Metropolitan Opera House Opens in New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From its opening in 1883, the Metropolitan Opera House has featured the world’s most famous performers. Despite a catastrophic fire in 1892 that shut it down for a year, the opera house became a significant musical and social landmark in New York City, one that remains central to the city’s cultural life.

Summary of Event

The impetus for the construction of the Metropolitan Opera House (commonly known as the Met) was the inability of wealthy Manhattan socialites to obtain box seats at the New York Academy of Music. These socialites resolved to found a new opera house—one that not only would provide them seats but also could measure up to the great opera houses of Europe. The house opened in 1883, and, despite being shut down in 1892 because of a fire, Fires;theaters it became one of the world’s most famous opera houses during the late nineteenth century, putting the world’s finest singers onstage for sold-out performances that were both musical and social events. Opera;New York City New York City;Metropolitan Opera House Metropolitan Opera House Architecture;Metropolitan Opera House New York Academy of Music [kw]Metropolitan Opera House Opens in New York (Oct. 22, 1883) [kw]Opera House Opens in New York, Metropolitan (Oct. 22, 1883) [kw]Opens in New York, Metropolitan Opera House (Oct. 22, 1883) [kw]New York, Metropolitan Opera House Opens in (Oct. 22, 1883) Opera;New York City New York City;Metropolitan Opera House Metropolitan Opera House Architecture;Metropolitan Opera House New York Academy of Music [g]United States;Oct. 22, 1883: Metropolitan Opera House Opens in New York[5320] [c]Architecture;Oct. 22, 1883: Metropolitan Opera House Opens in New York[5320] [c]Music;Oct. 22, 1883: Metropolitan Opera House Opens in New York[5320] [c]Theater;Oct. 22, 1883: Metropolitan Opera House Opens in New York[5320] Abbey, Henry Vianesi, Auguste Nilsson, Christine Seidl, Anton Lehmann, Lilli

Opera first came to New York City in 1825, when French and Italian operas were performed at the Park Theatre. The first concert venue dedicated specifically to opera performance was the Italian Opera House, which opened its doors in 1833; however, the Italian Opera House became merely one of three short-lived and only moderately successful opera houses in New York. It burned down just six years after its opening, and its two successors, Palmo’s Opera House and the Astor Place Opera House, lasted for four and five seasons, respectively.

The Academy of Music opened on October 2, 1854, and became the mainstay for New York opera-goers for more than thirty years, as well as a venue for concert performances. It boasted the largest stage in the world. Audiences flocked to the Academy of Music, but only partly to see the operatic masterpieces being performed on the stage: One of the attractions of opera-going was seeing the wealthy socialites in their private boxes, which were in prominent view on either side of the stage. In essence, the occupants of the boxes, “old money” New York socialites of the so-called Knickerbocker aristocracy, were part of the show (and perhaps the entire show) for the rest of the audience.

The Metropolitan Opera House, on the corner of Thirty-Ninth Street and Broadway in Manhattan.

(Library of Congress)

Many wealthy New Yorkers, including members of the Vanderbilt and Roosevelt families, were unable to obtain boxes at the Academy of Music and thus were unable to show off themselves and their wives to the public. As the famous singer Lilli Lehmann Lehmann, Lilli once described it, the men wanted their wives to “dazzle” the audience from the boxes. Frustrated with this unavailability, as well as with the academy’s reluctance to construct new boxes to their liking, a group of millionaires founded the board of directors for what was to become New York’s central operatic institution, the Metropolitan Opera House. The house, located at Broadway and Thirty-Ninth Street, was to contain many boxes, to which board members would have free and constant access but which would also be available for purchase by other wealthy New Yorkers. The “family circle” would provide cheaper seats to the rest of the public.

