Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ars et Labor: 2. The Met, 1969



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As you may have seen in the press, the federal mediator assigned to the Metropolitan labor talks asked that a fiscal analyst be called in to examine the Met’s books so as to ascertain whether the company’s financial situation is as dire as management claims. This second extension of the deadline set by Peter Gelb for the lockout expires late today, Sunday, August 17. Operagoers in New York, visitors to the city, and fans of “Live in HD” all over the world, share the hope that a deal will be struck and that the season will open as scheduled on September 22.
Here we pick up the story of Met labor/management disputes where we left off in our last post, that is in 1966, the year the company moved from 39th Street and Broadway to Lincoln Center. The price of the inaugural season, the tremendous expenses associated with the operation of the new and far more complex facility, the increase in labor costs, notably overtime, the extravagance of nine new productions in a single season, put the company in a deep hole. This excerpt of a letter from then general manager Rudolf Bing to designer Attilio Colonnello will resonate with those union members who blame the Met’s current troubles on wasteful new productions. Bing appended a sober caveat to his invitation for the design of a new Luisa Miller: “I should tell you right now that we cannot again approach anything as heavy and bulky as Lucia was [Colonnello was responsible for the 1964 Lucia di Lammermoor]. We have neither the money for it, the space for it, nor the manpower to handle these enormous productions any more” (Nov. 9, 1966).
In 1969, the Met musicians made good on the threats of 1966 that we covered in the preceding post. As contract talks stalled and opening night approached, Bing was unwilling to schedule costly rehearsals until an uninterrupted season was assured. In effect, he preempted the work stoppage with a lockout, and in doing so gained what he perceived to be a strategic advantage. The standoff lasted three months. By the time the two sides came to terms on salary and benefits and performances could begin, it was not September 15 (as originally intended), but December 29. The Met had to return an enormous sum to its subscribers. The total box-office take was down drastically from the previous season. Average capacity tumbled 7%. In 1980, when the Met suffered its second and thus far last season delay due to labor discord, the company had not yet made up the 16% drop in subscriptions that followed on the 1969 impasse.
The protracted management-labor issues had musical as well as financial implications. Among the performances lost to the Met by the delayed opening night were four of the scheduled six new productions; they were eventually staged, sometimes with different casts, in the next few seasons. Also absent were performers who ought to have sung in those three months during which the company was silent. Two sopranos who had already made successful Met debuts, Marie Collier and Gundula Janowitz, would never return to the Met. A third, the much publicized Elena Souliotis, who was to bow as Lady Macbeth, would never sing at Lincoln Center at all.
Marie Collier had first appeared in the world premiere of Martin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra during the inaugural season at the new house. It would be unfair to the stellar cast to say that she stole the evening, but she left an indelible aural and visual image of Christine Mannon (the Clytemnestra role), seated on the steps leading to Boris Aronson’s ruin of a neo-classical New England mansion, keening in despair over the events that had incited her son to murder her lover. Collier had particular success in Puccini, and there was every reason to believe her New York Minnie would have matched her triumph in the 1965 San Francisco Fanciulla del West. We have been unable to unearth a recording of Collier in the role. A 1966 Cavalleria rusticana from Vancouver conveys her incisive manner, the individuality of her approach to a particularly well-known aria, and her plaintive timbre. 


Gundula Janowitz was due to repeat Sieglinde, her role in the 1967 premiere of the Karajan Die Walküre. She was also slated to star in a new production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, an opera absent from the Met repertoire for more than four decades. Here she is in the Act III aria, “Und ob die Wolke,” in which Agathe expresses blissful certainty that divine wisdom will provide a happy resolution to her troubles. Agathe is a role that privileged Janowitz’s distinctive gifts—an unusually pure, silvery timbre, minimal vibrato that demanded pinpoint intonation, seamless legato. Along with these attributes, often found in Mozart-Strauss specialists, Janowitz, an equally accomplished Verdian, was able to unfurl a voice of commanding size and penetrating power. Note: You can see and hear Janowitz in Strauss’s Arabella in our post of April 16.


Touted as the new Maria Callas, the very young Elena Souliotis achieved fame in the dramatic, arduous roles (Norma, Lady Macbeth, for instance) that had cemented the reputation of her Greek compatriot. And the star of Souliotis rose in the mid-1960s just as Callas’s was in decline. Known to New York from Carnegie Hall performances beginning in 1966, Souliotis had temperament to burn and a wide ranging voice, But there was evidence that the hard use of her instrument had begun to take its toll even though she was only in her early twenties. She seemed determined to expend herself and her voice. Indeed, at the age of thirty, her international career was over. The crudeness of her technique is painfully exposed in this 1967 recording of the entrance aria of Lady Macbeth.


In the next post we will focus on 1980, the second and, we hope, last of the Met’s delayed seasons,

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