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The Birth of the “People’s Opera”
NEW YORK CITY in the early 1940s was a world center of finance, trade, and communications—but it was also America’s cultural mecca. It was home to both the Metropolitan Opera, created by the nouveau riche industrialists of the late nineteenth century, and the New York Philharmonic, America’s oldest symphony orchestra. High culture, money, and social status were inextricably linked, and for the city’s moneyed upper classes, attendance at the opera or the concert hall, in tuxedos, diamonds, and furs, was a way of broadcasting one’s success. However, there were also plenty of people in New York who were interested in culture but couldn’t afford to attend these elite temples (an average ticket to the Met cost $3.30), or even Broadway shows, where the average ticket price was $2.50 in 1943, one-tenth of a bookkeeper’s weekly salary. In the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration put on federally funded orchestra concerts at Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall, with tickets priced at 25 cents, which had attracted an enthusiastic public. Furthermore, the war in Europe had flooded the city with now-penniless refugees who had been sophisticated consumers of high culture in their home countries. New York’s progressive mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, felt strongly about culture for the masses—he was both a champion of “the little guy” and the son of an immigrant Italian musician who had once accompanied the soprano Adelina Patti on an American tour. La Guardia had long dreamed of founding a center of cultural activity that would be within everyone’s reach.
On March 5, 1943, Newbold Morris, president of the New York City Council and a close ally of La Guardia, convened a gathering of civically minded New Yorkers to discuss the creation of a new performing arts center that would present music, dance, and theater at affordable prices. La Guardia’s wish had come together with an opportunity: the Mecca Temple on Fifty-Fifth Street, an elaborate and eccentric white elephant of a building, complete with a dome of terra-cotta tile, Moorish inscriptions, and an auditorium seating nearly three thousand. Built and opened with great fanfare in 1924 by the Shriners, the Mecca Temple had fallen on hard times during the Depression and, in 1942, was taken over by the city for nonpayment of taxes. Morris, a New York aristocrat from a prominent family dating back to before the American Revolution, and his close friend Morton Baum, an attorney and former tax counsel for the city, had been tasked by La Guardia with devising some means of putting it to use. Like La Guardia, Morris and Baum were devoted music lovers and were determined to make great art available to people who could not afford to go to the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, or even Broadway. They realized that they could solve two problems at once: turning the dilapidated Mecca Temple into a new arts center for the people would both rescue the building and make La Guardia’s dream a reality.
Morris and Baum assembled a high-powered list of forty-six incorporators—philanthropists, theater producers, union representatives, artists, city dignitaries, and others—who pledged to organize the City Center of Music and Drama as a private, nonprofit corporation and guarantee any losses. New York City would provide the building for a nominal $1 per year in rent.
The initial idea was to book different attractions into the theater for back-to-back short runs, but Morris and Baum soon realized that presenting opera would be a tall order. If they wanted to bring opera to the new City Center, it seemed they would have to create their own company—the two smaller opera companies in town were not up to Morris and Baum’s standards, and the Metropolitan, which had experimented with popular-priced opera in the 1930s and run up enormous deficits, was not interested in repeating the experience by associating itself with City Center. The board was wary at the idea of forming an opera company. Opera is the most notoriously expensive of all art forms, requiring instrumentalists, singers, scenery, costumes, and numerous other personnel. Low ticket prices would ensure that it would operate at a loss, possibly an enormous one. However, it was reasoned, successful runs of plays and other attractions at City Center would show a profit and help make up those inevitable losses. So, in October 1943, City Center engaged Laszlo Halasz, a Hungarian-born conductor and experienced opera administrator who had one other ace in the hole: he had spent several years as artistic director of the short-lived Saint Louis Opera Company, which had gone out of business in 1942, and that company was willing to make its scenery and costumes available to New York. The first opera season—a single week—was scheduled for February 21–27, 1944, which gave Halasz just four months to put the New York City Center Opera together from scratch.
The principles underlying Halasz’s first season were those that would be at the company’s core for years to come. There was a mix of repertoire: two well-known pieces (Tosca and Carmen) and one novelty, Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha, a romantic comedy about a bored aristocrat who disguises herself as a maidservant. There were different languages: one opera each in Italian and French and, because Halasz was a strong believer in opera in the language of its audience, an English adaptation of Martha. Finally, there was a deliberate lack of stars: the Philadelphia-born soprano Dusolina Giannini, who would sing the title role in Tosca, was the rare exception—she had sung in Europe and at the Metropolitan and had made recordings. Most of the other singers would be unknowns.
Halasz knew talent, and he knew how to use it. One early arrival at City Center was a young pianist, Julius Rudel, who had emigrated from Vienna in 1938 at the age of seventeen. Recently graduated from the Mannes School of Music, he was eager to be part of the new company, and Halasz immediately pressed him into service, first as an audition pianist and then as rehearsal accompanist. (Halasz also knew how to stretch a budget: Rudel was paid a total of $60 for the entire audition, rehearsal, and performance period.)
