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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

World War II and the Met Roster. Americanization: 2. Regina Resnik

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The Met careers of Regina Resnik and Astrid Varnay, the latter the subject of the previous post, followed remarkably similar trajectories. Resnik made her company debut at the age of twenty-two, younger by less than a year than Varnay when she first appeared on 39th street. The two dramatic sopranos had large, dark voices, uncommon musical sophistication, and keen interpretive gifts. Forced to replace Europeans absent during the war either by choice or necessity, general manager Edward Johnson called on Resnik and Varnay often, perhaps too often, too soon.

A recent graduate of New York’s Hunter College, at the tender age of twenty Resnik had already essayed Lady Macbeth, one of opera’s most demanding roles, in a Broadway theatre, and soon after, in Mexico, she had taken on Leonore in Fidelio. Unlike Varnay, she came to the Metropolitan through the company’s Auditions of the Air (now the National Council Auditions), a portal through which most successful American singers have passed since 1935.

This is Resnik’s winning rendition of “Ernani, involami” heard by radio listeners in 1944. By any measure, Resnik had an extraordinarily precocious talent, a mature instrument, a grasp of the requisite style, and the requisite technique. Note the subtle shifts in dynamics, freedom in the upper register, strength in the middle, and a real trill, all serving the expression of Elvira’s impatience and rapture.

Like Varnay, Resnik made her acclaimed Met debut as a replacement for an ailing star, in her case the Yugoslav Zinka Milanov. She capped her first season, 1944-45, with performances of Fidelio under the direction of Bruno Walter. During the next few years she was tapped for a world premiere (Bernard Rogers’s The Warrior) and a Met premiere (Britten’s Peter Grimes), along with assignments in the operas of Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and others.

In the 1950’s, both Resnik and Varnay joined the many other Americans who made careers in Europe as the U.S. fulfilled its destiny as an “exporter of talent.” As Resnik put it in a 1987 interview with Bruce Buffie, “From 1953 to 1960 in Bayreuth was the big time of the American singer. Astrid Varnay was American—Hungarian mother, but half American—and George London and Steber and myself and Jerome Hines. You can go on and on; there was a very big American presence, especially people going in to sing Wagner. In ’53 I made my debut as Sieglinde, and then it was still a very mixed bag of Europeans and Americans, even though in that very season it was George London’s first Amfortas, Steber’s first Elsa and my first Sieglinde. But until 1960, the Americans came up very fast in the Wagnerian circles. They had big voices. Then in 1960 I had switched to mezzo, and was now singing Fricka. Wieland Wagner walked into the rehearsal for his brother’s Ring, Wolfgang’s Ring. He took a look around in the rehearsal and said, ‘Well, well, well. It still looks like the war.’ I said, ‘And what does that mean, Herr Wieland?’ He said, ‘All the Gods are Americans, and the Niebelungs are the Germans.’ Now I’ll tell you why he said that. I was Fricka, Jeromeines was Wotan, Thomas Stewart was      Hines was Wotan, Thomas Stewart was Donner and Gunther, Claire Watson was Freia and Astrid Varnay was Brünnhlde. We were musing over everything that was going on, and it was very apparent, because the way we were seated in rehearsal, not that the Americans sat with the Americans—it just happened that way. He walked in and there were the Americans on one side!” 

Both Resnik and Varnay were underappreciated by Johnson’s successor, Rudolf Bing. An erstwhile Leonore and Aïda, Resnik was miscast as Musetta and Rosalinde; soon after, she made the transition to the mezzo repertoire. Bing unaccountably relegated her to secondary roles, leavened by the rare Amneris. In May 1960, on the Met’s national tour, Resnik sang comic character parts. Later that summer, attendees of the 1960 Salzburg Festival heard her in Don Carlo. As she traverses the shifting landscape of Eboli’s “O don fatale”—the explosive opening section in which the princess curses her beauty for the transgressions to which it has led her, the dolorous middle section in which she vows to retire to a convent for expiation, then her vow to save Carlo in the urgent finale—Resnik proves her right to a place among the world’s leading dramatic mezzos.

