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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 curtain of the Manhattan Opera House rose for the first time at nine o’clock on the night of December 3, 1906. But the crowds of curious New Yorkers who came to have a look at the new theatre and its audience had begun lining the sidewalks of Thirty-fourth Street before seven. By eight o’clock the block was so jammed with carriages that the cross-town streetcar lines were brought to a standstill. Eighth Avenue, according to an awed reporter from the New York American , was blocked solid from Twenty-third to Forty-second streets.
An extraordinary excitement was abroad among the 3,100 ticket holders, the hundreds of sidewalk spectators, and the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who had, for seven months, been following the fortunes of the Manhattan Opera Company in the newspapers. The Manhattan’s curtain was rising that night not only on Bellini’s Puritani but also on one of the epic skirmishes in the history of theatrical warfare. The David-and-Goliath aspect of the encounter heightened its enormous public appeal. The David in this case, who came wearing a top hat and brandishing a huge black cigar, was Oscar Hammerstein I. The giant he had sworn to lay low was the Metropolitan Opera Company.
Few men in turn-of-the-century New York were better known than Oscar Hammerstein. There was so much about him that lent itself to great cartoons and great copy: his portly shape and shapely beard; his unique, self-designed top hat and his perpetual cigar; his irascible and unpredictable temper; his endearing habit of announcing genuine financial ruin one day and breaking ground for a new theatre the next; his masterly control of his adopted tongue—although his English remained heavily accented, he had developed it into a magnificent instrument for the putdown of his rivals. His long hold on the imagination and affection of New York was manifest in the fact that newspapers called him simply Oscar— long before most public figures were on a first-name basis with the readiner public.
There was, in addition, the ever popular rags-to-riches story behind Oscar’s rise to the rarefied heights of opera impresario, although the rags aspect of his life did not apply to the first fifteen years of it. He had grown up in Berlin, in a household prosperous enough to provide flute, piano, and violin lessons, to hire him tutors in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and to send him to the conservatory for studies in harmony, counterpoint, and composition. Although these musical studies would later prove valuable, they sometimes seemed a fearful drag to a boy of fifteen. So did his father’s stern views on the priority of practice and study over pleasure. One day Oscar went ice-skating and came home late for a lesson. The ensuing fracas left a permanent scar on his forehead and hardened his determination to leave home. That night he slipped quietly out of the house and pawned his violin to finance steerage passage to America. In New York in 1863 he found a two-dollar-a-week job in a cigar factory and began his lifelong romance with the product, which would supply moral solace and financial support to the end of his days. Young Oscar, having observed the methods of American cigar manufacture and found them wanting, began inventing and patenting superior machinery. With his cigar capital he entered the gold fields of uptown New York real estate and escalated his fortune to the point where he could fulfill his true ambition. He became a tireless builder of theatres. “If Father could buy enough plush to make a theater curtain,” his son Arthur later told biographer Vincent Sheean, “there would be a theater built around it!”
There was no known form of theatrical entertainment that Oscar did not produce in one or another of his theatres. This included his own works, for he had been writing plays and music since his early days in the cigar industry. He once wagered a hundred dollars against skeptical friends on his ability to write the book, lyrics, and music of a show in forty-eight hours. The result, a threescene operetta called The Kohinoor , opened its rather short run a few months later.
Oscar’s theatrical career had actually begun back in the 1880’s, when he produced a number of low-budget German-language plays. An early effort called The Knight Errant —a farce written by the producer himself—would be eminently forgettable today except for one crucial factor. Its star was a newly arrived immigrant actor named Heinrich Conried. Oscar next presented Conried in an item called The Perjured Peasant . It came to an untimely closing when producer and leading man got into a violent, soulsearing quarrel. The origin of the feud is lost in antiquity, which is unfortunate considering its ultimate consequences in the mortal struggle between the Metropolitan and the Manhattan opera companies.
