Searching for an American Style

Otto Kahn consciously modeled his American cultural vision for the Met on European traditions of presenting opera in the vernacular: “It has been the idea of a number of directors for a long time now that the Metropolitan Opera House would be more truly a national institution if English opera were given there.” 

Kahn and Gatti-Casazza explored several strategies in their quest to establish an American repertory for the Met. These included selecting leading academic composers from Harvard and Yale; tapping experienced talent from the worlds of musical theater and film; and staging works by composers who infused Native American and African American traditions into their scores. In addition to new works for the Met’s operatic ensemble, some of the first independent dance scores composed by Americans were choreographed for the company’s resident ballet troupe. Several important designers, both native-born and émigrés, made their Met debuts as part of the creative teams for new American works.


Frederick Shepherd Converse’s The Pipe of Desire

Scores from American composers were placed under consideration for performance with Gustav Mahler, who had come to the Met in the 1907–08 season as a resident conductor. The renowned composer selected Harvard graduate Frederick Shepherd Converse’s Impressionist-influenced The Pipe of Desire, a product of the Second New England School of composers, as the Met’s inaugural production of an American opera in 1910.

AOATM_Image1.jpgFrederick Shepherd Converse: The Pipe of Desire, 1910.
Photo: White Studios


AOATM_Image2.jpgGustav Mahler
Photo: Aimé Dupont Studio


Horatio Parker’s Mona

General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza concurrently proposed a Grand Opera Contest for American composers. Despite a generous $10,000 prize and the promise of a Met premiere, few entries demonstrated the level of mastery that the distinguished panel of judges, led by conductor-composer Walter Damrosch, had hoped for. The competition did succeed in luring Yale professors Horatio Parker and Brian Hooker into the field, but their winning entry—Mona, a political tale of Roman Britain set to a post-Romantic score—struck Gatti-Casazza as dated, with its weighty Wagnerian atmosphere. 

AOATM_Image3.jpgHoratio Parker: Mona, 1912.
Photo: White Studios


AOATM_Image4.jpgLeft: Riccardo Martin in Horatio Parker’s Mona, 1912.
Photo: White Studios

Right: Rules for the Grand Opera Contest


Henry Hadley’s Cleopatra’s Night

Undeterred, the Met continued to implement the American initiative through projects reflecting multiple stylistic approaches: musical theater veteran Reginald De Koven’s adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1917), Henry Hadley’s theatrical Cleopatra’s Night (1920), and John Laurence Seymour’s essay in exoticism, In the Pasha’s Garden (1935). But the Met resisted efforts at the powerful stylistic realism that garnered wide acclaim in American arts and letters before World War I: Franklin Peale Patterson learned that his urban scenario for The Cripple was too “sordid” for consideration, and George Whitefield Chadwick received an unequivocal rejection for The Padrone, a raw depiction of labor exploitation in Boston’s North End.

AOATM_Image6.jpgFrances Alda and Orville Harrold in Henry Hadley’s Cleopatra’s Night, 1920.
Photo: White Studios


AOATM_Image7.jpgCostume designs by Norman Bel Geddes for Henry Hadley’s Cleopatra’s Night, 1920.


Reginald De Koven’s The Canterbury Pilgrims

AOATM_Image5.jpgReginald De Koven: The Canterbury Pilgrims, 1917.
Photo: White Studios


John Laurence Seymour’s In the Pasha’s Garden

AOATM_Image8.jpgLeft: Lawrence Tibbett sang the Pasha in Seymour’s In the Pasha’s Garden. He felt the opera needed a smaller theater to be effective.

Right: In the Pasha’s Garden served as the Met debut of the glamorous radio star Helen Jepson.
Photo: Herbert Mitchell


AOATM_Image9.jpgJohn Laurence Seymour: In the Pasha’s Garden, 1935, set design by Frederick J. Kiesler, with Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson.
Photo: Carlo Edwards, as reproduced in Musical America


American Triptychs

During the World War I era, when German-language opera was curtailed at the Met after the United States entered the conflict, arts critics identified an opportunity for the emerging national repertory. In 1918, Gatti-Casazza responded by assembling a triptych of works linked by their American locales: Charles Wakefield Cadman’s Indianist The Robin Woman: Shanewis, Henry F. Gilbert’s vibrant ballet The Dance in Place Congo (which takes place in New Orleans), and Italian Franco Leoni’s L’Oracolo, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown.


