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As the Metropolitan Opera prepares to open its 2016-2017 season on September 26 with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and we return to OperaPost, the music press is focused on the financial straits which continue to plague the company in its 131st year. The arts pages tell a persisting story of rising costs and declining box office and, occasionally, call on a spectrum of stakeholders to suggest what can be done about it.
In the midst of so much justified hand wringing, it may be useful to take a moment to glance backwards. The last seven or eight years hardly constitute the only extended period in which the company faced worrisome deficits. In fact, its very first season, 1883-1884, ended in fiscal collapse. The manager, Henry Abbey, withdrew after just one ruinous season. Some decades later, the Great Depression threatened the Met’s very existence. In both instances, that of the 1880s and that of the 1930s, it was Wagner who saved the day. But not Wagner alone. The survival of the fledgling Met depended on its roster of fabled Wagnerian singers, Lilli Lehmann and Albert Niemann among others. And the survival of the Metropolitan during the Depression depended in large measure on the Tristan and Isolde of Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, the two mighty pillars of a brilliant Wagnerian epoch.
Melchior came to the Met first, in 1926. It was not until several seasons later that he reached his full potential. Dubbed “Tristanissimo” by Toscanini as a result of his work at Bayreuth with the exacting maestro in 1930, he became the leading Wagner tenor of his time, and in retrospect, indisputably the greatest heldentenor of the 20th century. But Tristanissimo needed an Isoldissima. She was not long in coming. Her name was not Kirsten Flagstad; it was Frida Leider. Here are Melchior and Leider in a 1929 recording of the Act II duet from Tristan und Isolde. Exceptional is the degree of dynamic inflection, the soft yet precise attacks. Leider and Melchior caress the text through subtle crescendos and diminuendos. The “Liebesnacht” is a showcase for their prowess in bending heroic voices to the register of intimacy, then lifting them to the peak of emotional outburst.
Leider’s presence on the Met’s Wagnerian Olympus was alas short-lived, a mere twenty-eight performances in two seasons. Unwilling to accept the reduced fees the management imposed in light of the depressed economy, and in the face of increasing difficulty in obtaining leaves from her home theatre, Berlin, under the Hitler regime, Leider declined to sign her contract for 1934-1935. To replace her, Met general manager Gatti-Casazza engaged Anni Konetzni, a confirmed star in Europe, who could only commit to the first half of the season. Needing to engage a second soprano to cover the second half, he took a chance on a Norwegian who had had much less experience on the international circuit than Konetzni. Some twenty-two years into a career almost exclusively confined to Scandinavia, Kirsten Flagstad had sung everything from operetta to the lyric heroines of Carmen and Faust to the more dramatic Aïda and Tosca, all in Norwegian or Swedish. Only when conductor Artur Bodanzky heard her in rehearsal in the vast New York auditorium did he realize how uniquely prodigious was this new Met artist. Of the seven Wagnerian roles she took on in her debut season it was Isolde that elicited the greatest acclaim.
Here, in a late 1940s recording Isolde’s Act I “Narrative and Curse,” Flagstad’s titanic voice encompasses the character’s love for Tristan and her rage at his betrayal. Brangäne’s few lines are sung by Elisabeth Höngen. Issay Dobrowen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Through the rest of the decade, Flagstad and Melchior were not only the most famous Wagnerian singers at the Met; they were at the heart of a constellation of Wagnerian exemplars. Little wonder audiences wTere mad for Wagner. Here is the Met’s box office story from 1935 to 1941. Receipts for his operas came in consistently and significantly above the average. The company rested on the shoulders of Flagstad and Melchior. Their Tristan und Isolde was the most popular draw of all five seasons. In fifty-six performances, Flagstad was the sole Isolde, Melchior her Tristan in all but three. In the course of its seven Met seasons, the team of Flagstad-Melchior racked up 202 performances, a company record. The miraculous coincidence of the Norwegian soprano and the Danish tenor was as serendipitous for the Met’s balance sheet as it was for the history of Wagner singing.
Of course, for so many well-rehearsed reasons, those glorious seasons of the late 1930s cannot be replicated. Nor can those fabulous Verdi seasons of the 1950s, as another example. Still, there is at least one lesson to be drawn from the past: when superstars head the cast, the Met fills its seats to the relief of its bottom line. Of late, that distinction has fallen to too few—Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann. The company can only hope that Nina Stemme’s Isolde will do the same as Tristan opens the season for the first time since that privilege fell to Flagstad and Melchior nearly eighty years ago.
As a preview, here is Stemme in a concert reading of Isolde’s “Liebestod,” conducted by Daniel Harding.