Although his quarrel with Conried seems to have been spontaneous, Oscar was quite capable of manufacturing contract-breaking strife with his stars if it suited his purposes. He once found it expedient to pick a fight with Anna Held, whom he had imported from Europe in a French operetta called La Poupée . The future Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld was a box-office smash at the Lyric, which was part of Hammerstein’s elegant theatrical complex known as the Olympia. But he coveted her role for a current protegee named Alice Rose. Throughout his long career Oscar was known for his susceptibility to fat girls with big voices. Anna’s doll-like proportions had made her a natural for the title role of lé. Alice, unfortunately, was less aptly cast. The show closed shortly after the new star moved in.
Oscar was by turns philosophical and irritated by the publicity and lawsuits that his predilection for large singers occasionally brought him. When a lady nicknamed the Texas Patti published some of his love letters and sued him for breach of an alleged promise to make her an opera star, he remarked mildly, “My family knows I have been interested in Miss Lee’s career. It is ajl understood. Besides, a man in the theatrical business is allowed more liberties than his business brothers. His business demands it.” Later he added acidly, “By a majority of the fraternity called shyster lawyers I am considered a professional defendant. I have established a schedule of prices in settlements of such suits. All up to one thousand dollars I settle for ten dollars. Suits for one hundred thousand dollars I cannot afford to settle for more than thirty-five dollars.”
New York was astounded by Hammerstein’s announcement of February 23, 1906, that he was building an opera house and planning a full season in direct competition with the Metropolitan. Since 1883 the Metropolitan had been entrenched at Thirty-ninth Street and Broadway. Astors, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Whitneys, and Goulds, among others, made up its board of directors and backed its expensive operation. On Monday nights, when its Diamond Horseshoe traditionally glittered at full capacity, it was all too evident where the serious New York opera money was. But the sympathy of the general public was on Oscar’s side, for he was known to be a determined loner, and his willingness to take on the establishment endeared him even to those New Yorkers who never had and never would set foot in an opera house. They avidly observed the opera war from the sidelines.
Henry Krehbiel, long-term music critic of the New-York Daily , mused that Hammerstein “did not seem illogical enough” to be an opera manager; but Krehbiel was wrong, for two good and sufficient reasons. The first was Oscar’s all-consuming passion for opera. He belonged heart and soul to the international brotherhood of opera nuts. “Opera’s no business,” he once told a reporter. “It’s a disease,” a disease with symptoms hard to describe to the unafflicted. The second factor in Oscar’s decision was his fanatical loathing of the Metropolitan Opera Company. As a complete man of the theatre Oscar found Metropolitan productions sloppy. The prevailing star system concentrated on the luminaries in the cast and paid scant attention to the quality of ensemble, orchestra, and chorus, to say nothing of stage direction, scenery, and costumes. Things would be done differently in his house, Oscar assured the public in a barrage of news releases. To begin with, the theatre itself would be different. Sight lines would be unimpeded from all parts of the house, including the top balcony. The center of the Manhattan Opera House would be the stage , not the grand-tier boxes. He had, in fact, been persuaded with the utmost difficulty to put in any boxes at all, for he was outraged by the concept of opera as a pastime for the well-born and well-heeled.
Oscar’s vendetta against the Metropolitan had begun three years earlier, when the post of general manager had fallen vacant. Several men had been considered, including Walter Damrosch, the composer and conductor, whose candidacy Oscar favored. The board of directors, unfortunately, chose elsewhere, settling on a theatre man with very little knowledge or even love of opera. By doing so they brought down on their heads the wrath of Oscar Hammerstein. They appointed Heinrich Conried manager of the Metropolitan Opera House.
Oscar was not essentially a vindictive man. More than once he had been seen settling an argument with fists and ten minutes later buying his opponent a drink. But whatever had happened between him and the star of The Perjured Peasant had left open wounds, and he determined that his personal souvenir of the opera war would be Conried’s scalp.