Charles Wakefield Cadman’s The Robin Woman: Shanewis

Based on the life story of Native American singer Tsianina Redfeather, Shanewis was the Met’s first American opera to be revived for a second season. Cadman was entirely trained in the United States and had immersed himself in the nation’s Indianist movement in the arts, drawing on indigenous melodies collected during his own fieldwork across the American West.  The novelty of an entire cast of American characters captured the public imagination, and Musical America extolled the presence of “modern dress, electric lights, ice cream and lemonade vendors, automobiles, ‘red, white, and blue’ patriotism, high school girls, and even a stage band playing ‘jazz’ on the Met stage.”

AOATM_Image10.jpgCharles Wakefield Cadman: The Robin Woman: Shanewis, 1918, with Sophie Braslau at center in the title role.
Photo: White Studios


AOATM_Image11.jpgSet design by Norman Bel Geddes for Charles Wakefield Cadman’s The Robin Woman: Shanewis, 1918.


AOATM_Image12.jpgCharles Wakefield Cadman and Tsianina Redfeather recording Native American music.
Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress


Joseph Carl Breil’s The Legend

AOATM_Image13.jpgLeft: Rosa Ponselle, the Met’s brilliant young dramatic soprano who starred in The Legend. In an interview years later, she described being coerced into the role: “The management had to cater to the American composer every now and then … so, if they had to do it, it made sense that an American should sing it … My view was, sing the damned thing and let the critics take care of things.”
Photo: Herman Mishkin

Right: Set design by Norman Bel Geddes for Joseph Carl Breil’s
The Legend, 1919.


John Adam Hugo’s The Temple Dancer

Encouraged by the success of the first triptych, Gatti-Casazza designed another triple bill around Shanewis, introducing two new composers to the American roster with Joseph Carl Breil’s The Legend and John Adam Hugo’s The Temple Dancer. Former operatic tenor Breil had leapt to musical prominence through his collaborations with director D. W. Griffith, scoring the controversial Birth of a Nation and Intolerance for the film titan. But his technique proved unequal to The Legend’s overheated melodrama of tsarist Russia, which the Met shifted to an “unidentified Balkan country” to avoid aligning the piece with ideals of the recent Russian Revolution. Pianist John Adam Hugo’s talent was more promisingly revealed in his The Temple Dancer, a fluid exploration of East Indian mysticism then popular in cosmopolitan circles.

AOATM_Image14.jpgSet design by Joseph Novak for John Adam Hugo’s The Temple Dancer, 1919
Photo: White Studios


Henry F. Gilbert’s The Dance in Place Congo

A gradual cultural shift began during the 1910s with the Met’s recognition of African American artistic contributions, although not as principal singers. The first Black performers in a Met production were dancers engaged to supplement the corps de ballet in Henry F. Gilbert’s The Dance in Place Congo, welcomed as the “first American ballet” as part of Gatti-Casazza’s 1918 nationalist triptych. While the principal roles were danced by the Met’s white ballet company members in ethnic theatrical makeup (blackface), choreographer Ottokar Bartik included an authentic African American element in the historic New Orleans scenario with Otto Kahn’s support. Critic Pitts Sanborn noted in the New York Globe: “The few real Negroes on the stage were worth many times all the host of disguised whites.”



Costume designs by Livingston Platt for Henry F. Gilbert’s The Dance in Place Congo, 1918


John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers

The modernist American ballet Skyscrapers reached the Met stage at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, receiving its world premiere in 1926. Celebrated theatrical designer Robert Edmond Jones masterfully evoked 1920s Manhattan, and John Alden Carpenter’s jazzy symphonic score included a central “Negro Scene” for all-Black chorus with brief featured vocal soloists. The Met engaged African American actor-singer Frank H. Wilson as ensemble leader and identified him with a program credit—the first for a Black performer at the opera company. 

AOATM_Image17.jpgLeft: Letter of agreement between the Met and actor-singer Frank H. Wilson for the ballet Skyscrapers.

Right: Frank H. Wilson, leader of the African American troupe for Skyscrapers, 1926.
DuBose Heyward Papers, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston


AOATM_Image18.jpgSet design by Robert Edmond Jones for John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers, 1926.
McNay Art Museum


AOATM_Image19.jpgCostume designs by Robert Edmond Jones for John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers, 1926.
Newberry Library, Chicago 


Searching for an American Style

American Commissions and Beyond

American Émigrés

Postwar America

From Commercial Theater to the Met

American Modernism

Innovations and Collaborations

International Contemporary Opera at the Met