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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
The brilliant launching of the new opera company (on the same night the Metropolitan opened its Philadelphia season in the Academy of Music) added considerable volume to a cup that was already running over nicely. For back in New York the Manhattan had begun its third season and was very much on top of the situation, musically and socially. Town Topics, the snide journal that considered itself the mirror of society, had joked about its opening-night audiences two years earlier. But this year it reported an awesome list of notables and added that “the fine gowns and splendid jewels worn on this occasion might well serve to diminish the lustre of the Metropolitan’s coming première ” It also confided to its readers that “Otto Kahn had made the mistake of asking a party before he knew for a certainty whether or not he could secure accommodations, and then found he could not, but Oscar himself came to the rescue … by giving his own box to Mr. Kahn. …”
Otto Kahn, the elegant and generous chairman of the board of the Metropolitan, took more than a passing interest in the Manhattan Opera, and not only because he himself was a discerning lover of music. Mr. Kahn was already well aware that some day it might be necessary for him to do something about Mr. Hammerstein.
Oscar was almost overwhelmed by great sopranos. Tetrazzini and Melba were back, and although their joint presence required endless tact and diplomacy, euphoria was running at an all-time, expensive high. The most eagerly awaited event of the opera season was the Manhattan’s revival of Salomé , scheduled for January 2.8, 1909. Although Oscar had been indifferent to the Strauss opera when it collapsed after one performance at the Met, he was far too shrewd an operator not to realize that the picture had changed with the coming of Mary Garden. If ever a girl had been born to clobber New York in the role of the nasty princess, Mary was the girl
New York’s original Salomé , Olive Fremstad, although vocally magnificent, had retired to the side of the stage and let the prima ballerina of the corps de ballet take over the dance of the seven veils. But no one would have to dance one step or drop one veil for Mary Garden. All summer long she had been learning the role and working on the dance with the première danseuse of the Paris opera. Hammerstein had gladly allocated a bumper forty thousand dollars for the production so that Campanini could have all the orchestral rehearsals he wanted. New York clergymen were filling their lungs to denounce the revival, and New York audiences were waiting for tickets to go on sale. At this critical juncture the fate of Salomé , for a brief but very well-publicized moment, hung by a veil.
Oscar’s problem was a not unfamiliar occupational hazard: a difference of opinion between two rival sopranos. Neither as singer nor actress was Lina Cavalieri in the same league as Mary Garden. But she had been hailed as the most beautiful woman ever to set foot on the operatic stage, and she was one of the most newsworthy members of the Manhattan company. Oscar had added her to the 1908-9 roster largely to spite the Metropolitan, which, at the bidding of its wealthiest board members, was doing all in its power to get her out of town.
Glorious Lina, a former star of the Folies Bergères, had been famous in Europe not only for her impressive stage presence but also for the machinelike efficiency with which she could run through the liquid assets of the minor European aristocracy. When she came to the Met in 1906, she annexed and later married young Robert Chanler, scion of a colorful branch of the Astor family. She left him a week later, when his family declined to sign over the young man’s estate to her. This incident had naturally rallied the Astor forces on the Metropolitan board against the renewal of her contract. When a young Vanderbilt gave evidence of being next on Lina’s dance card, her days at the Met were over. A Lina unemployed in America, the relatives believed, would surely return to the scene of former triumphs.
When Hammerstein released the news of Cavalieri’s adoption by the Manhattan, he specified that she would make her debut as Thaïs , a role ideally suited to her unusual talents. This announcement fell like doom on the ears of Mary Garden. Thaïs, she informed Hammerstein, was her role, her absolute and exclusive property. The day another soprano sang it would be Mary Garden’s last day with the Manhattan Opera!