Having called the Manhattan Opera Company into being, Oscar sailed for Europe to recruit its principal artists. He left such home-front details as the completion of the house to William and Arthur, two of his four sons. In these two business associates he was blessed beyond his due. Oscar’s first marriage had been a very happy one, but after his wife’s death he had remarried for the convenience of having a housekeeper and a mother for his small children. After that he had been a cipher in the role of family man and father, yet the loyalty of William and Arthur was remarkable. William (father of Oscar n) had made the Victoria Theatre the most prosperous vaudeville house in New York, and it was the vaudeville box office that built the Manhattan Opera House. Arthur had been trained as a builder and was in charge of all Hammerstein theatre construction. Although poor Arthur disliked opera intensely, he was drafted into service as his father’s chief assistant during what he later described as “my four years of opera torture.”
In Milan Oscar signed up the great conductor Cleofonte Campanini, who would be the solid artistic rock on which the company was built. Although a grand tour of Europe netted him nearly a dozen superlative singers, Oscar the showman knew that an untried opera company, facing competition as strong as the Met, needed one great superstar to help get it off the ground. In Paris he wooed and won the greatest of them all. The transatlantic cable crackled with the joyous tidings: Nellie Melba would soon sing in the Manhattan Opera House.
Through Melba, Hammerstein obtained the services of Maurice Renaud, one of the greatest French baritones in the entire history of opera. Only one lack remained: an Italian tenor to match Enrico Caruso, who was about to begin his fourth season at the Metropolitan. Hammerstein signed Alessandro Bonci of La Scala, a glorious lyric tenor whom many knowledgeable people thought artistically superior to the Met’s treasure.
Over at Broadway and Thirtyninth Street, meanwhile, all these developments were observed with a kind of detached amusement by the management. Conried, when he spoke of the Manhattan at all, referred to it only as “the so-called opera house in 34th Street.” But two unrelated incidents soon conspired to shake his massive self-assurance and faith in the status quo. Just before the Metropolitan’s season began, Caruso, its greatest single asset, was arrested in the Central Park Zoo and convicted of having pinched a certain Mrs. Hannah Stanhope right in the middle of the monkey house. Conried suffered agonies of suspense lest the incident wreck Caruso’s career at the Metropolitan. How little he knew about American opera lovers!
The real disaster was the fate of Salomé , Conried’s major première of the season. The setting by Richard Strauss of the Oscar Wilde play was pretty strong stuff throughout, but the moment in the last scene when the wicked princess rapturously kisses the severed head of John the Baptist proved too large a dose of necrophilia for some of the board members. Conried was ordered to withdraw the expensive production after one performance.
The stage was now set for the historic, traffic-jamming night of December 3, 1906.
In choosing I Puritani for his opener Hammerstein was demonstrating his knack of extracting the ultimate advantage from any situation. The Bellini opus—an Italianized tale of Cavaliers and Roundheads whacking away at each other in pre-Restoration England—was by no means a popular favorite. It had not been heard in New York for more than twenty years, and no one had really missed it. It did, however, have one supreme virtue. Caruso could not sing its tenor role. He had sensibly dropped it from his repertoire some years earlier because its high range and florid vocal line were unsuited to his voice and style. But it was Alessandro Bonci’s dish from first note to last, and Hammerstein let it be known far and wide that the Manhattan’s tenor was opening in a role the great man of the Met just couldn’t handle. None of this made any sense musically, but the alleged “duel of tenors” inspired reams of newspaper copy.
Although first-night euphoria and delight over Bonci brought off a splendid opening, the historic excitement that firmly established the position and prestige of the Manhattan Opera came a few weeks later, exactly as Hammerstein had known that it would. On December 29, a date graven in gold on his heart, the Caronia arrived in New York. On board was Nellie Melba.
New York’s reaction to the Australian soprano’s arrival transcended the wild-eyed visions of the greediest press agent. The demand for her opening night Traviata was so great that Hammerstein had to put chairs in the aisles and sell standing room in quantities that must have required the connivance of the fire marshal. “Does the great success of the evening mark a turning point in local operatic history?” the Daily Tribune asked itself the next day, after enlarging on the glories of the production.
