Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Met in World War I, 1

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In this post and in one we are planning for later in the month, we add our voices to the chorus of historians of 20th-century Europe and America, including cultural historians, who have marked the centenary of World War I this year, and this week mark the Armistice of November 11, 1918 that ended the hostilities. 

From 1914 to 1917, the year the United States entered the war, the impact on the Met of the fighting in Europe was limited principally to the difficulties of transporting European artists to New York and back. Passports and safe-conducts were precious commodities. In May 1915, the dangers of ocean travel came home to 39th Street with the catastrophe of the Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat.  Only fate and his premature exit from the Met in a huff kept Arturo Toscanini, his wife, and daughters from the passenger list of the doomed transatlantic liner on which the family had originally had reservations.  Two years later, the Met mourned the tragic death of Spanish composer Enrique Granados. On his return from New York following the Metropolitan world premiere of his opera Goyescas, the ship on which Granados and his wife were crossing the English Channel was torpedoed by a German submarine.

While on the stage it was largely business as usual, Met artists were not impervious to the patriotic passions of the time. At the center of nationalist nastiness was the German soprano Johanna Gadski. A fixture at the Met from 1900 to 1917, she had become openly contemptuous of the United States. In spring 1915, coincidentally a day after the attack on the Lusitania, a gala for the benefit of the German Red Cross, a performance of Die Fledermaus not sponsored by the company, was scheduled for the house. The German colors were to be displayed, “Deutschland über Alles” was to be sung, there were to be speeches. The performance took place, but Gadski thought better of singing the anthem, the speeches were curtailed, and the colors were not shown. In the same year, Gadski’s husband, Captain Hans Tauscher, was charged with conspiring to blow up the canal that joins Lake Erie and Lake Ontario; he was acquitted. Gadski herself was alleged to have pronounced publicly that, given a chance, she would have happily blown up New Jersey’s munitions plants. The New York Globe called for Gadski’s ouster from the Met for hosting a 1915 New Year’s Eve party at which fellow German Otto Goritz, a Metropolitan baritone, was reputed to have sung a parody in celebration of the Lusitania disaster. 

Gadski’s reputation as a stalwart Wagnerian is substantiated by her recordings. Her warm timbre is far more phonogenic than that of most dramatic sopranos of the era. Her voice is remarkably well-schooled, solid throughout the range, even capable of agility. She is responsive to the text and has the means to utter Wagner’s expansive phrases with no hint of strain. One of the most breathtaking moments in Die Walküre comes in Act III: Brünnhilde bestows on the pregnant Sieglinde the broken sword that Siegfried, the future hero, will reforge; Sieglinde rapturously responds with gratitude and pledges to save her unborn child. Gadski, like many Wagner sopranos sang both roles, in separate performances of course. Here she takes on the successive phrases first of the Valkyrie, then of the expectant mother. The recording was made in May 1917, just one month after Gadski’s final performance at the Met. 

A versatile member of the company, Gadski was by no means limited to the German repertoire. A quarter of her nearly 500 performances were in Italian roles. In the long list of sopranos who have sung Aïda with the Met, she stands fourth, with two more to her credit than Leontyne Price. This recording reveals the full body of Gadski’s voice, her affinity for Verdi, and the assured manner that easily surmounts the difficulties of the Act III aria, “O patria mia.”

On April 2, 1917, during a performance of the American composer Reginald De Koven’s The Canterbury Pilgrims, the audience was electrified by the news that Woodrow Wilson had appeared before Congress to call for a declaration of war against Germany. Late editions of New York papers circulated from hand to hand in the boxes. In the audience was the recently recalled ambassador to Berlin James Gerard. He stood to exhort the crowd to cheer the President; from another box came a shout for cheers for the Allies and the United States Army and Navy. The orchestra struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As Act IV began, mezzo-soprano Margarete Ober, “one of a dozen German stars [more accurately, two stars and a handful of comprimarios] on the stage at the time, had the leading part with Mr. [Johannes] Sembach in the final scene. She was singing a phrase of the Wife of Bath when she stopped and fell full length upon her back, striking heavily on the floor. Sembach and [tenor] Max Bloch lifted her, but she sank again, and the two men carried her out through the stage crowd, considerably to the detriment of the Wife of Bath’s bridal gown” (Times). The cast sang on without her to the opera’s end. In the years of America’s neutrality, 1914-1917, Ober and her German compatriots had had no problem singing with French and British colleagues, nationals of countries with which Germany was at war. Nor was there any serious threat of anti-German feeling affecting the repertoire. 
That would quickly change.

Post-script: Reginald De Koven

The Canterbury Pilgrims was the only opera by Reginald De Koven performed at the Met. His other opera, Rip Van Winkle, had its premiere in Chicago. Neither had long shelf lives. An influential critic, De Koven was also a prolific composer of operettas, many of them successful in the late 19th century and beyond. His music is remembered, if dimly, because an aria, “O promise me,” from his Robin Hood (1890), became a standard sung at countless weddings for many generations. Louise Homer, principal Met contralto from 1900 to 1918, delivers the melody with rich yet finely focused tone. 

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