Remembering the Old Metropolitan Opera House

Monday, September 26, 2016 - 09:55 AM

The old Metropolitan Opera House (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera)

The last Monday in September is, customarily, the opening night of the season at the Metropolitan Opera house. It is always a great occasion and this season begins with a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde conducted by Simon Rattle and starring Nina Stemme, Stuart Skelton and René Pape. It’s a big, serious opera with great artists and there is no debate about where I plan to be tonight.

Opening night is always a time to look forward to a promising season, but this year there is also a special reason to look backward: the Metropolitan Opera house opened 50 years ago, on Sept. 16, 1966. The opera was the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, based on the Shakespeare play, with Justino Diaz and Leontyne Price in the title roles. The conductor was Thomas Schippers and the huge and unwieldy production (direction, scenery, costumes) was by Franco Zeffirelli. While opinion on the opera was divided, it heralded the arrival of a major new opera house for the 20th century.

Opening a new Met was controversial for many reasons and the story is long and complicated. I will give you some idea of the highlights. The old Metropolitan Opera House opened on Oct. 22, 1883, on Seventh Avenue and 39th Street with Gounod’s Faust. The new opera company was called the Metropolitan Opera Association and it owned the land on which the building was erected. 

The relatively confined space in that crowded part of the city meant that the old Met had a glorious auditorium with excellent acoustics and sightlines that often made it easier to see other audience members than the stage. It had very little space surrounding the stage, meaning that scenery sometimes had to be put out on the street. Settings at the old Met were not special and one of the reasons that it became known as a “singer’s house” is that the singers were the main reason one went to a performance at the old Met.

At the new Met one goes with the expectation of hearing great singers in outstanding productions.

It became clear to opera lovers of a century ago that their desire for grand spectacle would not be fulfilled at the old Met. Giulio Gatti-Casazza became general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in 1908 and wrote to board president Otto Kahn, “As for the stage, it has the defect of being too short and too narrow. There is no modern equipment of any kind. The Metropolitan lacks, moreover, rehearsal rooms for the artists, the chorus and the ballet. The storehouses are too far away, and one must leave the scenery in the street for hours, often exposed to rain and snow.”


Things were so tight that the chorus often rehearsed in Sherry’s, the restaurant in the old opera house. Because the company did a different opera each evening, in repertory, scenery had to be put in trucks after a performance and transported to a warehouse.

Discussions arose to build a new opera house and, among the sites considered, was the place where Rockefeller Center is now. Prior to that, Kahn bought land on West 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues but there were objections to this location and the notion of building an office tower above it to bring income to the company, as was done in the opera house in Chicago. Other possible locations included Columbus Circle and south of Washington Square in Greenwich Village.

The Met nearly went out of business during the Great Depression in the 1930s and was saved, in part, through the ingenuity of Eleanor Robson Belmont, founder of the Metropolitan Opera Guild.  World War II came and then America tried to get back on its feet. The weekly Met network radio broadcasts began in 1931, making the company a beloved national institution.

Plans for a new theater began in earnest in the 1950s when Rudolf Bing became general manager and the Rockefeller family threw its considerable weight behind a project that not only would create a new opera house but a performing arts center in the West 60s between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.

The overall plan for what came to be known as Lincoln Center was done by Wallace K. Harrison, the preferred architect of the Rockefeller family and the man who designed Rockefeller Center and the United Nations building. Harrison would also design the new Metropolitan Opera house to sit in the middle of the main plaza of Lincoln Center, with Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) for the New York Philharmonic (leaving behind Carnegie Hall) and the New York State Theatre (now called the Koch Theatre) for the New York City Ballet and New York City Opera (arriving from City Center on 55th Street).

If you have been to the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill) in Rome, you can see where the influence for Lincoln Center’s main plaza came from. The complex would also have a bandshell in Damrosch Park (south of the Metropolitan Opera House) and the north plaza would have the Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi Newhouse theaters (for plays and musicals), the wonderful New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Juilliard School.

Some critics decried Lincoln Center as a supermarket of culture. There was no guarantee that the new theaters would fulfill their purpose. In the rapacious New York real estate market and with little thought of landmark preservation, buildings such as Carnegie Hall and the old Met were slated for destruction, as well as the famously beautiful Pennsylvania station. Carnegie was miraculously saved and is a beloved and viable concert hall that is among the world’s temples of music.

For different reasons, the old Met did not survive. The Metropolitan Opera Association was not only an opera company but a property owner. It was decided that, to raise funds toward the new building (which had a budget of $46 million in the late 1950s), the old Met had to be sold because its land was valuable. Now there is a drab office building on the site and no reminder of the glorious but imperfect theater that was there. I would like to think that, nowadays, we could have found a way to save it as a viable theater for different kinds of presentations.

In my next article, I will discuss the new Metropolitan Opera House, a building I adore.


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Comments [9]

Nancy Dennis from Santa Fe, NM

I have many happy memories of the Old Met, e.g. Leontyne Price's debut in Il Trovatore, Leonard Warren's death on stage during Forza (we'd gone because Tebaldi was returning in it after a year's absence), Tebaldi & del Monaco in Otello, Tebaldi Butterflies, Toscas and Manon Lescauts, Tagliavini's return in L'Elisir d'Amore, etc. One night a group of Tebaldi fans refused to leave the auditorium until she came out again and again and again. The fire curtain was lowered, but we kept on applauding. When she emerged, she was still wearing the socks for her Japanese shoes and a blue house coat. She always did her little Italian wave.