City Center opened with a concert by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Artur Rodzinski, with soloists Bidu Sayao and Lawrence Tibbett and featuring Gershwin’s An American in Paris on December 11, 1943, Mayor La Guardia’s birthday (an impromptu “Happy Birthday” followed his opening remarks). Tickets were $1 tops, and “the people” were out in force: the New York Times reported that the capacity crowd was “in ordinary clothes and a happy Saturday night humor and having a wonderful time.” The next months were crammed with theater productions and several appearances by tap dance/harmonica duo Paul Draper and Larry Adler, a programming mix assembled through the efforts of City Center’s board members and a small staff: Jean Dalrymple, who handled public relations, and Harry Friedgut, who served a brief term as managing director.
On February 21, City Center’s brand-new opera company opened with Tosca. Again, a sold-out, enthusiastic crowd greeted the performance with bravos. So did the press: the Times not only praised the vocal ability of the singers but also commented that Dusolina Giannini and George Czaplicki (Scarpia) acted their parts far better than the famous singers who had recently sung those roles at the Metropolitan. The week continued with Carmen starring Jennie Tourel, not yet famous in the United States, but with much experience in the role at the Paris Opera; Time magazine declared her “one of the best Carmens in a decade … full of Gallic spice and neat as a championship billiard game.” Martha got a more mixed reception. However, the week of performances—nine, including a student matinee—was deemed a huge success and, thanks to Halasz’s careful budgeting, had cost only $30,462.73, which put the losses at a mere $128.82, even with ticket prices ranging from 85 cents to $2.20. The board decided to present a second season right away, in May of the same year. Given two weeks to fill this time, Halasz brought back the original three productions and added three more: La Bohème, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, and La Traviata. Critical reception continued to be rapturous and the young Dorothy Kirsten, singing Violetta, was much lauded, though the attendance dropped because a hot spell sent some of the audience to the traveling San Carlo Opera Company, which was playing in an air-conditioned theater.
The first City Center season had also included a profitable visit from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the launch of another City Center–sponsored entity, the (short-lived) New York City Symphony, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, who donated his services. Financially, the whole operation had, surprisingly, turned a small profit, and it had also generated excellent publicity. At the first annual meeting of the incorporators, in May 1944, Mayor La Guardia declared that the City Center of Music and Drama was no longer an experiment.
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When the New York City Opera was born, opera in America was concentrated in a few locations. The Metropolitan Opera, the oldest and most prestigious company, founded in 1883, dominated the landscape, not only in New York but throughout the country as a whole, with enormous national tours each year as well as weekly radio broadcasts. On the West Coast, the San Francisco Opera was building its reputation under the leadership of Gaetano Merola. Apart from those, there were just a handful of small companies in cities such as Cincinnati, Ohio (where the season was played at the Cincinnati Zoo), Central City, Colorado, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By contrast, many more cities had successfully established symphony orchestras.
Grand opera, with major European stars, was the Met’s brand. In the years leading up to the founding of City Opera, the company had begun to engage some American singers, particularly when the war made it difficult for Europeans to travel to the United States, but the international artists were considered the biggest draws. San Francisco also viewed Europe as the source of operatic authenticity and made a practice of giving new European artists their American debuts. Smaller opera companies around the country usually followed in the footsteps of the two big companies—when Halasz ran the Saint Louis Opera, for example, his efforts to engage American singers had often run up against the preferences of his board, which wanted to emulate the Met with European stars.
The identity of the New York City Center Opera, therefore, was a novel one for the American opera landscape. The financial limitations imposed by the mandate to provide affordable “opera for the people” meant that a star-based system was out of the question, opening the field to young unknowns who otherwise had limited opportunities. Without stars, Halasz conceived of his company as an ensemble, for whom acting and creating theater was as important as singing. A few soloists had some experience, but most of the singers hired were young Americans getting their first break on the New York stage. Hundreds of hopefuls trooped through the City Center doors for open auditions, which would remain a hallmark of the company for years to come. The City Opera stage had no prompter’s box, so the singers had to know their parts well. Yet this deficiency could also be seen as an advantage: unable to rely on a prompter for words and cues, singers would not be tempted to focus on a single, downstage spot and were thus freer to immerse themselves in the theatrical experience.
Halasz and his collaborators of the early years—the directors Leopold Sachse and Theodore Komisarjevsky, the conductor Joseph Rosenstock, the coach Felix Popper, and Julius Rudel—were all European émigrés or refugees. However, with the New York City Opera, they were creating a company that, while European in origin, was quite different from the Met, where the audiences often cared less about what happened on the stage and more about the prestige of big names or the social milieu of attending the performance and its opportunities for the display of wealth.
“These were people who had no artistic home in Europe any longer and had come here for their lives and their futures,” recalled Brenda Lewis, the soprano who made her debut with the company in 1945.
I think that Halasz had a vision of creating in New York City an opera theater—not an opera house, but a theater of the kind that he had grown up with in Hungary. Opera theater is the highest form of entertainment. When music and theater are put together on a stage, and that kind of vitality and vigor and honesty is part of the mix, it is far superior to any other theatrical experience. I think that the Europeans took that for granted. [It’s very different from what] opera was in this country—it was a plaything for the rich.
Copyright © 2018 by Heidi Waleson