Jade Sphinx readers receiving the latest dispatches from the Culture Wars are well-aware of the current controversial season at the New York Metropolitan Opera. However, it seems that the Met is no stranger to controversy, as I learned from Grand Opera: The Story of the Met, the first new history of the organization in 30 years. In Grand Opera, authors Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron trace the story of the Met through its opening night of Faust to the recent controversial production of Wagner’s Ring, illustrating their story with previously unpublished anecdotes about the temperamental divas, driven directors, chorus members, and sometimes-striking orchestras that made it a world-class institution.
When tackling a subject as immense as the history of a cultural institution that has loomed large on the American intellectual and aesthetic landscape for more than 100 years, the question should be – how to proceed? Would such a study focus on the administration of various General Managers? On performances, particularly of operatic stars here in the US and abroad? Touch upon the influence of wealthy patrons and the role of elite society on the institution? Or, is it really a question of how world affairs impacted so cosmopolitan an organization?
Surprisingly, the Affrons manage to tackle all of these questions and more in Grand Opera. As such, Grand Opera is not only the story of the Met, but a de facto history of US aesthetic and cultural aspirations as the nation became a major global voice within the fine arts. Reading through the book we see an emergent superpower finding its way in a traditionally European milieu, and through it, addressing particularly American concerns.
For instance, the Affrons shine in a lucid and eloquent passage on the Met and its integration of African-Americans into the Metropolitan family. That such machinations on behalf of General Manager Rudolf Bing were necessary only some 50 years ago is sobering. As the Affrons remind us:
In the southern cities of its 1961 spring tour, the Met was caught up in the fight for civil rights that defined the decade. During the Atlanta run, two African-American holders of orchestra tickets were asked to sit elsewhere. They refused. Protests ensued. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined in a telegram to Bing denouncing the company’s acceptance of a discriminatory policy: “The SCLC regrets sincerely that the famed Metropolitan Opera Company has allowed itself to be dictated to by the whim and caprice of so-called ‘southern custom,’ at such a critical moment in history, particularly this community.” The text was cosigned by Martin Luther King Jr. Bing’s reply was published in the Times the next day. The Met, he wrote defensively, “does not allow itself to be dictated to by anyone. . . . We have nothing whatsoever to do with the local arrangements.” But the following year, officially at least, the Atlanta audience was integrated. Atlanta was again a thorn in Bing’s side in 1964. The organizers had balked at the prospect of Leontyne Price in Don Giovanni. Bing dashed off this memorandum to Anthony Bliss, president of the Metropolitan Opera Association: “Leontyne Price at the present time is one of the most valuable properties [an unfortunate choice of words] of the Metropolitan Opera and there is no doubt that taking her on tour next season, but skipping the whole Atlanta week would terribly upset her, would without question make her refuse the whole tour and might, indeed, jeopardize her whole relationship with the Metropolitan.” Price sang Donna Anna in Atlanta that spring.
It would seem that navigating shifting political currents is a necessary skill for any General Manager of the Met; the chapters devoted to the Met during World War II, for example, are a masterful summary of stewardship during a global conflict impacting on artists, composers, musicians, donors and patrons.
And here, really, is the nubbin of the book: the Metropolitan Opera is not simply, and reductively, an organization that puts on musical shows. Rather, it is a collective of world-class artists – singers, dancers, composers, musicians and designers – working with a far-reaching administrative wing navigating global events, New York society and a querulous donor base. Grand Opera provides a splendid illustration of the massive, complex and multiform undertaking that is the New York Metropolitan Opera that can be read with satisfaction by opera fans, cultural historians and New York history buffs. It is highly recommended and available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local bookseller.
For readers who cannot get enough opera, Charles Affron also blogs about the Met at OperaPost, which you can visit here: http://operapost.blogspot.com/. It is a site both informative and entertaining.