The Met Without Caruso:
Major Debuts 100 Years Ago
By Peter Clark
A cloud hung over the future of the Metropolitan Opera following the untimely death of its biggest star, tenor Enrico Caruso, on August 2, 1921. Since his debut in 1903, Caruso had sung every Opening Night performance save one (1906) and had been the Met’s most reliable box-office draw. Fortunately, the Met’s then–General Manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, had contracted several new artists with proven track records as star attractions for the 1921–22 season. Chief among these was Amelita Galli-Curci (pictured below), the coloratura soprano who had taken Chicago by storm in 1916 and appeared on tour in New York beginning in 1918, to a rapturous public response. A crowd of 10,000 gathered outside the Lexington Avenue Theater trying in vain to gain entrance for Galli-Curci’s La Traviata with the visiting Chicago troupe.
Her much-anticipated Met debut in the same opera was slated for Opening Night, November 14, 1921, alongside two fellow Italians, tenor Beniamino Gigli, who inherited much of Caruso’s lyric repertory, and baritone Giuseppe De Luca. The new production, designed by Joseph Urban and conducted by Roberto Moranzoni, did not disappoint. Max Smith reviewing for the Herald American wrote:
How fascinating is Amelita’s impersonation of Violetta, already made familiar during her association with the visiting Chicago Opera Company! How imaginatively vivacious in the first act; how pathetic in the second; how tragic in the last. It was fitting, indeed, that Giulio Gatti-Casazza should bring forward his latest “star” in Traviata. For surely no other role reveals her own peculiar powers, histrionic as well as vocal, to greater advantage: None permits her to disclose more affectingly the characteristic delicacy of her art, the essentially feminine charm of her persuasions.
Comparisons with the greatest coloraturas of the recent past—Adelina Patti, Marcella Sembrich, Luisa Tetrazzini—followed in the press, proving that even for those who found faults with the new diva, she had clearly joined an illustrious line of bel canto virtuosos. In addition to her appearances in opera and numerous recital tours, Galli-Curci’s fame rested equally on her best-selling recordings. Sales for her records rivalled those of Caruso, and she often recorded popular or light songs as well as opera arias. Her distinctive vocal timbre—soft-grained, velvety, and pure—transferred well to records even by the crude technology of the time.
But Gatti-Casazza had even more star power to shore up the post-Caruso Met box office. Soprano Maria Jeritza (pictured above), star of the Vienna State Opera, had been on the General Manager’s radar since before the First World War, though she was not well known in America. A bright-toned dramatic singer who specialized in the contemporary German works as well as those of Wagner and the verismo Italian composers, Jeritza made her Met debut in the company premiere of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt on November 19, 1921. But it was two weeks later that she became an overnight sensation for the New York public with her fiery interpretation of Puccini’s Tosca.
Jeritza was the antithesis of Galli-Curci and shared no repertory with the Italian songbird. Whereas Galli-Curci cut a delicate, demure figure whose charm was more vocal than physical, Jeritza was a statuesque blonde bombshell who threw herself unreservedly into the realistic passions of her roles. In her most famous theatrical coup, she sang Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte” lying prone on the stage, where she had landed following her struggle with Scarpia. Max Smith wrote in The New York Journal-American:
New Yorkers have known various Toscas. But none that so gripped the feelings and set the pulses in commotion as Mme. Jeritza’s ... Her triumph was of the sort that occurs only once or twice in a generation.
Almost instantly, Jeritza became the must-see phenomenon of the season. She went on that season to sing Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, and Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin to sold out houses, and sales even picked up for the novelty Die Tote Stadt.
While it was impossible to hope for a singer to replace Caruso in the public’s affections, Gatti-Casazza had booked the two best Italian tenors of the day—Gigli and Giovanni Martinelli—for the entire season. In addition, the renowned baritone Titta Ruffo made his company debut, although due to illness he ended up singing only a handful of performances.
The biggest boon to the bottom line among male singers, however, was the return to the Met of Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (pictured above), and for the first time in his most famous role, Boris Godunov. After hearing that Chaliapin had fled Bolshevik Russia, Gatti-Casazza hoped that he might return to the Met, where he had not sung since 1908. But the General Manager had heard that the iconic bass was demanding fees of $5,000 to $7,000 per performance. This was simply not feasible in a day when a full house brought in only about $15,000. After considerable negotiations, Chaliapin agreed to $3,000 and Gatti-Casazza warned his staff to keep that an absolute secret!*
By way of absorbing the costs, the Met raised prices for the six Boris Godunov performances, which sold out anyway and were the season’s highest grossing dates. Deems Taylor in The New York World wrote:
Feodor Chaliapin brings something to the opera that is greater than singing, greater than acting. He brings drama, that perfect realization and illusion of life for which singing and acting exist, the thing that only a few of the great possess … the audience was hysterical in its reception of the great Russian. The roar that greeted him after the Kremlin scene was deafening. And well they might cheer. They were seeing operatic history in the making.
Gatti-Casazza and Met management must have cheered too. They had come through a full season without Caruso and ended up with a budget surplus of over $48,000—the best in the last six years. Better yet, the company had been strengthened with new artistic blood and for the rest of the decade would show an excess of revenues over expenses, enjoying the most stable financial period of the company’s existence.
Peter Clark is Director of the Met Archives.