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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
Having called the Manhattan Opera Company into being, Oscar sailed for Europe to recruit its principal artists. He left such home-front details as the completion of the house to William and Arthur, two of his four sons. In these two business associates he was blessed beyond his due. Oscar’s first marriage had been a very happy one, but after his wife’s death he had remarried for the convenience of having a housekeeper and a mother for his small children. After that he had been a cipher in the role of family man and father, yet the loyalty of William and Arthur was remarkable. William (father of Oscar n) had made the Victoria Theatre the most prosperous vaudeville house in New York, and it was the vaudeville box office that built the Manhattan Opera House. Arthur had been trained as a builder and was in charge of all Hammerstein theatre construction. Although poor Arthur disliked opera intensely, he was drafted into service as his father’s chief assistant during what he later described as “my four years of opera torture.”
In Milan Oscar signed up the great conductor Cleofonte Campanini, who would be the solid artistic rock on which the company was built. Although a grand tour of Europe netted him nearly a dozen superlative singers, Oscar the showman knew that an untried opera company, facing competition as strong as the Met, needed one great superstar to help get it off the ground. In Paris he wooed and won the greatest of them all. The transatlantic cable crackled with the joyous tidings: Nellie Melba would soon sing in the Manhattan Opera House.
Through Melba, Hammerstein obtained the services of Maurice Renaud, one of the greatest French baritones in the entire history of opera. Only one lack remained: an Italian tenor to match Enrico Caruso, who was about to begin his fourth season at the Metropolitan. Hammerstein signed Alessandro Bonci of La Scala, a glorious lyric tenor whom many knowledgeable people thought artistically superior to the Met’s treasure.
Over at Broadway and Thirtyninth Street, meanwhile, all these developments were observed with a kind of detached amusement by the management. Conried, when he spoke of the Manhattan at all, referred to it only as “the so-called opera house in 34th Street.” But two unrelated incidents soon conspired to shake his massive self-assurance and faith in the status quo. Just before the Metropolitan’s season began, Caruso, its greatest single asset, was arrested in the Central Park Zoo and convicted of having pinched a certain Mrs. Hannah Stanhope right in the middle of the monkey house. Conried suffered agonies of suspense lest the incident wreck Caruso’s career at the Metropolitan. How little he knew about American opera lovers!
The real disaster was the fate of Salomé , Conried’s major première of the season. The setting by Richard Strauss of the Oscar Wilde play was pretty strong stuff throughout, but the moment in the last scene when the wicked princess rapturously kisses the severed head of John the Baptist proved too large a dose of necrophilia for some of the board members. Conried was ordered to withdraw the expensive production after one performance.
The stage was now set for the historic, traffic-jamming night of December 3, 1906.
In choosing I Puritani for his opener Hammerstein was demonstrating his knack of extracting the ultimate advantage from any situation. The Bellini opus—an Italianized tale of Cavaliers and Roundheads whacking away at each other in pre-Restoration England—was by no means a popular favorite. It had not been heard in New York for more than twenty years, and no one had really missed it. It did, however, have one supreme virtue. Caruso could not sing its tenor role. He had sensibly dropped it from his repertoire some years earlier because its high range and florid vocal line were unsuited to his voice and style. But it was Alessandro Bonci’s dish from first note to last, and Hammerstein let it be known far and wide that the Manhattan’s tenor was opening in a role the great man of the Met just couldn’t handle. None of this made any sense musically, but the alleged “duel of tenors” inspired reams of newspaper copy.
Although first-night euphoria and delight over Bonci brought off a splendid opening, the historic excitement that firmly established the position and prestige of the Manhattan Opera came a few weeks later, exactly as Hammerstein had known that it would. On December 29, a date graven in gold on his heart, the Caronia arrived in New York. On board was Nellie Melba.
New York’s reaction to the Australian soprano’s arrival transcended the wild-eyed visions of the greediest press agent. The demand for her opening night Traviata was so great that Hammerstein had to put chairs in the aisles and sell standing room in quantities that must have required the connivance of the fire marshal. “Does the great success of the evening mark a turning point in local operatic history?” the Daily Tribune asked itself the next day, after enlarging on the glories of the production.