After initially convening on April 10, 1880, the board of directors obtained their site the next year, and the doors to the Metropolitan Opera House opened on the night of October 22, 1883, with a performance of French composer Charles Gounod’s Gounod, Charles Faust Faust (Gounod) (pr. 1859). The performance featured the renowned Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson Nilsson, Christine and was conducted by Auguste Vianesi Vianesi, Auguste . During the first season (1883-1884), mostly French and Italian operatic staples were performed, including Georges Bizet’s Carmen Carmen (Bizet) (pr. 1875), Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore trovatore, Il (Verdi) (pr. 1853), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus [p]Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus;opera music Don Giovanni (pr. 1787). The acting director and producer for the Met was Henry Abbey Abbey, Henry , a noted theater producer who had little operatic experience. Abbey left after the first season, giving way to German producer Leopold Damrosch.

For the next seven seasons, the Met produced almost exclusively German operas, including works by German composer Richard Wagner Wagner, Richard [p]Wagner, Richard;operas . A disciple and friend of Wagner, Anton Seidl Seidl, Anton , became music director of the Met in 1885, and directed the first American performance of Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle (Wagner) Der Ring des Nibelungen (pr. 1869-1876; The Ring of the Nibelung, commonly known as the Ring cycle) in January of 1889. The Ring cycle was taken on tour and performed in seven other cities during the 1888-1889 season. Notable singers who performed at the Met during this period included Christine Nilsson Nilsson, Christine , Marianne Brandt, Lilli Lehmann Lehmann, Lilli , Amalie Materno Materno, Amalie , and Albert Niemann Niemann, Albert . At that time, New York had a very large German-speaking population, and the heavy emphasis on German operas brought large audiences to the house. By now, the Met had usurped the Academy of Music as the main opera house in New York, and the academy closed its doors in 1886.

However, the emphasis on German opera, including the long, heavy Wagnerian works that bored some audiences, ended in 1891, when the board decided to shift back to the Met’s original emphasis on French and Italian opera; this decision coincided with the rehiring of Henry Abbey Abbey, Henry . Singers such as Emma Eames Eames, Emma , Emma Albani Albani, Emma , and Jean Lassalle Lassalle, Jean were with the Met during the 1891-1892 season. Misfortune struck the Met on August 27, 1892, when a workman allegedly dropped a cigarette in a backstage paint room, starting a massive fire Fires;theaters that caused major damage to the interior of the opera house and required it to be shut down for the 1892-1893 season.

Ironically, the fire brought about several much-needed improvements to the building. Board members and stockholders raised money to help with the reconstruction, which began in April, 1893. The one-season break in productions and the money raised for the Met’s reconstruction allowed some of the budget issues that had arisen during the “German years” to be resolved. The Met reopened on November 27, 1893, again with a performance of Gounod’s Faust, Gounod, Charles Faust (Gounod) featuring the great Emma Eames in the lead female role and Jean and Edouard de Reszkes Reszkes, Edouard de as Faust and Mephistopheles. The opera house quickly reassumed its role as the center of cultural life in New York City.

Significance

Since its beginnings during the late nineteenth century, the Metropolitan Opera House has remained a musical, cultural, and social epicenter in New York City, attracting audiences from all levels of society to see the finest performers in the world. Its illustrious history in the twentieth century included the tenure of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini Toscanini, Arturo (1908-1915); the tenure of perhaps the Met’s greatest star, Enrico Caruso Caruso, Enrico , who appeared in six hundred opera performances at the Met; and the relocation of the opera house to its current location at Lincoln Center in 1966. Lincoln Center now houses not only the Met but also the Avery Fisher Hall, the New York Public Library, and the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. In short, the Met is one of the world’s preeminent opera houses and has been such since its opening in 1883.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allison, John. Great Opera Houses of the World. London: Rolls House, 2004. Contains a detailed architectural study of the Metropolitan Opera House.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johanna Fiedler. The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2001. A candid and entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes activities at the Met, told by a former press representative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolodin, Irving. The Metropolitan Opera, 1883-1966. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1966. Examines the eighty-three years of opera at the original location at Thirty-Ninth Street and Broadway.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Martin. The Met: One Hundred Years of Grand Opera. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Well-illustrated study of the Met and its performances from 1883 to 1983.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">The Metropolitan Opera. www.metopera.org. The official Web site of the Metropolitan opera, upgraded in March of 2005, whose history database contains detailed accounts of every performance since 1883, as well as facsimiles of programs, portraits, and stage set designs. Accessed February 20, 2006.

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