From the Archives: The Met Premiere of Parsifal
By Peter Clark
“Never before, perhaps, has a stage production of any kind in this country so stirred the imaginations of so many people or been so widely discussed or so urgently debated,” wrote noted music critic Richard Aldrich in The New York Times in 1903. His review does not overstate the significance of the occasion. Despite fierce opposition from Richard Wagner’s widow, Cosima, who controlled the rights to the composer’s works, and from a puritanical contingent of New York’s clergy, Met General Manager Heinrich Conried gave the first staged performance of Parsifal outside of the Bayreuth Festival on Christmas Eve 1903.
A German immigrant who had made a name for himself in New York as manager of a German-language theatre on Irving Place, Conried had assembled a group of financial backers the previous year and obtained the lease to produce opera for the Metropolitan, with 1903–04 his initial season as General Manager. Though Conried knew little about music, he was a showman at heart, and had a knack for publicity. His announcement that his opening season would feature the first staged performance of Wagner’s swansong “stage-consecration festival play” Parsifal outside the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Festival theatre), specifically designed for presentations of the master’s works, created an international sensation. The Wagner family, led by the indomitable Cosima, launched legal action to prevent the performance. But the United States had no copyright agreements with Germany at the time, and the courts ruled that since the Parsifal score had been marketed and sold in this country, there was nothing to prevent its performance. Moreover, while the Wagner clan had forbidden staged presentations, they had willingly allowed concert performances. Portions of Parsifal had been played on the Met’s Sunday evening concerts as early as 1886, when conductor Anton Seidl led a program of Wagner’s music as a benefit performance for none other than the Bayreuth Festspielhaus itself.
A caricature of Conried in Life magazine
Given the mystical quasi-religious themes in Parsifal—including scenes with the legendary Holy Grail from which Jesus supposedly drank at the Last Supper—various New York clergymen felt that the work was blasphemous. Not for the last time in Met history, ecclesiastical objections were based on false information about the work’s contents. When a Protestant cleric announced that he was offended by the appearance of Christ in the stage action, he was quickly corrected that no such scene existed. The Roman Catholic hierarchy refused to condemn the work, apparently because some Protestants did.
With all of the media frenzy around legal and moral objections, Parsifal’s financial success was assured. Unusually for the time, Conried had planned all 12 performances as non-subscription events at elevated ticket prices. Tickets went like hotcakes, and all 12 sold out, including one that the new General Manager had reserved as a benefit for himself. The Musical Courier meant it as a put-down when it branded the whole affair as “a first class American commercial venture,” but from management’s viewpoint, it was a welcome compliment.
A cast sheet from the Met-premiere performance
In order to meet the considerable staging demands of Parsifal, the Met undertook a large-scale renovation of the stage, hiring Carl Lauterschläger, the technical director in Munich, to oversee the installation of a counterweight system for the flies and a new stage floor with multiple sections that could be raised and lowered and equipped with multiple trap doors. The opera’s important scene transformations could thus be achieved up to the standards Wagner had set for the purpose-built opera house in Bayreuth. Anton Fuchs, also from Munich, was hired as the production director and stage manager for Parsifal (the positions were basically identical at the time) to further ensure an authentic, high-quality staging.
Parsifal performances began at 5PM and paused for an hour and a half after the first act, allowing plenty of time for dining. The early start time caused some consternation as to whether ladies and gentlemen should wear afternoon or evening attire. Some decided to use the dinner break to return home and change. Others determined that the matter had been suitably settled by King Edward and Queen Alexandra in London the previous summer when they appeared in evening dress for early starting performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Although the performances were supposed to end at 11PM, several reviews mentioned that it was closer to midnight when the final curtain fell.
Alfred Hertz, chief conductor of German opera at the Met, led all 12 performances that first season. His cast featured leading singers who had successfully sung their parts at the Bayreuth Festival: Alois Burgstaller in the title role, Milka Ternina as Kundry, and Anton Van Rooy as Amfortas. All were henceforth banned by Cosima from returning to Bayreuth due to their participation in the Met performances. American bass Robert Blass sang Gurnemanz for the first time in his career, and German baritone Otto Goritz made his company debut as Klingsor. Aldrich delivered a glowing appraisal of the opening night in The New York Times. “The artistic value of the Parsifal production was of the very highest. It was in many respects equal to anything done at Bayreuth and, in some, much superior. It was without doubt the most perfect production ever made on the American lyric stage.” Another glowing review, this one from the eminent W.J. Henderson in The Sun, agreed that the Met production was “better than any production ever given at Bayreuth” and hailed the beauty of the scenery and the effects of the new stage machinery.
Hertz’s conducting was generally admired, though some thought his tempi were too fast. Aldrich found Ternina’s Kundry “a performance of supreme beauty,” and complimented Burgstaller as “a Parsifal of authority and individuality of characterization,” and Van Rooy’s Amfortas as “noble, heart-rending in its pathos.” Lauterschläger and Fuchs were noted as “the creators of the marvelous stage management and technical effects that contributed so greatly to the beauty and perfection of the representation.”
(Left) Burstaller as Parsifal; (Right) Ternina as Kundry
The Parsifal mania that gripped the country in the wake of the Met premiere went surprisingly deep. The impresario Henry Savage organized a touring company to present Parsifal in English the following year and gave eight performances in New York before lighting out to the hinterlands. On a more micro level, Quaintance Eaton reports in her book The Miracle of the Met that the given name Parsifal became particularly popular for newborns that year and inspired a Met usher surnamed McGillicuddy to so baptize his new son.
Stagings of Parsifal elsewhere remained under the interdict of Bayreuth though Amsterdam and Buenos Aires did manage performances in the next decade. Finally, on January 1, 1914, the copyright ran out, and in the first eight months of that year, some 50 European opera houses gave Parsifal performances. Some actually began their performance just before midnight on December 31. Conried would go on to yet another controversy, the Met premiere of Richard Strauss’s Salome, though that one ended less successfully for him. While his regime came to a close in 1908 under some financial clouds, Parsifal remained his boldest accomplishment.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.