This month, the Met celebrates the 50th anniversary of the company’s move to Lincoln Center with an exhilarating all-star gala. By Matt Dobkin
On April 16, 1966, the Metropolitan Opera staged a gala performance to bid farewell to the opera house on Broadway and 39th Street that the company had called home for more than 80 years. If the event had a hint of wistfulness (the evening ended with the company and audience joining forces for a moving rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”), the sheer star power on display—Zinka Milanov, Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Cesare Siepi, and Richard Tucker were just a few of the singers that night compensated for any air of loss, as did a genuine enthusiasm for the prospect of moving into bigger, better digs. Indeed, five days earlier, the company had staged a kind of trial performance in the still-unfinished opera house in Lincoln Center, inviting a student audience to take in La Fanciulla del West as a way to gauge the new house’s acoustics, and the resulting consensus was that the new Met was bound to be a splendid home for cutting-edge stagecraft and the highest level of artistry.
One of the key performers at the farewell gala, naturally, was Leontyne Price, the great American soprano who would become a kind of artistic bridge from the old house to the new. Price had made her company debut in 1961, singing Leonora opposite the Manrico of Franco Corelli in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. At the old house she would give triumphant performances as Aida, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, among others. She was the current and future diva, in other words, and the Met was sparing no expense in creating a spectacular showcase for her to inaugurate the new house in Lincoln Center.
It’s no secret that the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, the work chosen to open the new Met’s first season in a world premiere production by Franco Zeffirelli, with Price and Justino Díaz in the title roles, encountered its fair share of snafus—not the least of which was the malfunction of an onstage pyramid during the final dress rehearsal, which left Price trapped inside while the onstage action continued haltingly around her. Although the front page of the New York Times trumpeted the day after the premiere that the new house had opened in “a crescendo of splendor,” the pressures of mounting an opera of such scale and ambition under intense public scrutiny, meant that after eight performances that first season, Antony and Cleopatra disappeared from the Met stage entirely. Until now.
When the Met celebrates its 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center with a special gala on May 7, Antony and Cleopatra will be on the program, with the great Met Chorus delivering the opera’s stirring Prologue, “From Alexandria this is the news,” as the opening piece. Not only will Barber’s music be heard, Zeffirelli’s production will be reimagined via breathtaking projections devised by director Julian Crouch and the video gurus of 59 Productions. Their bold and inventive visual approach will serve as the backdrop for an epic event featuring the greatest singers in the world, conducted by Marco Armiliato, incoming Music Director Yannick Nézet Séguin, and Music Director Emeritus James Levine, perhaps the single most important artist of the company’s past five decades.
“We wanted to create a tribute to the last half-century of Met history that would honor the past while offering contemporary stagecraft and an array of artists no other company in the world could assemble,” says General Manager Peter Gelb. “I think our audience will be pleased.”
The gala opens with an ingenious animated rendering of the creation of the opera house itself, set to the overture of the film version of West Side Story. (Leonard Bernstein’s great musical is famously set on the site where the Met now stands.) From that dazzling opening, the evening will progress through more than 25 different operas. Specific productions from the past will be revisited, including the Met premiere of Porgy and Bess, the first Zeffirelli Traviata, and both the Marc Chagall and David Hockney Zauberflötes. The lists of artists performing includes Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Plácido Domingo, Juan Diego Flórez, and René Pape, among dozens of others.
“The final musical selection is the result of around 50 different arias, duets, and choruses that were considered,” says director Crouch. “Many of us have been combing through the archives to find old photographs, design drawings, and Playbills. The productions that are represented during the evening all have projectable surfaces and become the canvas for the remarkable work of 59 Productions.”
Also interspersed throughout the evening will be historic video clips, including a look at the groundbreaking of the new building, some background on the famous starburst chandeliers, and classic interview clips with Maestro Levine.
Among these video moments is a recent interview with Leontyne Price herself, conducted near her home in Maryland two weeks before her 90th birthday, during which the soprano reminisced about her journey from Laurel, Mississippi, to the world’s greatest opera stage. “Darling, I’m excited to be alive, and if I’m alive to talk about my operatic home, it’s even more of a joy,” the diva told a Met interviewer for a forthcoming documentary on the making of the new house. “There are so many wonderful memories from that extraordinary experience. I call the new Met the temple of grand opera. It’s majestic. And for years after the opening, whenever I’m in the neighborhood I would wave to the house and say, ‘Hi there, remember me? I opened you, you know.’”