Oscar And The Opera


Although his quarrel with Conried seems to have been spontaneous, Oscar was quite capable of manufacturing contract-breaking strife with his stars if it suited his purposes. He once found it expedient to pick a fight with Anna Held, whom he had imported from Europe in a French operetta called La Poupée . The future Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld was a box-office smash at the Lyric, which was part of Hammerstein’s elegant theatrical complex known as the Olympia. But he coveted her role for a current protegee named Alice Rose. Throughout his long career Oscar was known for his susceptibility to fat girls with big voices. Anna’s doll-like proportions had made her a natural for the title role of lé. Alice, unfortunately, was less aptly cast. The show closed shortly after the new star moved in.

Oscar was by turns philosophical and irritated by the publicity and lawsuits that his predilection for large singers occasionally brought him. When a lady nicknamed the Texas Patti published some of his love letters and sued him for breach of an alleged promise to make her an opera star, he remarked mildly, “My family knows I have been interested in Miss Lee’s career. It is ajl understood. Besides, a man in the theatrical business is allowed more liberties than his business brothers. His business demands it.” Later he added acidly, “By a majority of the fraternity called shyster lawyers I am considered a professional defendant. I have established a schedule of prices in settlements of such suits. All up to one thousand dollars I settle for ten dollars. Suits for one hundred thousand dollars I cannot afford to settle for more than thirty-five dollars.”

New York was astounded by Hammerstein’s announcement of February 23, 1906, that he was building an opera house and planning a full season in direct competition with the Metropolitan. Since 1883 the Metropolitan had been entrenched at Thirty-ninth Street and Broadway. Astors, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Whitneys, and Goulds, among others, made up its board of directors and backed its expensive operation. On Monday nights, when its Diamond Horseshoe traditionally glittered at full capacity, it was all too evident where the serious New York opera money was. But the sympathy of the general public was on Oscar’s side, for he was known to be a determined loner, and his willingness to take on the establishment endeared him even to those New Yorkers who never had and never would set foot in an opera house. They avidly observed the opera war from the sidelines.

Henry Krehbiel, long-term music critic of the New-York Daily , mused that Hammerstein “did not seem illogical enough” to be an opera manager; but Krehbiel was wrong, for two good and sufficient reasons. The first was Oscar’s all-consuming passion for opera. He belonged heart and soul to the international brotherhood of opera nuts. “Opera’s no business,” he once told a reporter. “It’s a disease,” a disease with symptoms hard to describe to the unafflicted. The second factor in Oscar’s decision was his fanatical loathing of the Metropolitan Opera Company. As a complete man of the theatre Oscar found Metropolitan productions sloppy. The prevailing star system concentrated on the luminaries in the cast and paid scant attention to the quality of ensemble, orchestra, and chorus, to say nothing of stage direction, scenery, and costumes. Things would be done differently in his house, Oscar assured the public in a barrage of news releases. To begin with, the theatre itself would be different. Sight lines would be unimpeded from all parts of the house, including the top balcony. The center of the Manhattan Opera House would be the stage , not the grand-tier boxes. He had, in fact, been persuaded with the utmost difficulty to put in any boxes at all, for he was outraged by the concept of opera as a pastime for the well-born and well-heeled.

Oscar’s vendetta against the Metropolitan had begun three years earlier, when the post of general manager had fallen vacant. Several men had been considered, including Walter Damrosch, the composer and conductor, whose candidacy Oscar favored. The board of directors, unfortunately, chose elsewhere, settling on a theatre man with very little knowledge or even love of opera. By doing so they brought down on their heads the wrath of Oscar Hammerstein. They appointed Heinrich Conried manager of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Oscar was not essentially a vindictive man. More than once he had been seen settling an argument with fists and ten minutes later buying his opponent a drink. But whatever had happened between him and the star of The Perjured Peasant had left open wounds, and he determined that his personal souvenir of the opera war would be Conried’s scalp.