had begun its sponsorship of Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts across North America. For many opera fans living far away from New York City, this was generally their sole opportunity to hear a world-class opera production. When Texaco chose to end this relationship in 2005, the luxury home building company known as Toll Brothers stepped in to Save the Met Broadcasts (a campaign headed by legendary soprano Beverly Sills) and continues to sponsor twenty-plus radio broadcasts every season. Gelb's greatest move, however, was the creation of "The Met in HD," a collaborative effort with Fathom Events to provide live streaming of Met operas via satellite to thousands of movie theaters around the world. During its first year, the 2006-07 season, the Met sold more than 300,000 tickets for its run of six operas. The eight performances during the 2007-08 season attracted nearly one million theatergoers. Most recently, the company has expanded its HD offerings to 11 or 12 cinecasts per season, including innovative stagings of operas rarely if ever performed on the Met's stage. Gelb has furthermore been a driving force in giving 20th century opera some much-appreciated exposure. In recent seasons, HD audiences have seen Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic [John Adams], The First Emperor [Tan Dun], Satyagraha [Philip Glass], The Nose [Dmitri Shostakovich], and Peter Grimes [Benjamin Britten].

Despite some contentious labor negotiations over the past few years, and a downturn in the economy in the 2008-09 time frame that saw patronage drop to its lowest funding levels in decades, today the Met continues to be the standard-bearer for high-quality opera in the Western Hemisphere. Fiscal challenges notwithstanding, New York's premier opera company can still boast of its ability to showcase the best singers in stunning productions of the world's most beloved operas.

No comments:

Popular Posts