60 Years of Service … and Counting!
Each year, the Met celebrates company members who have reached milestone employment anniversaries, and in 2022, this dedicated group included violist Marilyn Stroh, who joined the Met Orchestra in 1960. Prior to the awards ceremony, each honoree is invited to complete a survey reflecting on their Met career—here’s what Marilyn had to say about her astounding six decades with the company.
Where did you work previously, and how did you end up working at the Met?
I came to work at the Met straight from Julliard in 1960. For me, playing with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has been the career of a lifetime.
In the spring of 1960, just as I was about to graduate from the diploma program at Juilliard, I received a phone call from the orchestra contractor at the Met, Mr. Felix Eyle, asking me to audition on the viola for a job at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I was rather startled. I asked “for backstage or substitution?” He answered, “No, no, for life.”Tired and still dreaming of spending my life playing string quartets, I replied, “I don’t want to come for life.” Mr. Eyle indignantly told me “I don’t call everyone up, you know!” We agreed that I would consult with my teacher, Mr. Oscar Shumsky. Mr. Shumsky advised me to take the audition for the sake of the experience. I had only a week to prepare.
On the day of my audition, there were about 12 candidates in the Grand Tier of the hall. A violist who’d come back to Juilliard from the Seventh Army Orchestra was helpfully encouraging me to “play out” as I was warming up. They drew lots for the order in which we would play and kept us away from the audition room so that no one could be affected by what others performed. Eric Leinsdorf was seated at the piano and the principal violist, John di Janni, was at the music stand. All along two walls were the conducting staff.
Leinsdorf looked at the piano part for my Hindemith sonata and declined to play it, so I played the first movement by myself. With that over, the sight reading began. One of the pieces was the little viola solo from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. I played the crescendo and diminuendo as written. One of the conductors liked it and asked the man next to him if he’d heard it. He was sound asleep! They woke him up and made me playit again. The contrast between this man who was so secure in his life that he fell asleep and the worried violist in the hall that needed a steady job seemed so ironic to me, and I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” I started to relax and enjoy the music. I got quite excited about Otello and thoroughly enjoyed playing a passage from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as Leinsdorf conducted to see how I’d follow the beat while sight reading. I was informed afterwards that I was the only contestant that got it. After we allplayed, the conductors said, “The girl [me] is more musical, but the boy has a bigger tone.” They argued. “Should we have them play again?” Then Jean Morel, conductor from Juilliard, threw the vote my way, saying that he knew us both from school. The Met’s first violist voted for me as he had never seen me in his life, and so he knew I wastruly sight reading.
Mr. Eyle informed me I would have to get a bigger viola. Little did he know that I didn’t even own a viola at that time!
And thus began my career at the Met.
One comical note on the lead up to starting the job: While at Juilliard, I was supposed to work with the lady in the school’s placement bureau to start applying for jobs after I graduated. But I was so busy focusing on my course work, playing outside jobs, andpreparing for final exams (on both the violin and the viola) that I never got around toregistering with the school’s job-placement bureau. I was jobbing and didn’t have time to ask my teacher for a recommendation. The lady in the office got rather indignant with me. Just before graduation, she snapped at me “Well, Marilyn, this is your final year and you still haven’t registered. Where do you think you’re going to work next year? The New York Philharmonic?” And my reply was: “No, the Metropolitan Opera!” That made her laugh. I am now in my 62nd season of continuous service with the orchestra and am enjoying the music as much as ever.
What do you remember about the Met when you first started, and what have beenthe biggest changes over the years?
When I first started playing with the orchestra, I remember feeling how lucky I was to be playing with such wonderful singers as Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli.
There was a mix of both wonderful singers and bad singers during my first season. One tenor sang so sharp on a Toronto tour performance that a violist colleague said “I’m going out the front door with the audience. I’m not going to admit I work here!” And there were evenings of great delight with Leontyne Price singing Aida or La Forza del Destino, and Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill in Forza.
There have been many changes at the Met since I started playing in the orchestra in 1960.
Back then, we had no guaranteed nights off. We often played 16 days in a row without a break.
We used to play both rehearsals and performances on Thanksgiving Day.
Once every six weeks, we would travel by train to play an evening performance at the old Academy of Music in Philadelphia. That was the only way that violists got nights offbecause the pit in the Academy of Music was so small that they could only fit four violists in.
We used to tour the United States regularly every spring. Those tours were great fun! We traveled everywhere by train (not planes when I first started—flights came later). For the American tours, we had to write ahead and book our own hotels in each city we were going to play in. None of that was done for us. We played performances on tour but did not have rehearsals. It was almost like a vacation. We got to see interesting places.During the day, we got to go to museums, art galleries, and bookstores and socializedwith each other in a relaxed manner. On tour, I enjoyed playing benefit concerts for handicapped children every year. Some of the orchestra members would go play golf.The company even rustled up its own baseball team to keep the men amused during theday. Anybody from the company was welcome to participate. The team always consisted of a mix of orchestra members, men from the chorus, stagehands, and soloists, as well asemployees from other areas of the company. There was a lot of camaraderie. I had the honor of serving as the official scorekeeper at those baseball games on tour. Mr. Bing [the Met’s former General Manager] disapproved of these games because he was always concerned what would happen if, say, the concertmaster broke a finger. But the team ignored his disapproving comments and played other orchestras and faculties at various universities along the way. We even played the Nippon Symphony in Japan one time.They came out on to the field all looking very trim and healthy. They were dressed properly for the occasion, and everything about them seemed so orderly. We thought our Met team would lose, but we clobbered them! I still have the program of their lineup at home showing which player played which position on the ballfield and which instrument they played in their orchestra. I also still have some of my old handwritten scorekeeping records from other games we played here in America over the years. Those were fun times.
