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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
Two, of course, could and did play at the same game. Hammerstein’s raid on the Met camp netted two valuable properties in the persons of contralto Ernestine SchumannHeink and soprano Lillian Nordica. Although this coup made a fine newspaper stir, neither singer’s career was greatly advanced by her Manhattan contract. The Nordica story in particular had an unhappy ending.
At the time that he coveted the great Wagnerian soprano, Hammerstein had the mad intention of competing with the Met on its most established and sacrosanct ground: the German repertoire. Once he abandoned this idea, he found Nordica’s contract an expensive burden. Now Oscar was a man of interesting extremes in his dealings with singers. He could be and usually was a blend of Dutch uncle, mother hen, and father confessor. But when the occasion demanded…and it usually had something to do with an unwanted contract— he could display an awesome seaminess of character. To dampen Nordica’s enthusiasm for the Manhattan he hit on the simple device of lighting the security-blanket cigar on which he chomped day and night (ordinarily he would grudgingly refrain from smoking it if a lady singer requested it). He also distributed his finest personally made samples to the stagehands and other backstage personnel and ordered them to light up. Poor Nordica, like any right-thinking singer, had a fanatical loathing of cigar smoke. When her every entrance and exit onto the stage had to be made through thick clouds of the foul stuff, she quickly got the message and left the company, emerging from the ordeal with far more honor than her employer.
Hammerstein had changed his mind about entering the Wagnerian lists for a historic reason. Up to this point he had been happy fighting his rivals in their own territory: the standard Italian and French repertoire, of the Lucia-Traviata-Carmen school. The sheer novelty of the situation, plus the skill of an enterprising supershowman, had brought off the success of the first season of the Manhattan Opera House. But it was the perilous decision he made for its second season that won Oscar Hammerstein a permanent place of honor in the musical history of the United States.
It all hinged on an extraordinary phenomenon named Mary Garden. Born in Scotland, raised in Chicago, trained in Paris, she was, in 1907, the queen of that city’s OpéraComique. Hammerstein had wanted Garden since the earliest days of the Manhattan, but not until May ofthat year would she sign a contract with him. Both artist and impresario were taking a chance, for Garden’s great reputation in Europe had not been made in safe, standard operatic vehicles, pretested the world over, but in a contemporary French repertoire that America, for all they knew, might greet with paroxysms of indifference. Nor was there anything safe and standard about Garden herself. She was something quite new in operatic history: a great singing actress who did not regard opera as a showcase for vocal display but as a form of drama in which a singer must use her voice to create character. The canard, mindlessly repeated to this day, that Garden was a great actress but couldn’t really sing originated with some of the older music critics. They could not countenance any soprano unless her sole object in life was to stand on a stage and produce clear, silvery tones as much like Melba’s as possible.
Oscar soon realized that he was dealing with something unusual: a will as strong as his own. Before she would sign with him, Garden stipulated that he must also hire an entire crew of French singers, her colleagues at the Opéra-Comique, to insure a perfect ensemble. She also retained veto power over every detail of any production in which she appeared, down to the last stick of furniture.
On November 25, 1907, Mary Garden made her debut in America in Massenet’s Thaïs . As she stepped out onto the stage of the Manhattan, strewing blood-red roses, dressed, jewelled, and coiffed as befitted the busiest courtesan in Alexandria, announcing “ C’est Thaïs! L’Idole fragile …” she set up a series of invisible shock waves that would reverberate through the land for years to come. The poor critics, already challenged to describe her uncommon style of singing, also had to dig out vocabulary not usually required in their line of work: her “sinuous body … visible through … thin, rose-colored drapery,” her “supple frame, slender as a sapling, pliant as a willow,” the “swift litheness,” “the stride of a tigress and the tortuousness of a serpent. …”
A tremendous Garden cult grew up among the younger members of New York society, the 1907 equivalent of the jet set. They flocked to every performance.