From the Archives: American Opera at the Met, 1910–1937
By Peter Clark
There have been two major periods in Met history when operas by American composers were prioritized as a regular part of the company’s repertory. We are currently living in one of those periods, which began in 1991 with the world premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles after a long period when only sporadic attention was given to American opera. Between then and now, 13 operas by Americans—including John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, which streams this week along with Ghosts—have been performed at the Met.
The first flowering of American works at the Met began in 1910 and lasted until about 1937. A major management change had taken place at the Met in 1908 when arts patron Otto Kahn established the Metropolitan Opera Company as the performing troupe that leased the opera house with himself as the company’s Chairman and Giulio Gatti-Casazza as its General Manager. In a 1925 pamphlet, Kahn revealed some of the pressures that had led management to begin producing American works. “Let me begin by mentioning what, in the minds of some people has become a veritable obsession … namely the legend that the Metropolitan Opera is not sufficiently conscious of the fact of its being an American institution.” By the time this was written, the Met had already given nine American works, but clearly the drumbeat in the press demanding more continued. Kahn pointed out that “though no pains were spared” in staging the American operas, so far “none has yet succeeded in holding the interest of the public.” Nevertheless, he concludes, “The Metropolitan Opera conceives it to be its duty to encourage and foster every deserving manifestation of American operatic talent, and will gladly produce operas … provided they are of adequate worth.”
The first opera by an American composer and the first opera in English ever performed at the Met was Frederick R. Converse’s The Pipe of Desire (pictured above) in 1910. Perhaps as a measure of box office safety, it was a one-act piece that shared a double bill with Pagliacci—as several new works would in the future. The story line involving elves, nymphs, and woodland dances clearly derived from European Romantic era prototypes and the symbolic myths in vogue since Wagner. While praising the effort, critical comments foreshadowed reactions to many later works. “They [American composers] have no new tunes and they disguise this fact by writing melodies which are disjointed and angular in the hope that they may at least simulate the style of the modern Germans.”
Undeterred, Kahn and Gatti-Casazza established a $10,000 prize for a new American composition, the winner of which was Mona (pictured below) by Horatio Parker, premiered in the spring of 1912. The first Met world premiere of an American work (The Pipe of Desire had premiered in Boston before the Met), Mona also reflected roots in late European Romanticism with a plot involving a revolt in Roman-era Britain, a hero who feigned insanity, connected with nature, and danced about in sylvan settings. “There are motives somewhat after the Wagnerian style, for each of the characters and each is taken in a different key,” said one critic. A full-length opera, Mona received four performances then disappeared from the Met for good.
Fourteen more American works would be given at the Met over the following 25 years. Half of these were short works given on a double or triple bill, usually with a popular Italian work. Pagliacci with Caruso on the program assured an audience for Victor Herbert’s Madeleine in 1914 and for Henry Hadley’s Cleopatra’s Night in 1920. Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones in 1933 also shared the bill with Pagliacci, this time starring Giacomo Lauri-Volpi as Canio. J.L. Seymour’s In the Pasha’s Garden relied on La Bohème as a draw on the second half of the program in 1935. Charles Wakefield Cadman’s one-act The Robin Woman: Shanewis (a design is pictured at the top of this page) premiered in 1918 on a program with a new ballet, Dance in the Place Congo, and Leoni’s short Italian opera L’Oracolo then reappeared the next season on a triple-bill of American operas that included the world premieres of Joseph Breil’s The Legend and John Hugo’s The Temple Dancer. Cadman’s work was an attempt to incorporate a Native American story and ethnic musical themes into an authentic national opera. Breil’s offering starred the Met’s most recently acclaimed star soprano, Rosa Ponselle. The diva, who intially disparaged the piece, was asked many years later if she had changed her opinion of the score. She replied that she had burned it.
A surprising number of the composers and librettists were well-known music journalists. The eminent New York Sun critic W. J. Henderson wrote the libretto for Walter Damrosch’s Cyrano (costume designs pictured below), based on Edmond Rostand’s hit play Cyrano de Bergerac, for its 1913 Met world premiere. Reginald De Koven, critic for The New York World and other newspapers, composed The Canterbury Pilgrims, based on Chaucer’s Tales, which debuted at the Met in 1917. And probably the most successful American operas of the period were composed by Deems Taylor of The New York World. Taylor’s The King’s Henchman of 1927, with a libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and his Peter Ibbetson of 1931 were the rare American operas that had revivals in seasons after their premieres. The King’s Henchman was given in three seasons, and Peter Ibbetson in four seasons including the prestigious opening night slot in 1933. Taylor was further connected to the Met as a commentator on the early radio broadcasts.
