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On this 100th anniversary of the onset of the Great War, we pick up where we left off in our post of November 8, The Met in World War I, 1.
From 1914 to 1917, the Met programmed its seasons much as it had in preceding years. As late as October 16, 1917, six months after the performance of The Canterbury Pilgrims disrupted by the news that Congress had declared war against Germany (see our previous post), Olive Fremstad, one of the Met’s two leading Wagner sopranos (the other was Johanna Gadski), had signed on to rejoin the company after a three-year absence. A week before opening night and only nine days before she was scheduled to sing Isolde, Fremstad was informed that all opera in German was cancelled for the season and so, therefore, was her engagement. Tristan und Isolde turned into Boris Godunov. In all, general manager Gatti-Casazza replaced more than forty scheduled German performances, nearly one-third of the season’s calendar. The action was taken, according to the official explanation, "lest Germany should make capital of their [operas in German] continued appearance to convince the German people that this nation was not heart and soul in the war." Though no one could have guessed it at the time, the last performance in German from the Met stage for the duration and beyond had taken place on April 13, 1917.
The press was essentially unanimous in opposing the management’s edict. A Tribune headline read, “German Opera is Still Welcome at the Metropolitan” (Sept. 23, 1917). The Sun was confident that the public did not “think of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner as exclusively representing the Teutonic people.” The Mail declared, “Art knows no frontiers.” A ban on German opera would, for the Times, be tantamount to “excluding the great classics of German literature from the public libraries.” Signed contracts and the views of influential music critics notwithstanding, in a charged climate the board bowed to war hysteria, voting to exile the German language from its auditorium, and leading Wagner specialists from its roster.
Subscribers who objected and demanded refunds were refused on the grounds that the company had “made no definite promise as to the complete and precise repertoire of its present season.” In a letter from management, they were further told that “the decision of the Board of Directors to withdraw opera sung in the German language was dictated not only by a sense of patriotic duty but also by a desire to safeguard the interests of our patrons and to prevent possible disorder.” The German-language repertoire tentatively announced (it was common practice to float many more titles than would be mounted) for 1917-18--Fidelio, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, Parsifal, Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung—was scratched. To compensate for the ban on German (the number of performances in German in 1916-17 was forty-six), performances in Italian rose from eighty-eight to 122, and in French from thirty-three to forty-eight. The premieres represented Entente Powers Italy, France, Russia, and the United States: Mascagni’s Lodoletta, Henri Rabaud’s comic Mârouf, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or, and The Robin Woman: Shanewis by Charles Wakefield Cadman, a specialist in Native-American music.
The Armistice coincided with opening night, November 11, 1918; the company celebrated offstage and on-. In the afternoon, a procession to Times Square and back of Met administrators, Gatti included, instrumentalists, and singers followed a “dummy” Siegfried, hung in effigy from a gibet and helmeted to resemble Kaiser Wilhelm. Between acts of the evening’s opera, Samson et Dalila, the national anthems of the Allies rang through the house, the “Star Spangled Banner” capped by Caruso’s high B flat.
In 1919-20, the gradual reintegration of Wagner began with Parsifal, but only in English; in 1920-21, Lohengrin and Tristan were on the program, again in English; all did well at the box office. In 1921, when the ban was lifted, Italian maintained its plurality although performances in German increased gradually through the decade. In the mid-1930s, with the advent of Kirsten Flagstad, German again claimed its pre-war season share of approximately thirty percent.
The world’s great singers gave their thrilling voices to the war effort. In his heavily-accented English, Caruso made a fervent recording of George M. Cohan’s 1917 rousing “Over There.” It ends with “Par là-bas,” the French version of Cohan’s recruitment anthem.
Just four days after the Armistice, Connecticut-born Rosa Ponselle made her Met debut opposite Caruso in the company’s first La Forza del destino. In that 1918-19 season, shorn of operas in German, she was conscripted to head the casts of two English-language works enlisted to take up the slack: Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon, presented in its original English text, and the world premiere of an American opera, Joseph Carl Breil’s The Legend. Here she sings Ivor Novello’s 1914 “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”
John McCormack, who was never on the Met roster, sang on its stage with the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company. He lends his sweet timbre, refined style, and exemplary diction to Jack Judge’s “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” composed in 1912 and taken up by British soldiers when the war broke out.