Another fairly change over the years, of course, has been the shift in gender balance inthe orchestra. When I first started playing with the orchestra in 1960, there were only two ladies playing full-time here—myself and a harpist. It was a man’s world. There wasn’t even a women’s locker room or women’s restroom facilities for the orchestra. The only way into the pit was through the men’s locker room, where the men were changing. So I either went into the pit half an hour ahead of time or dashed in in the last five minutes before the downbeat. During the intermission, I had to slink around backstage and wait outside the prima ballerina’s bathroom hoping for a turn in her restroom before scurrying back to the pit in time for the next act. If the prima ballerina (or the Rhinemaidens) made it clear they didn’t want us using their facilities on any given day, then the harpist and Ihad to go up to third floor to use the restrooms allocated to the ladies of the chorus.
When I started my first season at the Met, Mr. Bing announced in his welcoming speech that he was delighted to have another woman in the orchestra as now he could say, “ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra.” Previously, it had been difficult for him to say “lady and gentlemen of the orchestra,” with the second harpist being the only woman until then. She couldn’t have been kinder to me, giving me a key to her locker in the celloroom.
Of course, another rather obvious change during my time with the orchestra was the exciting change in venue which took place in 1966. When I first started playing with the orchestra in 1960, we were still playing in the old opera house down at 39th street. Theold house has long since been razed and replaced by a skyscraper. I periodically have occasion to visit that skyscraper for personal business appointments, and I cannot help but fondly reminisce about how I used to see all the backdrops getting hauled out of the back of the building and loaded onto trucks in the street to be sent off to the warehouse—rain or shine. The old house didn’t have the same amount of interior space we benefit from these days. That’s just the way it was.
The orchestra used the occasion of moving into the newly constructed Lincoln Center in1966 as leverage to, finally, get some nights off incorporated into our contracts. Our committee head threatened to go on strike if we didn’t get better working conditions. Wewere “gentlemanly” about it, of course. We played the opening night at Lincoln Center with Leontyne Price. We got our contracts down to playing five performances a week. It was at that time that the Met started to employ “steady extras” (now called Associate Musicians) to allow for the regulars to get nights off. The string section was particularly grateful for this change. The brass and winds used to always have two principals because their lips would give out, so they got rotated in and out, of necessity, but the string players got worked into the ground until we came here to the new house. We were very grateful for the relief.
As an amusing anecdote, it happened one time at a Rigoletto rehearsal that the men in the viola section were playing a boisterous forte—egging me on to join them as I conscientiously stuck to the printed mezzo-forte dynamic. “That’s the trouble with women in the orchestras,” they said. The conductor, Fausto Cleva, caught on to the method in this madness and agreed “Alright, you can play Rigoletto with six violas.” We happily rotated our Rigoletto nights off amongst the eight of us for the rest of the season.
I sometimes wonder if the current younger members of the orchestra realize how far we have come and just how good they have it.
This list of changes during my tenure is endless.
I remember noticing what a difference it made when they first put in those littletranslation screens on the seat backs a few decades ago. All of a sudden, the audience started laughing more. Our patrons used to miss many of the jokes.
Live in HD broadcasts are another beneficial change which has come about since I first joined the Met. In years gone by, my siblings used to enjoy listening to the Met broadcasts on the radio every Saturday afternoon—in their houses, in their cars, and in one case, even in their barn. Well, my nine siblings are all gone now, and my younger generation of nieces and nephews don’t seem to listen to “the radio” so much these daysin the same way that their parents once did, but they and their friends enjoy going to see our HDbroadcasts at their local movie theaters. Those live HD broadcasts have proven a great way of getting opera out there to the cinema-going public all around the globe.
Following our participation in the 100th birthday of Carnegie Hall, when all major New York orchestras were invited to play at Carnegie Hall in honor of the event, we got started on a tradition of playing concerts there every year at the end of the opera season. I enjoy the opportunity to play from the great symphonic repertoire at Carnegie Hall after playingopera all the time. Playing there is fun and certainly adds interest to the job. It has proven to be a real morale booster for the orchestra.
What do you enjoy most about your job at the Met?
What I enjoy most about my job at the Met is the quality and caliber of musicianship of my colleagues. I thoroughly enjoy working with such a great orchestra and working with such wonderful singers. Nothing beats it.
Every day that I get to play with such a great orchestra is a highlight in my life.
What is your funniest Met story?
There have been many humorous things going on at the Met over the years—both onstage and off. I sometimes think I should write a book about it all (but there is simply too much material to cover!).
I think one of the funniest things that ever happened was a playful onstage battle that unfolded on tour one time between Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson. Even the orchestra got unwittingly drawn into their antics.
We were performing Turandot on tour, and it was a spectacular success. One night, during the performance, Corelli mischievously decided he would hold a note longer than Birgit Nilsson to make her look as if she couldn’t hold a note that long. This was out ofcharacter for him. So, at the next performance, Birgit picked a different place in the music and way outheld Corelli’s note just to tease him (and to get back at him). This startled him. It was out of character for her too. So, during the ensuing performance of Turandot in Boston, both singers behaved themselves on note lengths, but Corelli took the liberty of holding the kiss in the third act until the orchestra chord was too long. Birgit subsequently informed Mr. Bing that she simply couldn’t go on in Cleveland, saying Corelli had bitten her during the kiss and that “she had rabies”! Of course, she went on!