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Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt was furious, and that was how the Metropolitan Opera began. In the late 1870s, she had applied for a box at the Academy of Music, then New York's premier opera presenter and social venue, and she had been turned down by the directors of the Academy. Mrs. Vanderbilt, whose fortune was estimated at $200 million, regarded this decision as completely unacceptable.
To have a box at the Academy--and there were only eighteen--was to attain the highest rung on the city's social ladder. As Edith Wharton wrote, "The world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out 'the new people.' "
But society in New York was, as it always is, in transition. The city's wealth and power had increased vastly in the second half of the nineteenth century, and this had catapulted families such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Morgans, Roosevelts, Goelets, Iselins, and Goulds to vast fortunes. The men who amassed these fortunes acquired an equally vast desire for social standing. Certainly, with only eighteen boxes at the Academy, this ultimate symbol of social triumph was tantalizingly out of reach. There was no room--or no box--for the newly wealthy.
The new elite believed that there was no obstacle that could not be surmounted by money. If the directors of the Academy refused them entry, they would solve that problem by building their own opera house. This new house would be designed with a virgin set of boxes, available to those who had been snubbed by the Academy of Music. In 1880, $600,000 was raised from a group of subscribers, each of whom would own their own box, and a site was purchased at Thirty-ninth Street and Broadway. And so the Metropolitan Opera was founded--essentially tiers of boxes with an opera house built to surround them.
On October 22, 1883, the new theater was inaugurated with Gounod's Faust. The basic administrative organization of the new opera house was simple, and lasted for a quarter-century. The boxholders, who became known in 1893 as the Metropolitan Opera Real Estate Company, were cooperative owners of the opera house. They hired an impresario to produce what went onstage. This division between the Real Estate Company and the actual opera presenters would create serious problems in the future, but for the first few years, progress was smooth.
Henry E. Abbey, the first impresario, received his instructions from the boxholder-stockholders. He was bidden "to provide first-class opera," or at least opera that was so defined by the boxholders. Abbey put together a fourteen-week season of nineteen operas, all in Italian. When, at the end of the first season, he had lost $300,000, he was dismissed. The boxholders were not interested in losing money.
The boxholders next turned to Leopold Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, and a close friend of Wagner and Liszt, and engaged him as both impresario and music director. Damrosch brought in an experienced company of singers from Central Europe to produce German opera. The directors were impressed by the small budget he presented--German singers were considerably less expensive than Italians. So for the second Metropolitan Opera season, all operas were sung in German, including works from the Italian and French repertories. This new programming brought in a new audience of German opera lovers to the Metropolitan; many of these were members of New York's large immigrant population who thronged to the less-expensive seats. They went to the Met because they loved the music. The boxholders, in marked contrast, went to be seen by the other boxholders.
The first German season was a success, but it took a grievous toll on Leopold Damrosch--he conducted every performance from opening night until he collapsed from overwork in February 1885, caught pneumonia, and swiftly died. He was immediately replaced by his son, Walter, and the season ended with only a small deficit. Despite the death of their music director, the boxholders were content.
For the next seven seasons, the Metropolitan was primarily a German house. By 1890, all ten widely performed Wagner works, from Rienzi to Gatterdämmerung, had been presented, including the first performance in the United States of the Ring cycle, which took place during the 1898-99 season. Meanwhile, to the great satisfaction of the boxholders, the Academy of Music, which had continued with the Italian repertory, went bankrupt.
But, aside from the satisfaction of revenge, the boxholders found new reasons to be unhappy. The German-only policy and lengthy Wagner operas bored the wealthy patrons and left them no opportunity to converse between arias, as they enjoyed doing. So the company announced a switch to the Italian and French repertories. At this point, a rift that had been developing deepened between the wealthy boxholders and the music lovers who sat in regular seats. These ticket buyers were outraged over the change in policy, and they signed petitions and crowded into the remaining Wagner performances before the new policy went into effect. The boxholders were unmoved. They wanted to go in a new direction and they regarded themselves as the owners of the Metropolitan Opera.
