Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ars et Labor: 1. The Met, 1906-1966

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The impending lock-out at Peter Gelb's Met has been covered extensively in the press in past weeks. And Friday, August 1, should bring either the happy news that the season has been saved, or the drastic report of its cancellation, at best its delay. This is not the first time the company has faced the gloomy prospect of a dark house. But despite the repeated threats of lock-outs and strikes that pepper the Met’s history, never in one hundred and thirty-one years has an entire season been cancelled for reasons of discord between management and labor, and only twice, in 1969 and 1980, did the curtain fail to rise on the appointed date.

It all began in 1906. The company was still young when the disgruntled choristers walked out for three days, demanding a hike in pay from $15 to $25 weekly, shorter hours, and sleeping car rather than coach accommodations on overnight travel.

The Great Depression brought hard times to the company and to its embattled general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. By January 1933, unions that had rejected pay cuts the year before saw no alternative but to submit to the reality that the Met might well go the way of the bankrupt Chicago Civic Opera that had shut down in 1932. (The recent demise of the New York City Opera inevitably comes to mind.) In the mid-1940s, with the approaching end of World War II, the Metropolitan was subject to the labor unrest that rocked the U.S. economy. The increasing strength of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) in its negotiations with the Metropolitan management, in part the result of the dramatic rise in the number of American singers on the roster (the subject of our last several posts), produced a contract with this protectionist clause: that for every alien engaged, three Americans would be hired. In late summer 1947, a dispute with AGMA over the size of the chorus was finally settled. The 1948-49 season was declared in doubt by general manager Edward Johnson. Ploy or not, in August of that year the Met announced its cancellation. Three weeks later an accord was reached. Johnson’s successor, the imperious Rudolf Bing, and the then ten or so Met locals, not to mention AGMA, would soon be at sword’s point. In 1954, there was a stagehand wildcat strike that disrupted no performance. It did, however, cause a moment of alarm when the general manager, stationed at the ropes in place of a striker during the dress rehearsal of Norma, nearly dropped the heavy curtain on Zinka Milanov’s head. The shadow of cancelation loomed again in 1956.  But the most dramatic episodes in this ongoing narrative occurred in 1961, and then in 1966 as the company was preparing for its Lincoln Center inaugural.

In was late summer 1961, and Bing had dug in his heels. As labor moderated its demands, he grew more intransigent, claiming that his principal artists had been released, had in fact made other commitments, and that nothing other than an unsatisfactorily “late and patched-up season” could at this point be assured. In light of the company’s precarious finances, public opinion was initially opposed to the musicians; it now turned against management. Ostensibly moved by a plea from Risë Stevens, President John F. Kennedy intervened. Speculation went that following a spring and summer of Freedom Riders on busses through the South and student sit-ins across the country, Kennedy was eager to save Leontyne Price’s opening night La Fanciulla del West. He ordered Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to mediate the dispute, a step AGMA welcomed and Bing dismissed with a characteristic wave of the hand. A Times editorial spoke for the greater good: “Surely, with the musicians continuing to be conciliatory, the management cannot be allowed to flout public wishes so high-handedly.” It concluded, pointing directly at Bing, “Better a late and patched-up season than no season at all.” Goldberg reached an agreement with the management that proved unsatisfactory to the musicians. They would not soon forget what they experienced as Goldberg’s betrayal. In 1966, the orchestra would leverage its bitterness at what for Bing was the worst possible moment. As he struggled to open the new house at Lincoln Center, the threat of a strike hung over already daunting challenges.
The joy of opening night in the new house was dampened by worry over the strike called for the next day. The cloud that hovered over the gala evening of September 16 was lifted during the second intermission of the world premiere of Antony and Cleopatra when Bing took the stage to announce that a deal was in place at last, the strike had been averted. This real-life coup de théâtre was met with the longest ovation of the evening.

Leontyne Price was the centerpiece of the near miss in 1966 as she had been five years earlier. The 1961 Fanciulla del West came just months after her triumphant debut in Il Trovatore. Fanciulla, which had its world premiere at the Met in 1910, had not been heard on 39th Street in thirty years. High anticipation was rewarded with critical and public acclaim. Then, during the second performance of the run, Price lost her voice, had to speak the end of act II, and was replaced by Dorothy Kirsten in Act III. By the end of the 1961-62 season, she had returned to peak form. Price sang only three more Fanciulla’s in her long Met career, all of them in that year, none of them broadcast. In 1975, she recorded this excerpt from act I of Fanciulla. Known primarily as a Verdian, Price shows affinity for Puccini’s conversational passages: Minnie recalls her childhood, the tavern where her father dealt cards and her mother was cook and bar keep. At the climax, the character evokes her parents’ great love, and her wish to find one like it for herself; here the soprano takes wing, soaring up to her glorious high C.

Samuel Barber, the composer of Antony and Cleopatra, wrote the music of the Egyptian queen for Price, his friend and a favored interpreter of his songs. The first-night audience at the Met in 1966 was disappointed by the opera as a whole, but was rewarded with a smashing final scene that exercised the prima donna’s best qualities, her strength, her creamy timbre, her ease at the top of the range. Here she sings Cleopatra’s death scene in a Paris concert of 1968.

The next OperaPost will be centered on the delayed Met season of 1969, and the one after that on the truncated season of 1980.

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