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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
This was a question that people over at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street were asking too, particularly after the Times had the effrontery to say that the Manhattan performance of January 11, 1907, with Melba, Bonci, and Renaud, was “without question one of the best productions of Rigoletto that has been given in New York for many years.” This was twisting the knife in Conried’s heart, because Rigoletto , as much as any work in the repertoire, was his opera. When one thought Rigoletto in New York, one was supposed to think Caruso, Sembrich, and Scotti—and the Metropolitan Opera House.
To Oscar the most soul-satisfying of all his great Melba nights was the Bohème of March i, 1907. It represented the apogee to date in his ability to infuriate the Metropolitan.
Mimi, the beloved Parisian working girl, was one of Melba’s greatest roles, and for her Hammerstein had naturally designed a splendid production of life and love on the Left Bank. Suddenly he was informed by the opera’s publishers, Ricordi and Company of Milan, that an exclusive license to produce all the works of Puccini in New York had just been granted to the Metropolitan Opera Company. Although the voice was the voice of Ricordi, the hand, Oscar swore, was the hand of Conried. For nearly eleven years Bohème had been produced all over the world, by any manager able to put up the $ 150 royalty. It did not require a persecution complex to sense a conspiracy against the Manhattan Opera Company.
When Oscar let it be known that he was ignoring the whole ridiculous idea, Ricordi asked the New York courts to serve an injunction against a Manhattan Bohème . On January 3 the case was heard and the injunction denied on the ground that the publishers had not given Hammerstein sufficient notice of their exclusive intentions. Next day their lawyers appealed, but Oscar knew that he could get his Bohème on and off the stage before the case made it to a higher court.
Only one small barrier now stood between Oscar and his heart’s desire. Even with the blessings of the New York judiciary it is not possible to produce an opera without a score, and the score of Bohème was not available in any music store. A substantial number of manuscript copies were deployed around the world for rental, but they were rigidly numbered and guarded. Word went out from New York to Milan and thence to Ricordi representatives around the world, ordering them to keep the score of Bohème out of Hammerstein’s hands. This was the sort of challenge that whetted Oscar’s appetite for battle. He sent his agents, like knights in search of the grail, to find his Bohème . And sure enough, one of his men turned up an old score hidden in the trunks of an English touring company. It was incomplete and so mutilated that the Ricordi accounting division had crossed it off the list and forgotten all about it.
Could such a pathetic excuse for a score be used as the basis of a performance? It could with Campanini on hand. He knew the opera so well that he filled in missing parts from memory.
On the night before the performance the Met staged its own Bohème, haughtily pointing out that this was the only authorized and correct version in town, while Ricordi issued a press release asking New York not to hold Puccini responsible for whatever ghastly things happened next day at the Manhattan Opera.
In all, Melba sang four triumphant Mimis, one of them her farewell for the season. After the final curtain Oscar staged a magnificent supper. He was in roaring good spirits not only because of his recent triumph over Conried but also because the orchestra was manfully working through one of his own compositions. Written for the occasion, it was entitled “Memories of the Manhattan Opera Season.” The company dined on suprême de volaille Hammerstein , washed down by gallons of champagne. And what do you suppose they had for dessert?
When the season ended, the Manhattan’s books showed a substantial profit and the Metropolitan’s a deficit of $84,039. Mr. Conried no longer referred to the Manhattan as “the socalled opera house in 34th Street.” From now on he called it “the other place.”
With the end of the season came the inevitable forays into enemy territory. Conried, realizing that the Manhattan’s greatest single asset was Campanini, offered the conductor a substantial bribe to move across town. Campanini rejected it scornfully, but Bonci was made of stuff less stern and defected to Thirty-ninth Street. Although Hammerstein went through the motions of suing him (with Oscar bringing lawsuits was a reflex action), he was not seriously disturbed, as he had already signed a contract with Giovanni Zenatello, a tenor as great as Bonci and somewhat more versatile.