Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ars et Labor: 3. The Met, 1980

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Now that the Metropolitan has reached agreements with the last of the union hold-outs, and that the 2014-15 season is scheduled to open on September 22 as originally announced, opera fans all over the world can breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a year of six new productions, including three Met premieres, and ten “Live In HD” afternoons between this October and next April. 

We conclude our survey of damaging disputes between management and labor with this post on the delayed season of 1980-81. In the news that summer, just as in this summer, were angry talks between the Met and the orchestra. As management increased its offer, the sticking point remained the maximum number of performances to which the musicians were obliged each week. And here neither side would budge. The players asserted that the demands on them were so heavy that too many suffered either physically or psychologically or both. Negotiations were declared failed on the September 2 deadline and rehearsals were suspended. Opening night was canceled. To the subsequent threat of junking the entire season, the union responded, “It’s the classic story of the boy who cried wolf” (Times, Sept. 24). This was, after all, the third time in five years that management had issued the same ultimatum. But the Met was not bluffing. On September 30, the season was canceled. The players found themselves caught between wealthy patrons who held that instrumentalists were overpaid as it was for fewer than sixteen hours of work per week, and stagehands who considered the musicians spoiled by the cushy terms of their employment, particularly as contrasted with their own. The administration feared that a prolonged delay or, worse, the cancelation of the season, would result in the same loss of subscriptions that had followed on the 1969 postponement. Eleven years later, the 16 percent drop had not been fully recovered. Talks resumed in early October at the urging of President Jimmy Carter. At this point, Joseph Volpe, then director of operations, entered the labor fray. Volpe was instrumental in brokering the four-year deal that included hiring subs for the uncovered services, a frugal solution acceptable to all.

The three-month delay had significant musical as well as fiscal consequences. Of the four projected new productions, La Traviata and Parade were heard once the labor dispute was resolved, and Così fan tutte postponed for a year. The fourth, The Queen of Spades, was scrapped. It was to star Plácido Domingo and Anna Tomowa-Sintow. Not until 1995 did Tchaikovsky’s opera receive a new investiture. Four years later, Domingo took on the role of Gherman. But New York never heard Tomowa-Sintow as Lisa. The versatile Bulgarian soprano excelled at the Met between 1978 and 1993 in Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Mozart, and Strauss, alas in only sixty-two marvelously vocalized performances. Her affinity for Tchaikovsky is evident in this concert rendering of the second part of Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin; Kurt Masur conducts the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. 

The highly anticipated opening night revival of Turandot also fell victim to the truncated season. It was to feature Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti in an opera new to them both with the company. At the time, Caballé and Pavarotti stood on the highest rung of world operatic stardom. The soprano was taking on a role associated with the stentorian Birgit Nilsson, the tenor with the clarion Franco Corelli. As documented in a 1977 San Francisco production, Caballé and Pavarotti fearlessly expend splendid fortissimo high notes for the heroic phrases of Turandot and Calaf. They also apply supple lyrical phrasing to the repeated musical patterns of the Act II riddle scene. The opportunity of opening night 1980 lost, Caballé was never to sing the imperious Chinese princess with the Met. Pavarotti took on the Unknown Prince in 1997, late in his career, long after “Nessun dorma” had become his signature anthem. 

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,