Special performances Gustav Mahler with the MET
In the summer of 1908, Heinrich Conried made one last effort at that impossible task, managing the Metropolitan Opera. His four seasons had been filled with controversy and disagreement, all compounded by his own lack of operatic knowledge. He had inherited Enrico Caruso’s contract from his predecessor but out of ignorance reduced his first season’s performances by half. His success in breaking the Bayreuth Festival’s hold on Wagner’s Parsifal had been balanced by his presentation of Richard Strauss’s Salome, which scandalized the Real Estate Company that owned the Opera House; Salome was banned after one performance and a scheduled series conducted by Strauss himself canceled. And luck, that necessary ingredient in any theatrical endeavor, had avoided him altogether.
On tour in San Francisco, his company was caught in the 1906 earthquake, escaping without loss of life but with sets and costumes, music and musical instruments all destroyed. The company returned to New York with operatic warfare on the horizon. Oscar Hammerstein had built his Manhattan Opera House on West 34th Street and would in 1906-7 provide serious competition, not just with singers that the Met seemed to know nothing about, but with a chief conductor, Cleofonte Campanini, better than anyone on the Met’s roster. In May 1907 Conried wrote about conductors to James H. Hyde, one of his board members, “You speak of negotiations with Mottl and you suggest Nikisch. I have been in negotiations with Nikisch for the last four years, and I will name the rest of the existing leading conductors to whom I made offers since the day I became manager of the Conried Opera Company – Richter, Schuch, Weingartner, Muck, Strauss, Mahler, Mader; Nikisch for instance, has a binding contract with the Philharmonic societies of Berlin and Hamburg, and the Gewandhaus Conzerte in Leipzig.
Those three cities two and four hours apart, give Mr. Nikisch a clear income of about 130,000.00 Marks in not quite seven months. What could I offer him?… P. S. Toscanini to whom I sent special agent to Milan, replied that no financial consideration would persuade him to an engagement in America, and the reports concerning Mugnoni [Mugnone] were such as to give me the conviction that he would be impossible with our orchestra, after two days.”
Finally, on June 6, 1907, Conried cabled from Bad Nauheim, a spa near Frankfurt where he had gone for his failing health:
I AM HAPPY TO ANNOUNCE THE ENGAGEMENT OF THE VERY BEST OF ALL MUSICAL DIRECTORS GUSTAV MAHLER FOR THREE MONTHS EACH SEASON AT VERY FAVORABLE TERMS LILI LEHMANN WENT PERSONALLY TO MAHLER FOR HAMMERSTEIN OFFERING HIM EXORBITANT TERMS TO DIRECT LOHENGRIN TANNHAEUSER AND TRISTAN MAHLER NEGOTIATED WITH MY KNOWLEDGE AND CONSENT I RECEIVED THE SANCTION TO ENGAGE MAHLER FIVE WEEKS AGO THROUGH OBERHOFMEISTER PRINCE MONTENUOVO BUT EMPERORS CONSENT HAS TO BE GRANTED…. CONRIED.
News of Mahler’s engagement reached the New York papers two days later. Through the dozen or so newspapers and magazines that avidly covered operatic events, one can trace mounting anticipation of Mahler’s arrival coupled with the disintegration of Conried’s health. By June 24, the Mail headlined: “Conried Still Ill; May Not Return” and followed with the information “Herr Mahler will be Mr. Conried’s successor as director of the Metropolitan Opera House.” The Telegraph found him better on July 23 and observed, “He walks with difficulty, and two sticks. But legs are no more an essential to an impresario than intellect to a tenor.” In August, some of Conried’s bad luck extended to a deaf Swiss peasant who was run down and killed by Conried’s automobile as he toured outside Zurich.
Accounts of Mahler concentrated on his discipline in Vienna: “MAHLER, MARTINET IN OPERA DIRECTION,” said The New York Times in August. By December the same paper was specific: “Mahler reformed everything: the orchestra, the company. the scenic decorations: nothing escaped his attention, the least chorus singer no more than the prima donna. He was orchestral conductor, singer, actor, stage manager, scene painter, costumer. He even reformed the ballet. The day he began this reform it was thought his fall was near at hand…. But they were mistaken about the solidity of the director’s position, as well as about the faithfulness of the ballet’s friends – especially when the director began to put young and pretty dancers in the front rows.”
Mahler and his wife Alma sailed for America on December 11: “When the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria steamed up to Cherbourg … there were the Mahlers, hand in hand, waiting at the dock. Alois Burgstaller [one of the Met’s heldentenors] was on board, and he and others cheered Mahler up so that the voyage, though long, wasn’t half bad after all, and Mahler played for Burgstaller at the ship’s concert off Nantucket on Friday. As the huge steamer neared the Battery he showed keen interest in the Statue of Liberty and the other large, if not necessarily impressive, monuments which greeted him. Gustav Mahler is a tall, dark, unusual looking be-spectacled man, with a worn and haggard face, marked with deep lines that seem to tell of a nervous and artistic temperament.” (American, December 22, 1907)
Mahler was met by assistants to Conried and Alfred Hertz, the conductor. It was Saturday, and after a stop at the Hotel Majestic, Mahler had his first sight of the Metropolitan Opera House when he sat in Conried’s box for the matinee of Tosca with Caruso, Emma Eames, and Antonio Scotti. On Sunday afternoon, he was at Carnegie Hall for Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra in a program that included Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and a Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto played by Teresa Carreno.
