Metropolitan Opera Opens in New York City

The Metropolitan Opera House (the Met) in New York City, then located on Broadway at 39th Street in New York City, opened on October 22, 1883, with a performance of Charles Gounod’s Faust, the tale of a German sorcerer who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, power, youth, and love. The opera, although composed in French and based on Goethe’s German poem, was sung on this occasion in Italian, the favored language of the Met’s early management.

Did you knowa…I make every month de arrangements for de Italian opera? It is ten times so much refreshing as de movies…It is marvelous. It causa to swell de heart…you never heard de music so sweeta. Yes, de words are de words of Italy. But de fine music, it isa de same in all language. It conquer de spirit. It maka to soar de soul…De price is fifty cents.

[Interview with Vito Cacciola]. Merton R. Lovett, interviewer; Connecticut, March 24, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Metropolitan Opera House, Ne[w York City]. c1905. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
Geraldine Farrar in La Tosca. Photograph of a painting by George Burroughs Torrey. c[between 1900 and 1920]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

The Metropolitan OperaExternal has attracted talented artists from around the world. In its early days, the Met was graced with such legendary conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Gustav Mahler, and the great singers Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, and Christine Nilsson. Since 1966, the Metropolitan Opera has made its home at the Lincoln Center for the Performing ArtsExternal in New York City; opera vocalists such as Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price have performed there.

Historically, opera houses have served a variety of functions in towns and cities across the country hosting community dances, fairs, plays, and vaudeville shows as well as operas and other musical events such as Jenny Lind’s tour. “That old Opera House used to be going every night in the week, pretty near, during the winter season,” Charles Smith recalled in his recollections of life in Thomaston, Connecticut. Smith shared especially fond memories of the community dances he had attended at the Thomaston Opera House:

Opera House and American National Bank, Pensacola, Florida. [between 1900 and 1906]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Explore the rich collection of photographs of opera houses from the turn-of-the-century. Search the collection Detroit Publishing Company on the keywords opera house.

You’d get down to the Opera House just before eight, it wasn’t stylish to be late those days; and when you got there, you’d escort your girl as far as the ladies’ room, and leave her there, and then you’d join the other lads in the gent’s room, and put on your dancing pumps. Then you’d go back and wait…you’d always have to wait…while she finished her primping, and when she came out you’d escort her to a seat, and wait for the grand march to be called…Usually, the dance would break up at midnight, because all the lights in town went out then. Sometimes, for the big affairs, they’d notify the Power House to keep the current on until one.

[Folklore of Clockmaking]. Francis Donovan, interviewer; Charles Smith, interviewee; Connecticut, December 7, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Dances such as those described by Smith followed an established pattern of etiquette described in detail in many how-to books published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They began, as he recalls, with a Grand March such as that described in the section on “The March” in the 1890 manual, Wehman Bros Book on The Way to Dance: A Book Which Teaches the Art of Dancing Without a Master. The Grand March was followed by sets of quadrilles, contra-dances, round dances, waltzes, polkas, and other dances.

During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration provided jobs for unemployed composers, musicians, and singers through the Federal Music Project which provided classical opera and operetta performances, as well as orchestra and band concerts and free music lessons to the public in cities and towns across America. The Works Progress Administration employed artists through the Federal Art Project to create colorful theatrical posters advertising the Federal Music Project performances.

WPA in Ohio Federal Music Project presents Verdi’s grand opera “Il Trovature… Ohio: Federal Art Project, 1936 or 1937. Posters: WPA Posters. Prints & Photographs Division
Carmen“: Presented by Cuyahoga County Opera Association and the Federal Music Project…. John LaQuatra, artist; Ohio: Federal Art Project, 1939.Posters: WPA Posters. Prints & Photographs Division
Cavalry Guild Presbyterian Church presents Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore. Earl Schuler, artist; Ohio: WPA Federal Art Project in Ohio, 1939. Posters: WPA Posters. Prints & Photographs Division

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