FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Remembering the Old Metropolitan Opera House
Monday, September 26, 2016 - 09:55 AM
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.