Friday, July 11, 2014

World War II and the Met Roster. Americanization: 1. Astrid Varnay

The first set of posts in this series was devoted to Tiana Lemnitz, Germaine Lubin, and Ebe Stignani who, although contracted by the Met in the years before the United States entered World War II, would not or could not come. That opportunity lost, there would not be another, and the Met stage would never see three of the thrilling singers of the time. For differing reasons, and not surprisingly, many other artists would be absent during the years of conflict. There were the decrees of the Italian and German dictatorships, of course, and the endless contingencies of war. There were personal considerations as well, the most famous of which was Kirsten Flagstad’s decision to return to Norway in 1941 so as to be by her husband’s side during the occupation of her homeland--thereby depriving the Met of its star soprano. The Swedish Wagnerian tenor Set Svanholm’s debut, scheduled for that year, was delayed until 1946; he was unable to book a clipper reservation and refused to make the dangerous ocean voyage. And there was Ettore Panizza who, uninterruptedly since 1934, had been principal conductor of the Met’s Italian repertoire. In June 1942, he canceled his 1942-43 appearances for fear of wartime travel.

All this left Edward Johnson, the Met general manager from 1935 to 1950, in the precarious position of having to cast productions without the European singers on whom the Metropolitan had relied since its inception in 1883. The Americanization of the company that had, from the beginning, been axiomatic to the Canadian-born Johnson’s regime as a matter of principle, by 1939 had become a matter of necessity. In May 1942, he told the Metropolitan board, “The day is gone for an operatic manager to have any such surprise as the withdrawal of so many performers who had been contracted in store.  His function is undergoing an inevitable transition from the purveyance of established foreign success to  the discovery and development of native talent.” The company’s future would depend on a gifted and well-trained cadre of national singers. Two years later, with “reconversion … in the air,” Johnson wrote that the curtain would rise on “what is predominantly an American opera company.” That fall, “nearly two-thirds of the singing personnel [had] been actually born in this country.” America would soon move from “importer of talent” to “producer of talent” and ultimately to “exporter of talent” (Times, Nov. 26, 1944). Johnson had gotten ahead of himself. In the Met of the 1940s, new American stars, however lustrous, were insufficiently numerous to compensate for the European absentees. Among those pressed into service were Regina Resnik, the subject of the next post, and Astrid Varnay.

Born in Sweden to Hungarian opera singers, Varnay was brought to New York as a small child. She made her Met debut at age twenty-three on December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Varnay, who had been trained in New York, had never before appeared as a professional on any stage. Stepping in for the indisposed Lotte Lehmann, in Lehmann’s signature role, Sieglinde, the young soprano was cast opposite none other than the world’s premier heldentenor, Lauritz Melchior. Fortuitously for us, and accessible on Youtube, this event fell on a Saturday matinee. The transcription of the broadcast documents the performance not of an inexperienced tyro but of a compelling interpreter of the role. The Times reviewer noted a voice of “innate beauty” and warned the company against impairing its quality by casting Varnay in such heavy parts. But, absent the Met’s leading Wagnerians Australian Marjorie Lawrence (felled by polio) and Flagstad, Varnay was immediately called upon to share roles with the American Helen Traubel.

There is no doubt that early years of hard use took the bloom off Varnay’s voice; in compensation, she developed a sumptuous instrument, capable of surmounting the most brazen orchestral surges, and a personality made to the heroic measure of Brünnhilde, Isolde, and Elektra. Those who predicted that her career would be curtailed by the overparting to which she was subjected in her early twenties were proved wrong. She sang leading dramatic soprano roles for three decades, first at the Metropolitan, then in Europe’s major houses, before taking on the mezzo repertoire for another twenty-five years.

Here is Varnay in a 1949 New York Philharmonic broadcast from Carnegie Hall. Tireless in meeting the daunting demands of Strauss, with mounting excitement and deep reserves of tone, she traces the arc of Elektra’s nine-minute-long opening monologue: her despair and loneliness, the grizzly recital of the death of her father, Agamemnon, murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover, the bloody revenge Elektra and her brother will wreak on the assassins, the sacrifice of horses and hounds, the siblings’ triumphal dance. When Varnay sang the role at the Met in 1952, she was hailed for her “musical accuracy, total propulsion, and continuing freshness of sound so rare in this part as to be almost unheard of.”

Varnay’s career as a Met soprano ended in 1956. (She returned as a principal mezzo between 1974 and 1979.) During her soprano period, Wagner accounted for most of her activity, followed by Strauss. She did, however, sing a few performances of Cavalleria rusticana and Simon Boccanegra; the latter, in spring 1950, was an important and well received revival of Verdi’s opera. Varnay and Leonard Warren, another star member of the Met’s Americanization project, made a commercial recording of the Amelia-Boccanegra recognition scene. A lyric sorpano’s float above the staff is not encompassed by Varnay’s dark instrument anchored in the middle register. Nonetheless, her Amelia comes alive through incisive phrasing and scrupulous musicianship and validates her partnership with Warren, the compleat Verdi baritone.