They brought back Henry E. Abbey, the first general manager, whom they had dismissed after the first season. In partnership with one of his theatrical collaborators, Abbey decided on a season based on opera's brightest stars singing a primarily Italian repertory. In an about-face, the German operas were now presented in Italian translations, although some French works were done in the original language. Sometimes the confusion led to performances of Meyerbeer's operas in which the soloists sang in French while the chorus stuck to Italian. But despite the melange of languages, the Metropolitan did begin to embody a more international tone.
The New York newspapers delighted their readers with stories about the opera-going robber barons who had built the house and dictated its artistic policy. In Europe, the social hierarchy had been set for centuries; in the United States, this hierarchy was still fluid, and opulence became the defining standard of what came to be known as the Gilded Age. Journalists pounded on the excesses of this recently arrived upper class. Mrs. Vanderbilt's gowns and Mrs. Astor's guest lists, which were often adorned with titled Europeans, received frequent mention. The glaze of glamour around the Metropolitan and glitter of the wealthy boxholders made it easy to forget that the majority of the seats were filled with people who came to the opera because they loved music.
In 1892-93, the Metropolitan closed for an entire season after a fire that gutted the auditorium. When the house reopened with a gala performance in November 1893, the auditorium had been redecorated with cream-colored walls and newly installed electric lights. There was also a new sense of artistic vigor. For the next fifteen years, the Metropolitan was visited by all the famous singers, including Lillian Nordica, Jean and Edouard de Reszke, Emma Calvé, Francesco Tamagno, Nellie Melba, Milka Ternina, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Enrico Caruso, Antonio Scotti, and Pol Planion. The season ran until April, when the boxholders left the hot city for the country. The cosmopolitan company now performed almost the entire standard repertory in the original languages, as was the custom in most major international theaters.
Competing for attention with the singers were the boxholders who had now incorporated the Metropolitan Opera Real Estate Company with the Metropolitan Opera Company. The thirty-five boxes in the rebuilt house, the Diamond Horseshoe, were for the most part owned by the Vanderbilt and Morgan dynasties and the old guard Knickerbocker families. When the directors met, they did so at the home of J. P. Morgan.
These families were not socially liberal. Catholics, Jews, and foreigners (unless titled, of course) were prevented from owning boxes in the Diamond Horseshoe. The opera house was actually repainted in 1903 because the cream walls were deemed unflattering to the elaborate jewelry worn by the Diamond Horseshoe women in their evening dresses. The new color scheme, gold and maroon, was probably not by coincidence the Astor colors.
Caroline Astor, nee Schermerhorn, born into one of New York's Knickerbocker families who were descended from the original Dutch settlers, was the acknowledged doyenne of Metropolitan society. Draped in diamonds that reportedly had been owned by Marie Antoinette, she arrived in Box 7 promptly at nine, regardless of the time the opera began. Her husband, William Astor, rarely joined her; he spent most of his time on his yacht. Her jewels were so blazing that she was compared to an ambulatory chandelier. Her custom was to receive guests during intermissions, so she stayed for one or two before departing with her usual sangfroid. No other boxholder dared leave before Mrs. Astor.
Mrs. Astor returned to her mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, where she entertained every Monday night after the opera. These were not light after-performance suppers: the average meal consisted of ten courses served on gold plates with gold flatware, the centerpieces of orchids so elaborate that the tables had to be reinforced. After dinner, Mrs. Astor showered her guests with extravagant party favors. One night, the guests were presented with a pile of sand on the dining room table, and given silver trowels for digging. Buried in the sand was expensive jewelry, set with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies.
If Mrs. Astor had a rival, it was Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who held court in Box 4. She was a more serious opera aficionado, and stayed until the evening's finale was at least started; then she, too, left. As Edith Wharton's novels confirm, going to the opera was a way for well-bred young men and women to meet. Unaccompanied gentlemen were not neglected and there was a section of the opera house reserved for "Male penguins only," as well as clubrooms. On special occasions, women were allowed to enter the clubrooms, but they were well hidden behind a large corner screen.
