Long, long ago

A week or so ago, I posted a New York Times story from 1922, about Geraldine Farrar’s farewell performance at the Metropolitan Opera, complete with screaming teens and a parade through the streets. But this wasn’t the only thing at the Met in the 1920s that we wouldn’t find today. Because in those long-gone days…

The company made a profit. Purely on ticket sales. Each year, it took in more money than it spent. So it functioned as a commercial operation. The wealthy people we might think of as patrons bought subscriptions — tickets, more or less, to every performance. So in a sense they supported the company, but only as customers.

American singers, when they made their debuts at the house, brought with them delegations from their home towns. Which in one case included both US senators from the singer’s state. These delegations might not be numerous, as a proportion of the total audience — maybe no more than 100 people — but they were loud. At one debut, a special telegraph line was installed backstage, so that people at home could get a blow by blow account of the debut. 

Not only Farrar would get screams and endless cheering. Ovations for a singer, after an aria, or at the end of an opera, might go on for 15 minutes. Sometimes a singer would take 15 or 20 curtain calls. When Lawrence Tibbett, then a rising star, appeared as Ford in a 1925 production of Falstaff, the audience shouted his name, demanding solo curtain calls. 

Contemporary works were performed reasonably often — with the same casts, the same operatic superstars, that sang the standard operas. That’s because the contemporary pieces (by the likes of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Franco Alfano, Deems Taylor, and others whose names aren’t remembered now) were written in the same musical style as the older works. 

Why I’m writing all of this? Because we sometimes think that classical music has always been the way it is now. Which isn’t true at all. A look at the past can be refreshing, sometimes a revelation.

My source for these details is what for me is one of the most wonderful books on classical music, Irving Kolodin’s The Metropolitan Opera, a detailed year by year history, with accounts of performances, finances, and other news and events. I don’t know anything that gives such a vivid (and thorough) account of what classical music was like in New York in past decades. 

And Kolodin has a wonderfully deft touch, in writing about the success (or lack of it) that singers had. For instance (from K’s account of the 1950-51 season):

Gunther Treptow was only a passable Siegmund at his debut in Die Walküre…which left little room for letdown in his later efforts as Tristan and as Florestan in Fidelio.

Some other happenings in the 1920s:

A tenor didn’t see an open trap door on stage during Siegfried, and fell 25 feet. He got back on stage and finished the performance.

Lauritz Melchior, who of course went on to be the great heldentenor at the Met for decades, made his debut, and didn’t make any sensation. He gave a song recital that same year, and one critic actually wrote that recitals would probably be what Melchior did best!

Singers often enough wore their own costumes, but not only to be glamorous. Sometimes they did it for dramatic effect. In 1927, Michael Bohnen sang Hagen in Götterdämmerung wearing 

on January 14, a shaven skull from which protruded a single knot of hair; on January 26, a flaming red wig and beard; on March 18, something like the conventional black beard and wig.

Performances could be terrible. W. H. Henderson, the leading critic of the time, got a letter saying that he didn’t tell the truth about how bad the Met could be. He readily agreed, saying in print that criticizing the Met did no good. Neither management nor the public cared, and “[t]he commentator who decries [any of the performances] is likely to find that he is as one decrying in the wilderness.”  

Which didn’t stop him later on from writing that many performances were “dull and heavy footed,” that La Gioconda was “lamely done and inefficiently sung,” that Aida was “a truly sorrowful revelation,” and that sopranos singing Isolde and Brünnhilde were “colorless phantasms…[who] pipe their pallid woes.” 

Finally, the repertoire wasn’t quite what it is now. Mozart was rarely done. And Turandot — which of course was written during the 1920s and had its Met premiere in 1926 — failed to catch on, and didn’t enter the regular Met repertoire until the 1961 season. (Though actually it was the New York City Opera which brought it back to prominence, with a brave production in 1950.) 

That 1961 Turandot, by the way, can be heard in a recording. Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, Anna Moffo, with Stokowski conducting. One of the hottest opera performances I’ve ever heard. 

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