Two of the composers whose works were performed at the Met had been important members of the company. Walter Damrosch was the son of conductor Leopold Damrosch, who rescued the Met after its first financially disastrous season in 1883–84 by forming a German troupe that performed there for seven seasons. Walter himself served as assistant conductor during the German seasons, then returned to lead Met performances from 1900 to 1902. A distinguished figure in the New York music world, he was involved in many projects but was perhaps best known as the longtime director of the New York Symphony Orchestra. He also founded the Damrosch Opera Company in 1894, which specialized in Wagner and rented the Metropolitan for several weeks in 1895 and 1898. Damrosch’s Cyrano was naturally scoured for Wagnerian influences by critics and although judgments were respectful, they were often similar to Richard Aldrich’s in The New York Times: “it cannot be called music of inspiration, of originality, or, in the highest sense, of power.” Nevertheless, Damrosch was given another chance in 1937, when the Met gave the world premiere of his A Man Without a Country. “His newest opera is, it may be affirmed at once, not only the best that Mr. Damrosch has given us, but it has an astonishing freshness of feeling, an infectious gusto,” wrote New York Herald Tribune critic Lawrence Gilman. But in spite of its critical reception and the triumphant debut of lead soprano Helen Traubel, who would become the company’s leading Wagnerian soprano in 1941, A Man Without a Country only had six performances and was never revived at the Met.
In the same season as A Man Without a Country, another Met conductor, Richard Hageman, had an opera performed at the Met. His Caponsacchi had first been performed in Germany in 1932 before being banned by Hitler. Hageman, a Dutch-born naturalized American, also composed numerous songs and film scores and even played minor roles in eleven movies. But Caponsacchi was seen as “just another eclectic opera score—unassailably earnest and sincere … but artistically null and void”(Gilman) and received only two performances.
Probably the best-known composer today whose opera was performed at the Met in this period was Howard Hanson. The director of the Eastman School of Music for 40 years and a Pulitzer-prize winner, Hanson composed symphonies that still maintain a place in the repertory of American orchestras today. His only opera, Merry Mount (pictured above), had its world stage premiere at the Met in 1934, under the baton of Tullio Serafin, with Lawrence Tibbett and Edward Johnson in leading roles. Though the premiere audience was enthusiastic, critical reaction was not positive: “Dr. Hanson’s music is most effective in the choral passages … Unfortunately, his writing for the solo voices is not free from awkwardness” (Pitts Sanborn, New York World-Telegram).
The Met cast these American operas with star singers and conductors and generally entrusted the productions to the best designers of the period. The relative success of Taylor’s operas was in some degree due to the performers. A trio of artists were highly praised for their performances in The King’s Henchman and Peter Ibbetson: tenor Edward Johnson (pictured below with Lucrezia Bori in Peter Ibbetson), baritone Lawrence Tibbett, and conductor Tullio Serafin. Johnson and Tibbett had reputations as fine singing actors. After his retirement as a singer in 1935, Johnson would become the Met’s General Manager, and Tibbett, among his many accomplishments as an artist, would be one of the founders of the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union representing the Met’s singers, chorus, ballet, and other groups. Serafin’s reputation today as one of the great conductors of Italian opera in the post-war period, is notably enhanced by the many widely admired recordings he made, particularly those with Maria Callas. But in the 1920s and 30s, he was an advocate for new music at the Met. When he left the Met in 1934 to become director of the Rome Opera, he issued a statement criticizing management for not promoting more American works even though he had led four of them during his ten year career with the company.
Tibbett, whose rich baritone, good looks, and powerful acting made him a star as early as 1925, was an almost indispensable part of American works at the Met after his strong performance in The King’s Henchman (pictured below). In addition to the two Taylor operas, he sang lead roles in Merry Mount, In the Pasha’s Garden, Caponsacchi, and most impressively, in Gruenberg’s opera based on Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones. “There could be no doubt at any time of the excellence of Mr. Tibbett’s achievement in the name part,” wrote Sanborn. Gatti-Casazza had been encouraged to cast an African American in the title role of The Emperor Jones, who in the story is a black man. African American bass-baritone and stage actor Paul Robeson had a notable success in the stage play and film of Emperor Jones and possessed a glorious operatic voice, but the Met opted for putting Tibbett in blackface. It was a tragic loss of a golden opportunity for a major artist to break the “color barrier,” which would, sadly, remain for another 20 years at the Met.
After 1937, Met performances of American opera flagged. The company’s financial crisis resulting from the Great Depression was followed by a wartime lack of resources, all of which severely limited management’s ability to stage new productions or commission new works. American operas continued to be given, but with much less frequency and they were most often one-act pieces. Rudolf Bing and his successors as General Managers of the Met were skeptical of the economic feasibility of new opera in general. The lack of a lasting success by any of the American works staged by the Met in the previous era seemed to validate their doubts. And so from 1937 until 1991, only nine American operas were given, or an average of one every six years. By comparison, the current flourishing of American opera at the Met stands out as a renaissance of the company’s early–20th century commitment to cultivate native works.
Peter Clark is Director of the Met’s Archives.