This Month in Met History

100 Years Ago: The Met and World War I 

On December 11, 1917, the Met staged a new production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment with the brilliant soprano Frieda Hempel in the title role.

The U.S. had just entered World War I, and a wave of patriotism had washed over the country. The light-hearted little comedy glorifying our French allies hit just the right spot. “The Tricolor of France always drew from the house a salvo of applause and once, from Miss Hempel, a kiss,” read one review.

Miss Hempel’s kiss was undoubtedly calculated, as she was German. In early November, the Met had announced a ban on German opera and canceled the contracts of a number of leading German artists. Hempel escaped the purge because most of her roles were Italian or French, and because she was engaged to marry an American. Nevertheless, she felt obliged to show her allegiance to the Allied cause. (Curiously, no similar ban on German opera was made during World War II, but La Fille du Régiment, starring French soprano Lily Pons was programmed once again as a symbol of solidarity with our allies.)

Reflecting the intensely anti-German sentiment in 1917, one journalist wrote that Hempel kissing the French flag was “mockery” and that a claque who were “paid money by our enemies” was responsible for the audience’s demand for an encore after her aria. The diva was furious and threatened to sue. Hempel remained in New York during the War, a decision that later, when she returned to Berlin in 1927, provoked a Nazi demonstration against her.

The atmosphere of fear and paranoia that gripped the U.S. in 1918 eventually forced the Met to conduct an investigation into the sympathies of its company members. As a result, a few additional German soloists and some 17 choristers were fired, and a press release issued that stated “The services of any of the personnel of the Metropolitan Opera Company, artists or other employees, concerning whose loyalty to the United States or to the cause of the allies any doubt exists, will be dispensed with by the management.” ”