Oscar And The Opera

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Tetrazzini’s London debut in November of 1907 had created such a furor among the usually staid British public that Hammerstein had rearranged the second half of his already well-planned season in order to bring her to New York at once. She was a short and far from sylphlike lady, but she was a clever natural actress and had some little stage tricks that in combination with her fantastic coloratura technique drove opera lovers clean out of their minds. In her Manhattan debut in Traviata , for example, she finished the aria “Sempre libéra” by landing square on the Eflat above high C “with so great an ease and freedom,” as one showoff music critic wrote, “that persons possessed of the sense of absolute pitch almost doubted their senses.” She then leaned over to gather up her long train and walked leisurely off-stage, holding both the gown and the E-flat until she was out of sight.

Thus the second Manhattan season. When Tetrazzini was not causing a siege at the box office with her Traviatas and Lucias, Garden was filling the house with her Louises and Thaïses. Because of the season’s success historic decisions had been taken in the board room of the Metropolitan Opera House. What Hammerstein had achieved was sufficiently irritating in itself. But two facts in the possession of the Met’s board of directors escalated it to the ranks of the intolerable.

First was the information that all the new French operas brought to New York by Hammerstein had previously been offered under exclusive contract to Conried and had been turned down turned down, according to their Paris agent, with obvious contempt. Second was the damning fact that there had once existed a contract between the Metropolitan and Luisa Tetrazzini. Why then, the board asked itself, was the new toast of New York emitting her golden trills, scales, double swells, and high E-flats over at the other place instead of in the Metropolitan? Because Mr. Conried had carelessly allowed his option to lapse.

The handwriting was clearly on the wall for Conried, and the board used his understandably poor health as a public excuse for accepting his resignation. Replacing him as general director was Giulio GattiCasazza, the director of La Scala. When he came to America, he brought with him a colleague from the great Milanese opera house, a conductor named Arturo Toscanini. “Mr. Gatti, Hammerstein told the new director two years later, during a meeting in Paris, “I did you a good turn. Without me you would not have been called to the Metropolitan.”

The Manhattan’s second season had been so studded with triumphs that simply one more success a short excursion on the road might seem too trivial to mention. But it was a small incident with repercussions.

In response to the most pressing invitation from some prominent Philadelphians, Oscar had taken the company out on its first road tour: two performances in the Academy of Music. Now Philadelphia more than any other city in the United States was loyal Metropolitan territory, its “old faithful” among road towns. This fact, plus the rapturous reaction of the Philadelphia audiences, led Oscar to a fatal decision. Between acts of the second performance he marched out onto the stage of the Academy and made an announcement that came as a stunning surprise not only to Philadelphia but to his own company and his own sons as well. “Last Fall,” he said, “I purchased ground at Broad and Poplar Streets for the purpose of erecting an opera house. The financial crisis … made the undertaking seem doubtful. I reluctantly withdrew. But what you’ve shown me … tonight has changed my resolution. On Tuesday there were submitted to me the plans of the greatest palace of music ever designed for this or any other city of America. Next week I’ll break ground. … My Philadelphia opera house will be opened on November 15, 1908.”

Standing in the wings of the Academy of Music, Arthur heard and shuddered. At the end of the season Oscar sailed for Europe to scout new talent, and loyal, opera-weary Arthur cancelled his vacation plans and went to Philadelphia to build an opera house in seven months.

As its opening approached, opera enthusiasm struck Philadelphia on all social levels. A newspaper called The North American ran a contest for free season tickets. At the same time Main Line society set up a committee to determine who would be allowed to buy the twenty-eight grand-tier boxes. “We do not want the best seats in the house to go to every one who applies just because he has enough money to buy them,” explained G. Heide Norris, the committee chairman. “We want the seats in the grand tier to go to representative Philadelphia families who have a right to them.”