This was a question that people over at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street were asking too, particularly after the Times had the effrontery to say that the Manhattan performance of January 11, 1907, with Melba, Bonci, and Renaud, was “without question one of the best productions of Rigoletto that has been given in New York for many years.” This was twisting the knife in Conried’s heart, because Rigoletto , as much as any work in the repertoire, was his opera. When one thought Rigoletto in New York, one was supposed to think Caruso, Sembrich, and Scotti—and the Metropolitan Opera House.
To Oscar the most soul-satisfying of all his great Melba nights was the Bohème of March i, 1907. It represented the apogee to date in his ability to infuriate the Metropolitan.
Mimi, the beloved Parisian working girl, was one of Melba’s greatest roles, and for her Hammerstein had naturally designed a splendid production of life and love on the Left Bank. Suddenly he was informed by the opera’s publishers, Ricordi and Company of Milan, that an exclusive license to produce all the works of Puccini in New York had just been granted to the Metropolitan Opera Company. Although the voice was the voice of Ricordi, the hand, Oscar swore, was the hand of Conried. For nearly eleven years Bohème had been produced all over the world, by any manager able to put up the $ 150 royalty. It did not require a persecution complex to sense a conspiracy against the Manhattan Opera Company.
When Oscar let it be known that he was ignoring the whole ridiculous idea, Ricordi asked the New York courts to serve an injunction against a Manhattan Bohème . On January 3 the case was heard and the injunction denied on the ground that the publishers had not given Hammerstein sufficient notice of their exclusive intentions. Next day their lawyers appealed, but Oscar knew that he could get his Bohème on and off the stage before the case made it to a higher court.
Only one small barrier now stood between Oscar and his heart’s desire. Even with the blessings of the New York judiciary it is not possible to produce an opera without a score, and the score of Bohème was not available in any music store. A substantial number of manuscript copies were deployed around the world for rental, but they were rigidly numbered and guarded. Word went out from New York to Milan and thence to Ricordi representatives around the world, ordering them to keep the score of Bohème out of Hammerstein’s hands. This was the sort of challenge that whetted Oscar’s appetite for battle. He sent his agents, like knights in search of the grail, to find his Bohème . And sure enough, one of his men turned up an old score hidden in the trunks of an English touring company. It was incomplete and so mutilated that the Ricordi accounting division had crossed it off the list and forgotten all about it.
Could such a pathetic excuse for a score be used as the basis of a performance? It could with Campanini on hand. He knew the opera so well that he filled in missing parts from memory.
On the night before the performance the Met staged its own Bohème, haughtily pointing out that this was the only authorized and correct version in town, while Ricordi issued a press release asking New York not to hold Puccini responsible for whatever ghastly things happened next day at the Manhattan Opera.
In all, Melba sang four triumphant Mimis, one of them her farewell for the season. After the final curtain Oscar staged a magnificent supper. He was in roaring good spirits not only because of his recent triumph over Conried but also because the orchestra was manfully working through one of his own compositions. Written for the occasion, it was entitled “Memories of the Manhattan Opera Season.” The company dined on suprême de volaille Hammerstein , washed down by gallons of champagne. And what do you suppose they had for dessert?
When the season ended, the Manhattan’s books showed a substantial profit and the Metropolitan’s a deficit of $84,039. Mr. Conried no longer referred to the Manhattan as “the socalled opera house in 34th Street.” From now on he called it “the other place.”