Mahler’s wife, Alma, has described their first social occasion in New York: “Andreas Dippel, who was then business-manager of the Metropolitan, took us to lunch with the super-god Conried, who was already a cripple from tabes and showed unmistakable signs of megalomania. This first, fantastic luncheon-party, the flat itself and our hosts’ utter innocence of culture, kept us in concealed mirth until we were in the street again and could burst out laughing.
In Conried’s smoking-room, for example, there was a suit of armor which could be illuminated from within by red lights. There was a divan in the middle of the room with a baldachino and convoluted pillars, and on it the godlike Conried reclined when he gave audience to the members of the company. All was enveloped in somber, flounced stuffs, illuminated by the glare of colored electric lights. And then, Conried himself, who had ‘made’ Sonnenthal and was now going to ‘make’ Mahler.” [Page 128, Gustave Mahler, Memories and Letters, by Alma Mahler, edited by Donald Mitchell, The Viking Press, NY, 1969]
The following Monday, “Mr. Conried introduced [Mahler] to the [Metropolitan] orchestra, and after a few words of greeting he took up the baton for a rehearsal of the Tristan score. He had not proceeded far when he characteristically proclaimed: ‘All other rehearsals in the theater must cease.’ A chorus rehearsal going on in another room was thereupon stopped” (Musical America, December 28, 1907). Mahler surprised everyone with his manners. “The man who was expected to rule by stern commands, by angry glances, by sharp, unsympathetic criticisms, was as mild and as gentle as the proverbial lamb.
His suggestions were made in the kindliest tone of voice and in the most considerate manner possible. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if such and such a phrase were sung this way’ would come the query, and ‘how much more effective to subdue the brasses here, don’t you think?’
“Artists, members of the orchestra, the chorus and those who are responsible for the stage effects, alike were disarmed by the courtesy with which criticisms were offered and with the trust of every one submitted. Instead of a bear here was a man who meant truly to be director and a comrade. The result was amazing and the first rehearsal concluded with those taking part enthusiastic to the last degree.
“‘A very good orchestra here,’ remarked Mr. Mahler after the men had filed out of the pit. ‘There is good material and I believe I can do great things with it.'” (The World, January 5, 1908)
Singing her first Isolde anywhere was Olive Fremstad, who had coached the role with Mahler in Vienna the previous summer. Burgstaller had been requested by Mahler but injured his shoulder when thrown from a dog cart in Hoboken and was replaced by Heinrich Knote as Tristan.
Mahler’s debut on January 1, 1908, was the last great coup of Conried’s management. The gala audience included two New York Isoldes, Lillian Nordica, in blue satin, and Johanna Gadski, in black. “When the Metropolitan’s new musical director first appeared in the orchestra pit half the persons in the parquet rose to get a good view of him, and there was thunderous applause from every part of the auditorium. He bowed dignifiedly took his seat in his chair” (Press). There was enthusiastic applause after every act and a magnificent laurel wreath at one of the curtain calls.
All the newspapers were struck by Mahler’s consideration for the singers, his mastery of orchestral balance. W. J. Henderson’s review of Tristan und Isolde in the Sun summarizes the response of all New York critics. “From the beginning of the vorspiel not a full forte of trumpets and trombones was heard till Isolde raised the cup to her lips and then it came with the crash of a catastrophe…. He held to the firmest and most finely spun texture the iridescent web of tone in which Wagner enmeshed his ideas…. [B]est of all, the eloquent variety of Wagner’s orchestration was displayed by the simple process of bringing out clearly every solo phrase, while the harmonic and contrapuntal background was never slighted.” However, Henderson and many others pointed out that none of this was new, that Anton Seidl “did all these things in the brave days of old, when there were also mighty singers in the land.”
Richard Aldrich elaborated in The New York Times: “In the old days of Seidl there used to be a complaint from the boxes, so it is said, that the music of Tristan was too soft, that it was not possible to converse comfortably without arousing anger in the pit. It was this kind of reading that Mr. Mahler achieved…. His methods in the conductor’s chair are straightforward and direct. His beat is uncommonly sharp, decided, and angular, and his attention is alertly directed at all points, seemingly, at once. It is significant that his left hand was almost constantly used in the Tristan performance to check and subdue.
