In April of 1880, a group of 22 men met at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant. These were men of considerable wealth – Morgans, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts – nineteenth century industrialists, bankers, and builders. Nevertheless, they were men excluded from the inner circles of the One Percent, because they were not “old money”: they were the nouveau riche, “brazen new money.” They met that April with the goal of upsetting the Big Apple cart.
The Academy of Music opera house was the opera venue in New York City; subscribers to its limited number of private boxes represented the highest stratum in New York society. And it was a place where the old money families had circled the upper crust wagons. Tired of being excluded, the insurrectionists at Delmonico’s determined to build a new opera house that would outshine the old Academy in every way. The new theater would include three tiers of private boxes in which New York’s powerful new industrial families could flaunt their wealth and reinforce their social prominence. Their vision became reality on October 22, 1883, when the Metropolitan Opera opened for business with a production of Gounod’s Faust.
The Academy of Music’s opera season folded just three years after the Met opened. The building became a vaudeville house. One hundred and thirty years later, The Metropolitan Opera is the largest classical music organization in North America, presenting more than two dozen operas each year in a season which lasts from late September through May. The operas are presented in a rotating repertory schedule with four different works staged each week. Several operas are presented in new productions each season, while the balance are revivals of productions from previous seasons — in all, over 200 performances in a season.
And today’s audiences are a blend of old money, new money and no money at all.
What’s Opera, Doc?: A Wretched Richard Cheat Sheet
I’ve found that when I speak to friends, acquaintances, or strangers on street corners about opera, their eyes glaze over (or they run away). I see this as a fundamental lack of understanding on their part, rather than any tediousness on my part. The road to opera should not be paved with jagged rocks. It should be an easy ride, a gentle ride.
Opera is really not that difficult. Pretty much every opera goes something like this: The Tenor loves the Soprano. The Soprano loves the Tenor. Should be easy – a couple of arias and they live happily ever after. But the Baritone also loves the Soprano. Here come the drama, here come the drama. The Soprano’s daddy, a Bass, promises her to the Baritone – it’s never clear why; it just seems that daddies are not keen on Tenors. Of course, everyone on stage (except maybe the chorus) is now heartbroken, angry or lustful. They sing of their sadness, anger and lust, and Act One ends.
Act Two is all about mistaken identities. To have a secret rendezvous with the Soprano, our Tenor will pretend to be her uncle, another Bass. Because she suspects the Tenor of being unfaithful with a Mezzo-soprano, the Soprano will pretend to be her own sister and attempt to seduce him. The Baritone will pretend to be a vagabond and attempt to seduce the chorus. The audience will pretend to know what’s going on, except for a guy in the fifth row who will attempt to seduce the stranger next to him.
In Act Three, everyone is revealed for who he or she really is. The old Bass is subject to ridicule, and the Baritone is banished. The Tenor and Soprano consummate their love in the opera’s signature aria. Then they die. That’s pretty much it – unless it’s Wagner, in which case, you have valkyries and giants and dwarves, and pretty much everyone wears horns and marches off to Valhalla.
Here are the plots of a few popular operas to illustrate:
Carmen – A passionate gypsy seduces a young soldier, tosses him aside for a matador, then she dies.
Madame Butterfly – An American naval officer seduces an innocent Japanese geisha. She has his kid. He dumps her. She dies.
La Boheme – Young bohemians fall in love. He’s a poet; she has tuberculosis. They enjoy Paris. She dies.
Rigoletto – A nasty nobleman seduces his hunchbacked jester’s innocent daughter. The jester tries to get even. She dies.
So you see, it’s really just gratuitous sex and violence with beautiful music. And that’s still rock and roll to me.