With the end of the season came the inevitable forays into enemy territory. Conried, realizing that the Manhattan’s greatest single asset was Campanini, offered the conductor a substantial bribe to move across town. Campanini rejected it scornfully, but Bonci was made of stuff less stern and defected to Thirty-ninth Street. Although Hammerstein went through the motions of suing him (with Oscar bringing lawsuits was a reflex action), he was not seriously disturbed, as he had already signed a contract with Giovanni Zenatello, a tenor as great as Bonci and somewhat more versatile.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
In their mutual efforts to outdo each other both companies had overexpanded their operations to such a degree that opera had actually become something of a glut on the market. These frills and extras were expensive. The Metropolitan was presenting light opera in an ill-considered venture on Central Park West called the New Theatre. Hammerstein had formed a whole new lightopera company of his own and had also added a preseason “educational opera” series with still another group of singers. On the road the flaming spirit of territorial imperative had gripped both organizations. Hammerstein sent his company to Boston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C., where President Taft became its staunchest fan. Whenever possible, the Manhattan and the Met tried to squeeze each other out of road towns by annexing the only available theatre for all possible tour dates. (Oscar never did make it into Chicago and loudly threatened to build his own theatre there.)
O‘ne night in March the Manhattan presented one of those bits-andpieces galas in which everybody stars in everything. “At the end of each season,” Oscar told the audience, “I have the honor of being called before the curtain, very likely for the purpose of exhibiting the fact that I am still alive. … The past season financially has been a very unfortunate one. … While my losses have been enormous, I am proud of knowing that those of my adversaries have been much larger. My effort in the great cause, nevertheless, will not relax, and I am again planning for next season the greatest and most sublime opera for the pleasure of my audiences and for the honor of myself. Au revoir !”
Brave words. But even Oscar knew they had no foundation in reality. The war was over, and nothing remained but the signing of the treaty. That there was a treaty to sign is one of the most remarkable and satisfactory details of the story. By this time it was perfectly clear that New York was not big enough to hold both opera companies. And since money was the decisive factor, there was no doubt about which one would have to go. Left to himself, Oscar would probably have attempted another season and been totally ruined. That would have been the most economical way to get rid of him.
Why, then, did the Metropolitan Opera pay him $1,200,000 to remove himself from the New York operatic scene? For years the truth was obscure. No one knew exactly who had provided the money or why. Today there is universal agreement that the generous bribe was paid by Otto Kahn. The greathearted Kahn had admired the achievements of the Manhattan Opera far too much to stand by and see it dispersed in bankruptcy court. To a man of Kahn’s apollonian spirit it seemed unjust for a fellow opera-lover to be ruined because he had provided New York with four of the most wonderful years in its musical history.
Contracts of the artists and house personnel, rights to the Manhattan repertoire, scenery, costumes, and the Philadelphia property—all this became part of a new company operated by the Metropolitan and slated to divide its season between Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. There was only one element essential to the spirit of the Manhattan Opera Company that Mr. Kahn could not, under the circumstances, buy up. This was the galvanic presence of Oscar himself, sitting in the wings on his old kitchen chair, following every note of every opera he had ever produced. In four years he had not missed a performance.
But Oscar was not being handed $1,200,000 for his assets alone. The agreement, which was signed on April 26, 1910, contained an ironclad clause enjoining him from presenting a single note of opera in the Manhattan Opera House or anyplace else in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago for ten years.
Oscar tried to heal his wounds in several ways. He built an opera house in London and ran a season in competition with Covent Garden. He failed, but the venture at least gave him a chance to welcome King George v to his theatre by saying: “How are you, King. I’m glad to see you.” This fine, honest greeting was enhanced by the fact that Oscar had forgotten to remove his cigar before delivering it.
Back in New York Oscar engaged in plenty of theatrical ventures, but time was taking its toll. In 1914 William and, incredibly, two of his three other sons died. The next year he undertook a disastrous third marriage, which did nothing to solace his old age.
As early as 1913 Hammerstein tried to bull his way back into the opera business by building a new house and announcing a season of opera in English. Somehow, he felt, this linguistic hedge would get around the wording of his agreement with the Metropolitan. This time the New York courts did not see things his way. There was nothing to do but wait—and plan. Plan for the glorious renaissance of the Manhattan Opera Company that he envisioned on April 26, 1920. For that was the day on which the ten-year ban ended, and that was the day for which Oscar was living. But he died on August i, 1919, at the age of seventy-two, thus missing the appointment by nine months. He must have been terribly annoyed.