A friend was an usher and he used to let me sit in empty seats.

Across from the stage door was Bill's Bar, where we always had dinner before the performance and waited afterward for Tebaldi, accompanied by Tina, to come out to her limousine. We surrounded it, applauding.

I also remember, with some bitterness, the cold, cold mornings waiting in line for the box office to open. Bing was heartless.

The acoustics from any seat in the house were wonderful.

I also saw many wonderful ballet performances there, especially Giselle with Markova and ??? Best of all were the Giselle performances with Fracci and Bruhn! Sublime. Of course, there were also Royal Ballet performances. Much, much earlier (in 1954) I even saw Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The "new" Met has afforded many pleasures too, but when it first opened I remember thinking it looked cheap and tacky, like Alexander's department store. Of course the staircase is wonderful and the railings where one can stand and watch the "beautiful" people below.

Oct. 03 2016 10:27 PM
Manny Nadelman from Teaneck, NJ

According to John Gutmann, Rudolf Bing's right-hand man, the Met asked Sol Hurok if he could guarantee full-time rental use of the old house following the opening of the new one. That would have enabled the Met to afford to retain the old house but Hurok could not provide such a guarantee.

Sep. 30 2016 01:00 PM
Gloria from Maspeth, NY

There is nothing that marks where the old Met stood on 39th & Broadway, now 1411 Broadway & Golda Meir Plaza.. However in 1410 Broadway, (where I work), diagonally across from where it stood, there is a pictorial display honoring the garment workers of the area, AND a photo of the old Met. Students from Fashion High School, FIT and Parsons often visit the lobby with their instructors, who point out the Met.
if you are in the neighborhood, visit the lobby of 1410!

Sep. 27 2016 09:25 PM
Phyllis Kavett from Union, NJ

My best friend and I, in our early teens, climbed the steep steps to the highest and cheapest seats in the house. We entered through a side door of the building. We never got to see the stage from the orchestra level. But the acoustics up there were wonderful! The music was glorious!

Sep. 27 2016 12:43 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

One feature that the original Met could proudly boast of was its acoustics. It's a tragedy that it wasn't saved, remodeled or re-designed for perhaps another primary use such as a recording studio 'a la the Manhattan Center, formerly Oscar Hammerstein I.'s opera house, or a "Mini-Met" along the lines of the Piccolo Scala.

Sep. 27 2016 08:47 AM
Ellen from West Chester, PA

David Schancupp, your memories sparked some of my own; I well recall running up the stairs to the Family Circle standing room, used the elevator only when we had actual seats.

One standout for me was the night we stood downstairs for Schwarzkopf in Rosenkavalier. At the beginning of the last act, a couple left their orchestra seats because they could not miss the last train to the suburbs. In a kind gesture I will always remember fondly, they gave my friend and I their stubs so we could take their seats. Row 10, center orchestra!! What a treat to hear that final trio from an ideal location.

The new house is glorious, but that old barn on 39th street was the place I first experienced opera live and the memories still live on.

Ellen Lienhard

Sep. 26 2016 06:20 PM
David from Flushing

I got to see the old Met twice during student performances when I was in high school. By that time, no effort was being made to maintain the house as it was doomed. On the last occasion, my group from PA got the prestigious center box. The faded elegance was obvious. During an intermission, there was a question about the restroom location. I pointed out a water stain on the carpet outside the box door and we followed it around the hall, and sure enough, found it.

I not certain the Met could have survived so well in the old house given the scary streets of the area in 70s and 80s and the lack of parking. The structure was impractical for a theater despite its pretty plasterwork that had been remodeled several times. A greater threat looms over the present house with the decline in interest in opera.

Sep. 26 2016 05:14 PM
Fred Plotkin from Standing Room

David Schancupp, thanks for those great memories

Sep. 26 2016 01:23 PM
David Schancupp

Fred, thanks for memories of the old Met. I spent many, many nights there between 1961 and 1965 while living in New York.
In those days, standing room was sold on the day of performance, usually at 7:00 for an 8:00 performance, and depending on the opera and the cast the line would form outside early in the afternoon. Once in line, it was "de rigeur" for linemates to hold your place in line while you went for coffee at the cafeteria across the street (I met Brigit Nillson in line there - elegantly dressed and carrying her tray through the line - she had just come from teheatsal). Once having purchased your standing room ticket, you dashed to your desired location in one of the "pens" alongside the orchestra. Early in my standing career I met one of ushers on the orchestra level, Henry, and he usually provided me with a seat (then, the ushers knew most of the subscribers by name and knew that if they weren't in their seats by 7:55 they wouldn't be coming.) Also, during the cold weather when we had coats, as we entered one of the house staff would require that we open our coats to show that we were properly dressed with jackets and ties!

Another quirk of the old house was that there was no way to get to the family circle from the rest of the house. There was a separate family circle entrance on 39th street where a "cattle car" elevator took you up to the FC. Later, I found that there was an unmarked doorway which would take you down to the balcony level, but no way to get back up!

I always used to enjoy walking along the 7th Avenue side after a performance and watch the moving of the sets out and in through the huge stage door. If the main drape was up you could see right through the stage into the auditorium itself.

Those are some of my fond recollection of the old house from a long time opera goer.


Dave SchancuppP

Sep. 26 2016 12:48 PM

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