The boxholders each paid an annual assessment of $1,200 (which rose to $4,500 in the 1930s) and had their names engraved in brass plaques on the doors to their boxes; other people were allowed to enter only on invitation. Since it was considered ill form to leave a box empty, and since the boxholders certainly didn't want to attend every performance, some of them rented out their boxes on a nightly basis. They determined who was eligible to rent the boxes and fixed the rental price, much in the manner of present-day cooperative apartment house boards.
Refreshments were delivered from a restaurant on Sixth Avenue, and the boxholders enjoyed having both the house lights turned up all evening and the intermissions lengthier to provide time for their socializing. They ignored the rest of the audience, not caring that the evenings were now interminable and exhausting for those who had to go to work the next morning.
The boxholders also never let their general manager forget that the opera house was run at their sufferance. Many were successful businessmen who understood that the other seats in the theater had to be filled in order to balance the books. The number of "stars" was stipulated by contract, as was the amount of Wagner. The general managers quickly learned as long as the deficits were small and the number of star singers large, their positions were secure.
Disaster struck on several fronts in 1906 and 1907. From the very first season, touring had been an important part of the Met season, and the company was on tour in San Francisco in the spring of 1906 at the time of the great earthquake. Although no one was seriously injured, all the sets, costumes, and musical instruments were destroyed. But even before that, an internal dispute threatened the delicate balance between the financial goals of the Real Estate Company and the emphasis on artistic aspirations by the Opera Company. The boxholders split into factions, one concentrating on artistic aspects, the other on financial viability. The Opera Company, more interested in music than finance, referred to the Real Estate Company boxholders with their fiscal priorities as the "fogies." "The performances are better and better, and yet the [Real Estate] boxholders are kicking like mules," wrote Opera Company board member Eliot Gregory to Henry Hyde, another board member.
The conflict crystallized over the American premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome. The Real Estate board was initially reluctant to schedule the opera at all because of its salacious subject matter, for despite their ostentation, many still harbored a strong strain of puritanism. A rising young board member named Otto Kahn, who had allied himself with the Opera Company faction, went to the Real Estate board to plead the case for Salome. He pointed out that it had been performed all over Europe and should ideally be judged as a musical work rather than a theatrical spectacle. The board eventually acquiesced, but the premiere was nonetheless a scandal, with many people walking out and the reviews condemning "the moral stench with which Salome fills the nostrils of mankind." The reaction of J. P. Morgan's daughter was paramount. She was so upset that she complained to her father, who responded by making sure the remaining performances were canceled. The enraged Opera Company directors saw this as an abuse of the boxholders' power, even though Morgan offered to underwrite the losses. The Opera board, under Kahn's guidance, refused to accept the money as a matter of principle.
All these elements--the Salome debacle, the disastrous losses in San Francisco, and the opening of a rival opera house run by Oscar Hammerstein--led Heinrich Conried, the general manager, to search for a major conductor to take over the musical aspects of the company, someone who could compete with Cleofonte Campanini, Hammerstein's popular music director. The search was not easy. Artur Nikisch, the charismatic German who directed the Berlin Philharmonic was not interested, and neither was La Scala's music director, Arturo Toscanini. Conried wrote to Hyde, "Toscanini . . . replied that no financial consideration would persuade him to accept an engagement in America."
Like Damrosch, Conried suffered exhaustion and ill health caused by the anxieties of his position. But, finally, from his sickbed, he was able to send a triumphant cable to the board: "I am happy to announce the engagement of the very best of all musical directors Gustav Mahler for three months each season at very favorable terms."
Conried had approached Mahler about coming to the Met just when the conductor and composer was desperate to get away from Europe and the painful memories of his beloved four-year-old daughter, who had recently died of diphtheria. Although he himself suffered from a serious heart condition, he found the situation at the Met restorative. "The orchestra, the singing, the house itself," his wife, Alma, wrote, "all was wonderful . . . Mahler swam in bliss."