'Molto Agitato' -- much ado at the Met

By SHIRLEY SAAD  |  Sept. 10, 2003 at 1:31 PM
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SAN DIEGO, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- I was familiar with the terms Iron Curtain, which described the communist countries in Eastern Europe, and even Bamboo Curtain, a term applied to communist China, but I had never heard of the Gold Curtain before reading "Molto Agitato" by Johanna Fiedler. Fiedler is the daughter of Arthur Fiedler, the celebrated conductor of the Boston Pops. She was for many years the press representative of the Met, the New York opera house that opened its doors in 1883.

Fiedler has written a history that weaves the financial with the musical and the personal aspects of the Metropolitan Opera. She gives us insight into a fascinating world where a stagehand could become general manager but a board member could not have a box because he was Jewish.

It is ironic to note that the board member in question, Otto Kahn, single-handedly saved the Met from financial demise, and that one of the Met's most prestigious artistic and musical directors, James Levine, was also Jewish, as was Sir Rudolf Bing, its long-serving general manager.

Throughout its long history, the Met, as it is affectionately known, has attracted the best conductors, the greatest singers, and more than its fair share of controversy. It was founded because Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt was refused a box at the Academy of Music and decided that a new opera house was needed. The new opera house was built at 39th and Broadway essentially to accommodate all the "nouveaux riches" of New York society, the people so beautifully described in Edith Wharton novels: the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Astors, the Goulds and the Morgans.

Not only did the new high society of New York go to the opera to see and be seen (they might actually have enjoyed the music), they even had the color of the walls changed to show the ladies' opulent jewelry to best advantage.

But the opera house didn't just cater to the rich. Because the first few seasons were dedicated to producing German operas, it also attracted a new audience of opera lovers from the large immigrant population. But German operas are generally long (and boring), and the high society of New York complained that they had no time to chat between arias, so eventually the program was changed to French and Italian operas much to the chagrin of its serious patrons.

This was only the first of many clashes between patrons, the board, the artistic directors and the musicians. Budget woes, labor disputes, temperamental artists, inflated egos, two world wars and the depression all contributed to the Met's troubles.

But it also attracted conductors like Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, and the man long associated with the Met, James Levine, who has also served as its music director and artistic director. Other luminaries include Enrico Caruso as well as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, who both debuted at the Met in 1968, and general manager Rudolf Bing who held the position for t23 years. For many, the Met was not just a job, it was a lifelong commitment, a home away from home, a family.

The company is famous for producing modern operas, American operas, little-known operas by famous composers, or great oeuvres by obscure composers. It also pioneered racial equality, giving Marian Anderson her debut in "Un Ballo in Maschera" in 1955.

In 1966, the Met moved to its location at Lincoln Center, reaching a settlement with its striking musicians just before the performance. Labor disputes with the musicians were nothing new; in 1961 President Kennedy, who was dealing with the Cuban missile crisis, asked his secretary of labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate between the board, the administration and the orchestra, barely averting a strike. Apart from the fact that Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline were fervent patrons of the arts, Kennedy felt that a strike, forcing the Met to close down, would damage the country's prestige.

The book not only recounts the early history of the company and its financial struggles, but also amusing anecdotes about the patrons, the artists and the staff. Kathleen Battle, for instance, evolved from being a cheerful, unaffected young soprano to a full-blown diva complete with temper tantrums and imperious behavior. It doesn't pay to antagonize the stagehands, as many who mistreated them realized to their dismay. Battle once had to sing a solo aria standing in the dark, and Eva Marton took her curtain calls covered in feathers. The stagehands had substituted the mattress that Tosca lands on after jumping from the battlements with a soft feather-filled one that exploded when Marton landed on it. (I have also heard of a different version where the stagehands substituted a trampoline in lieu of the mattress.)

There are also anecdotes concerning singers' weight, opera singers being famous for their girth as well as their temper. Marilyn Horne once said that their profession is a lonely one, involving many nights away from home in hotel rooms, and that food is company. Some singers, like Maria Callas, who managed to lose weight successfully, found that they lost their voice as well as their extra pounds. The muscles of the diaphragm are the "support" that enable a singer to breathe and sing, and these muscles may sag after a rapid weight loss, causing the singer to wobble, scoop, shriek and sing off-pitch.

Those lonely nights don't only lead the singers to food; they also lead to numerous affairs, and the world of opera is small enough that everyone knows about them. No wonder that Placido Domingo's wife travels everywhere with him and watches him like a hawk. Even in his sixties, he remains a sex symbol, and rumors abound every time he patrons a new, young soprano. Pavarotti eventually ended up divorcing his wife and marrying his latest inamorata, Nicoletta Mantovani.

There are bizarre stories of murder and strange accidental deaths. One singer fell to his death (from a heart attack) after singing the opening aria perched on a ladder, and an opera fan threw himself off the Family Circle tier and fell the equivalent of five stories, narrowly missing several people and ending up decapitated.

The world of opera attracts some strange artists, too. Hildegard Behrens was a law student before becoming a soprano, and wore leather and suede, tight skirts and high boots, not quite the usual attire of an opera singer. Giuseppe Sinopoli, a conductor, had been a psychiatrist before turning to opera.

Opera fans, too, could be unconventional. In 1998, Alberto Vilar, a Cuban émigré who had made a fortune in London, made a gift of $25 million to the Met's new endowment campaign. After donating millions to various musical organizations around the world, Vilar's fortunes faltered in 2001 and he had to renege on many of his pledges. His name disappeared from the many programs he had promised to endow, including the Grand Tier at the Met. But before his reversal of fortune, he had donated countless millions to various organizations and, according to Fiedler, "will go down in history as one of the major arts benefactors of all time."

The opera house has also suffered as a consequence of Sept. 11, as have all musical and artistic programs across the nation. Despite all its problems, the Met continues to be one of the most prestigious, if not the most prestigious, of our opera houses.

("Molto Agitato"by Johanna Fiedler, Anchor Books, $15.95, 363 pages.)

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