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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
Salomé , when it finally opened—for naturally Hammerstein would not risk losing Garden for so trivial a matter as Cavalieri’s debut vehicle—was the greatest hit of the season. In wicked New York, that is. In Philadelphia he withdrew it after three performances. The public liked it, and even the mayor liked it. But some of the boxholders did not. This alone would have cut no ice with Oscar. With a then rare spirit of ecumenism, however, Archbishop Ryan of Philadelphia, six Protestant ministerial associations, the w.c.T.u., and the Delaware Branch of the Philadelphia Christian Endeavour Union had closed ranks and raised hell. ”… Although I might have continued to have large houses with Salome in Philadelphia,” Oscar remarked philosophically, “I preferred not to take the risk of being the man that taught Philadelphia anything it thinks it ought not to know.”
It was toward the end of the incomparable third season that the whole beautiful structure began to come unglued. Money was part of the problem. To run the parallel seasons in New York and Philadelphia had cost about $1,100,000. The big Philadelphia house, in a city unaccustomed to so much opera, was not pulling itsweight. Oscar cooked up a horrendous row with his Philadelphia committee over the terms of a bank loan. They finally saw things his way after he threatened to book vaudeville performances into the elegant red and gold opera house.
But the real disaster was not an economic one. Although Oscar, in top hat and frock coat, little resembled a hero of Greek tragedy, he suffered classically from the effects of his fatal flaw: the supremely cantankerous nature that would lead him, time and again, to turn against the very people who had done the most for him. Because of a trivial slight he thought he had suffered at her hands, Oscar wrote a blistering letter to Mrs. Mackay, forbidding her ever to enter his opera house again. Along with Mrs. Mackay he automatically eliminated about 40 per cent of the boxholders, as they were personal friends of the insulted lady. To show exactly how much he cared, Oscar then ordered the whole grand tier torn out and replaced by four rows of democratic theatre seats.
Great as it was, the loss of Mackays and boxholders was nothing compared to the subsequent loss of Campanini. On increasingly bad terms with Hammerstein and weary of the hissing and spitting between the French and Italian wings, the great conductor was already near the end of his patience. The mindless insult to his friends the Mackays settled the matter. It took four new conductors to take over the work of the gifted and indefatigable Campanini.
The third season ended with the usual festive performance, party, and musical offering by Oscar, this time a waltz called “Cara Mia” dedicated to Tetrazzini. But the proceedings were clouded by past unpleasantness and future uncertainty. Even before the fourth season had begun, insiders knew that the end was in sight. In November of 1909 Reginald de Koven, music critic of the New York World , wrote: “Again without thought of quarter or relenting on either side the operatic battle is on, and, unless all signs fail, it will be fought this season to a definite end, for present conditions and indications make it financially impossible that things can continue indefinitely as they are.”
Nevertheless the Manhattan’s fourth—and last—season opened and progressed in great style. It brought the first American performance of Strauss’s Elektra , with the remarkable soprano Mariette Mazarin, plus three more Massenet premières with Garden. It also introduced to New York a young tenor from Covent Garden who first appeared at the Manhattan on November 10, 1909, in Traviata , thus launching one of the most successful careers ever made in America by a singer. “McCormack, don’t you think an Irishman singing Italian opera in New York sounds like a cinch?” Oscar had asked John McCormack the day he hired him. “We should get a brand new audience of operagoers!” And McCormack, looking back on the same day, later wrote: “Opportunity did not knock at my door. It did not have to because Oscar Hammerstein opened the door to let it in.”
Another new artist on the last Manhattan roster was Marguerite D’Alvarez. She occupied a special place in the company, poor girl, and loathed every minute of it, for in her Oscar’s well-known weakness for very large ladies with rich, full voices reached its apogee. Oscar had fallen madly in love with the Peruvian soprano the day he auditioned her in a Paris theatre, but he had almost lost her by asking, “What do you look like in tights?” At this rather undiplomatic question she had stormed out of the theatre, threatening never to return. Eventually lured to New York, she spent most of the season fending off the enthusiasm of her employer, who in these as in other matters never seemed to know when he was beaten.