Oscar And The Opera
AN IMPRESARIO NAMED HAMMERSTEIN SET HIS SIGHTS ON TUMBLING AN INSTITUTION CALLED THE MET
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
Society—the kind Oscar liked to ignore or abuse—had indeed taken the Manhattan to its heart from the very beginning of the second season. Behind this now solid support was the influence of Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Mackay and the Postal Telegraph Cable Company fortune. Mrs. Mackay was so enthusiastic about the quality of Manhattan opera that she had personally taken charge of selling the grand-tier boxes and filling them with the right people. The Mackays worked through Arthur Hammerstein, who had come to value their friendship as well as their solid financial position. Arthur had diplomatically refrained from passing on to them his father’s forthright comments on the subject of unsolicited help from social lions. “Tell Mackay logo to hell,” Oscar had ordered his son when the latter had informed him that the millionaire would be glad to pick up the tab for any unforeseen deficit that season.
It should be recorded in his favor that Oscar was meticulously fair in the matter of keeping his patrons in line. He stood ready, if the need arose, to educate boxholder and balcony sitter alike. Early in the season attendance had fallen slightly short of 100 per cent. Oscar did not take this in a philosophical wait-and-see spirit but ordered his public to pull up its socks and fall into line—or else. “In securing for my subscribers such an addition to my already existing incomparable artistic forces, at an enormous salary and at a time [of] a business depression …” he wrote them, in a letter later published in the Times. “I am compelled to remind not alone my subscribers, but also the operaloving public, of the necessity, if not duty, of their strongest possible support of my efforts. … I have absolutely and positively no associates of any kind; not one dollar of anybody else’s but mine is invested in this gigantic work. … Arrayed against me, a single, a solitary figure, is an institution of operatic pretensions, created, supported, and conducted by men of almost unlimited means. … If I am instrumental in improving the standard of grand opera at my expense, I am entitled and have a right to demand as great a support as is accorded to any other institution. … Any other attitude on the part of the public is but a humiliation to me and my artists, compelling me in future to give either none or but a short few weeks of opera in this city and divide the balance of the season between Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. …”
The institution “conducted by men of almost unlimited means” was simply enchanted by the idea that Hammerstein might be in trouble because of his high-minded resolve to bring something new to New V ork. Conried gave an interview in which he summed up the credo of more than one opera manager before and after his time. An impresario, he said, “cannot force the public to like certain operas. … Knowing that the opera impresario has but to give the public what he thinks it will like, not what he thinks it ought to hear, I have tried to do the former, and I am perfectly satisfied with the manner in which the public has supported my efforts.”
But the crisis passed quickly. On January 3 Mary Garden led an incomparable performance of Charpentier’s Louise , the rapturous tale of youth and free love in which she had made her story-book Paris debut. A few weeks later, on February 19, 1908, came the Manhattan Opera’s single greatest moment of glory, when Hammerstein presented the American première of Pelléas et Mélisande . He had imported the principal members of the original cast of the Debussy opera. He had commissioned the designer of the Paris production to design and execute the sets. And he had Mary Garden. Of all the roles she created, Mélisande was the one uniquely, almost preternaturally hers. The composer knew it when he wrote in her score, “In the future others may sing Mélisande, but you alone will remain the woman and the artist I had hardly dared hope for.”
Debussy’s setting of Maeterlinck’s enigmatic, mystical drama had fought for its life at its first public performance, almost six years earlier. The company had sung to the accompaniment of the organized jeering and catcalling for which French audiences had developed a rare gift.
New York received Pelléas with far more restraint and politeness than Paris had done. It was an enormous artistic triumph. As far as the general public was concerned, some people were enamored of it and some people did not have a clue as to what it was all about. And this is exactly the way the situation stands sixty-five years later.
It would have been more than enough for any one impresario in any one season to import Mary Garden and her French colleagues, to present the American première of Pelléas et Mélisande , and to establish in the repertoire the delightful Tales of Hoffmann , an opera heard exactly once before in New York back in the early i88o’s. That the same man, during the same season, should also introduce Luisa Tetrazzini to New York seems almost pushy.