He gives the unmistakable impression of a man of commanding authority and of keen insight. It was noted in this journal that Mr. Mahler’s tempi in Tristan are in some passages somewhat more rapid than we have been accustomed to — whereby he is differentiated at once from the prevailing Bayreuth school of conductors upon whom the influence is always toward deliberation and even dragging of the movement. Mr. Mahler’s tempi in Tristan are made for the enhancement of the dramatic effect, to keep the blood of life pulsing in the score; yet there was nothing subversive in them or destructive of the musical values. The skillful and elastic modification of tempo is one of the touchstones of fine dramatic conducting, and in this respect Mr. Mahler showed himself a master. There were innumerable instances of it through the score; take, for instance, the approach to the climax of the prelude. How often is this driven on with an obvious hurrying of the beat! Mr. Mahler made an acceleration that was wellnigh imperceptible as it advance, yet when he arrived at the climax the beat was materially increased.
It followed from the poetic subtlety and refinement of Mr. Mahler’s reading that the voices were tiven rights of which it is certain Wagner never intended them to be deprived. Chief of these is to be heard, and (if the singers’ diction is of the true kind) understood. The orchestral part had all its beauty, all its dramatic power and effectiveness; it had all the contrast and variation of power, of accent, of crescendo and climax. Yet it did not drown the voices, and here, too, was an added beauty brought into prominence that has not always been heard in Wagnerian performances, that of the blending of voices with the orchestral tone.” [January 5, 1908] Aldrich complained after the second performance that “it is unfortunate that so many found it necessary to enter during the Prelude and leave before the Liebestod.” [January 10, 1908]
Although a master of balance between voices and instruments, Mahler appears to have made one serious miscalculation. The Press was only one of several papers that criticized his cuts. Under a headline reading “MAHLER MUTILATES WAGNER SCORE” was this:
“Many persons who heard the last act of Tristan und Isolde as performed last night in the Metropolitan Opera House wondered whether Mahler would have dared to present Wagner’s score in such abbreviated form abroad, or whether he had reserved this slashing for the “musical barbarians” of New York. Mahler is a great conductor, a great musician, But if he wishes to retain the respect of American opera-goers, he will have to treat them as intelligent lovers of music, whose experience of Wagner opera is not of today. Unless the important portions of Tristan und Isolde which Mahler sees fit to omit, are restored speedily, operagoers will feel they are being defrauded of that which they have a right to expect” (The Press, January 10, 1908). An account in the Evening Sun shows less outrage: “The opera, being German, began at the impossible hour of 7:45 o’clock.
But Mahler is the first man since Seidl to champion Wagner ‘with the cuts,’ and he rushed the only tedious act, the last one, to a quick curtain at 11:30 o’clock, to the delight of thousands and the discomfort only of a few hundred lone women whom we last saw at the Broadway doors, still waiting for their tardy escorts. When since Seidl’s day has an Isolde sung her ‘Love’s Death’ song before midnight? Mme. [Louise] Homer’s last appeal to her mistress was omitted. Mr. [Robert] Blass found the King’s speech there abolished by his new Prime Minister.” (The heavily cut performances led by Artur Bodanzky in the 1930s were of the same length.)
In addition to Mahler, there was curiosity about Olive Fremstad. “Mme. Fremstad’s appearance as Isolde had been awaited with some misgivings. Vocally the part is longer and more fatiguing than almost any other in the soprano repertory. Moreover, it is ominously high for one who began her career as a contralto. Mme. Fremstad has shown remarkable skill in lifting her voice to a higher vocal range, and she is discretion itself in her use of it. Her singing in the first act last night was generally admirable. Only one or two high notes in her second scene with Brangane and the ensemble passage with Tristan near the close of the act seemed out of her range. In the second act the text was harder. The first and last parts of the great duet call for pure soprano tones of a Lehmann. They were frankly too high for Mme. Fremstad. But in the ‘Sink hernieder’ passage her singing was of great beauty. In the ‘Love Death’ her voice sounded tired, but then nine times out of ten Isolde has no voice left for this final scene.” As for the others: “Tristan does not find an altogether congenial interpreter in Mr. Knote.
He is hardly heroic in presence or in voice, nor has his acting romantic illusion… Vocally it was uneven. The famous passage near the close of the second act he sang very beautifully indeed… He sang well, too, in the earlier part of the last act, though the terrific climaxes later on were beyond him physically, as they are beyond almost any tenor… Mme. Homer is an authentic Brangane. The part has been played here as a second Isolde or as a sorceress and brewer of potions. Mme. Homer makes her the simple, affectionate waiting woman. She sang smoothly and tunefully last night, and in the song of warning with superb effect. Seldom does the orchestra allow the voice of Brangane to be heard distinctly in this scene. Mme. Homer was clearly audible, and most agreeably so, for she sang the long, sustained phrases with remarkable ease and vocal richness.
The Kurvenal of Mr. Van Rooy is one of the classics of the stage. If his singing is not what it was a few years ago, his impersonation is as winning as ever in its rugged sympathy. Equally fine in a small way is the Shepherd of Mr. [Albert] Reiss. The sermonizing King Marke is seldom an edifying figure. Mr. Blass’s delivery of his long homily was a fine piece of musical declamation. In the staging there were some innovations. Of these the mastless mainsail cannot be commended. But the new setting of the last act is most picturesque and a great improvement over the old one.” [The Globe, January 2, 1908]