New York Met, flagship of US opera, turns 125
Oct 22, 2008, 11:46 GMT
New York - New Yorkers can thank a petty quarrel among the rich and super rich for giving them a world famous opera house.
Late in the 19th century, members of New York City's high society decided they preferred not to share their splendid theater boxes with the newly rich. As a result, those up-and-coming families - among them the Vanderbilts, the Morgans and the Rockefellers - quickly decided to build their own opera house.
On October 22, 1883, the curtain went up for the first time in the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Charles Gounod's Faust. While the famous opera house, lovingly called the Met, celebrates the 125th anniversary of that opening night on Wednesday, the opera house it competed with at the time of its founding no longer exists.
When the Metropolitan Opera opened in 1883 with a glamorous gala, it was located in a new building on Broadway that New Yorkers derided as a 'yellow brick brewery' because of its industrial exterior.
In 1966 the opera moved along with 12 other cultural institutions into the Lincoln Center near Central Park where it resides today with its smaller competitor, the New York City Opera. It can seat 3,900, uses the most modern stage technology and its decor features murals by Marc Chagall.
The Met, Vienna's State Opera House and Milan's Scala are the world's most renowned opera houses. Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, one of the greatest and most influential tenors in history, was on stage at the Met from 1903 until his death in 1921 more often than in all other cities of the world combined.
The list of stars who sang regularly at the Met during their illustrious careers goes on: Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe and Luciano Pavarotti. Current stars Cecilia Bartoli, Anna Netrebko and Deborah Voigt make regular guest appearances, while Renee Fleming und Placido Domingo are fixtures.
In addition, the great conductors Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Rafael Kubelik and James Levine have put their stamp on the Met.
Levine, who joined the Met as principal conductor in 1973 and now has the title music director, transformed the orchestra into a world class ensemble, while the choir became one of the best in the US.
Opera fans were distraught over the announcement in July that the 65-year-old maestro had a cancerous kidney that had to be removed. But he's been back the podium conducting with the usual vim, including an appearance at the September 22 gala starring Fleming in three fully-staged scenes.
Fleming also will star in Wednesday's gala. The anniversary tributes continue through March 15 when the Met will hold a gala to mark the 40th anniversary of Domingo's joining the company.
'We're celebrating our 125th anniversary, but we're not resting on our laurels,' said Met general manager Peter Gelb in announcing the 2008-09 season program. He said he wanted 'to ensure that the Met will thrive for another 125 years.'
Before Gelb became general manager two years ago, the Met had become somewhat sedate. But Gelb, a former president of Sony's classical-recording division, has breathed fresh life into the Met. He wants to offer the audience not only good music, but also good theater, and has signed up film directors such as Luc Bondy, Richard Eyre, Anthony Minghella and Peter Stein for new productions.
He also has arranged for the live broadcast of opening night performances in the plaza outside Lincoln Center and in New York's Times Square, sold discounted seats for weekday performances and increased the number of new productions. Among the six new productions this season are the contemporary opera Doctor Atomic by John Adams and the dramatic legendary opera La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz, under the direction of innovative Canadian director Robert Lepage.
With an audience whose average age is over 60, the Met also is forging new paths in attempting to win over younger audiences. One revolutionary idea has been the live high definition broadcast of opera performances in cinemas all over the world. Last season more than 600 cinemas participated, the Economist magazine reported. More than 920,000 people in 23 countries viewed the eight broadcasts. In the coming season, 11 operas will be televised at an even greater number of cinemas.
In addition, the Met has a 24-hour radio programme featuring current and historical recordings, broadcasts operas on the internet live at www.metopera.org and has a special programme for children. The numbers indicate Gelb is on the right track: Last season the Met was 88 per cent sold out despite a declining economy - 11 per cent better than the season before.