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Oscar And The Opera
AN IMPRESARIO NAMED HAMMERSTEIN SET HIS SIGHTS ON TUMBLING AN INSTITUTION CALLED THE MET
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
In their mutual efforts to outdo each other both companies had overexpanded their operations to such a degree that opera had actually become something of a glut on the market. These frills and extras were expensive. The Metropolitan was presenting light opera in an ill-considered venture on Central Park West called the New Theatre. Hammerstein had formed a whole new lightopera company of his own and had also added a preseason “educational opera” series with still another group of singers. On the road the flaming spirit of territorial imperative had gripped both organizations. Hammerstein sent his company to Boston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C., where President Taft became its staunchest fan. Whenever possible, the Manhattan and the Met tried to squeeze each other out of road towns by annexing the only available theatre for all possible tour dates. (Oscar never did make it into Chicago and loudly threatened to build his own theatre there.)
O‘ne night in March the Manhattan presented one of those bits-andpieces galas in which everybody stars in everything. “At the end of each season,” Oscar told the audience, “I have the honor of being called before the curtain, very likely for the purpose of exhibiting the fact that I am still alive. … The past season financially has been a very unfortunate one. … While my losses have been enormous, I am proud of knowing that those of my adversaries have been much larger. My effort in the great cause, nevertheless, will not relax, and I am again planning for next season the greatest and most sublime opera for the pleasure of my audiences and for the honor of myself. Au revoir !”
Brave words. But even Oscar knew they had no foundation in reality. The war was over, and nothing remained but the signing of the treaty. That there was a treaty to sign is one of the most remarkable and satisfactory details of the story. By this time it was perfectly clear that New York was not big enough to hold both opera companies. And since money was the decisive factor, there was no doubt about which one would have to go. Left to himself, Oscar would probably have attempted another season and been totally ruined. That would have been the most economical way to get rid of him.
Why, then, did the Metropolitan Opera pay him $1,200,000 to remove himself from the New York operatic scene? For years the truth was obscure. No one knew exactly who had provided the money or why. Today there is universal agreement that the generous bribe was paid by Otto Kahn. The greathearted Kahn had admired the achievements of the Manhattan Opera far too much to stand by and see it dispersed in bankruptcy court. To a man of Kahn’s apollonian spirit it seemed unjust for a fellow opera-lover to be ruined because he had provided New York with four of the most wonderful years in its musical history.
Contracts of the artists and house personnel, rights to the Manhattan repertoire, scenery, costumes, and the Philadelphia property—all this became part of a new company operated by the Metropolitan and slated to divide its season between Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. There was only one element essential to the spirit of the Manhattan Opera Company that Mr. Kahn could not, under the circumstances, buy up. This was the galvanic presence of Oscar himself, sitting in the wings on his old kitchen chair, following every note of every opera he had ever produced. In four years he had not missed a performance.
But Oscar was not being handed $1,200,000 for his assets alone. The agreement, which was signed on April 26, 1910, contained an ironclad clause enjoining him from presenting a single note of opera in the Manhattan Opera House or anyplace else in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago for ten years.
Oscar tried to heal his wounds in several ways. He built an opera house in London and ran a season in competition with Covent Garden. He failed, but the venture at least gave him a chance to welcome King George v to his theatre by saying: “How are you, King. I’m glad to see you.” This fine, honest greeting was enhanced by the fact that Oscar had forgotten to remove his cigar before delivering it.
Back in New York Oscar engaged in plenty of theatrical ventures, but time was taking its toll. In 1914 William and, incredibly, two of his three other sons died. The next year he undertook a disastrous third marriage, which did nothing to solace his old age.
As early as 1913 Hammerstein tried to bull his way back into the opera business by building a new house and announcing a season of opera in English. Somehow, he felt, this linguistic hedge would get around the wording of his agreement with the Metropolitan. This time the New York courts did not see things his way. There was nothing to do but wait—and plan. Plan for the glorious renaissance of the Manhattan Opera Company that he envisioned on April 26, 1920. For that was the day on which the ten-year ban ended, and that was the day for which Oscar was living. But he died on August i, 1919, at the age of seventy-two, thus missing the appointment by nine months. He must have been terribly annoyed.