125 Years of the Metropolitan Opera

THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

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One hundred-twenty-five years ago today, the Metropolitan Opera House opened at 1411 Broadway, between 40th and 39th Streets. It had been built by a number of newly rich families — including the Vanderbilts, the Morgans
and the Rockefellers — who felt shut out at the fashionable Academy of Music on 14th Street.

The company gave a performance of Charles Gounoud’s Faust, sung not in French but in Italian, as was then the fashion. The opening night cast featured Italo Campanini as Faust and Christine Nilsson as Marguerite, with Sofia Scalchi, Mme. Lablache, Franco Novara, and Ernesto del
Puente in supporting roles. The conductor was Auguste-Charles-Leonard-Francois-Vianese. (Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence [1920] opens with a scene set at the Academy of Music during the “early seventies”: Nilsson is singing Faust, and Wharton’s narrator wittily comments on the use of Italian: “She sang, of course, ‘M’ama!’ and not ‘he loves me,’ since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”)

The original building was designed by J. Cleveland Cady; it was nicknamed “The Yellow Brick Brewery” because of its seemingly industrial interior. A fire destroyed the building on August 27, 1892, forcing the cancellation of the 1892-93 season. Although the building was completely renovated and the opera re-opened for the following season, it soon became apparent that the building’s facilities were too small for the growing company.

Various locations for a new building were proposed over the years, including Columbus Circle and the site of the present Rockefeller Center. Finally, in 1966, the company moved to its present location at Lincoln Center. The Old Met was not given landmark status, so it was torn down the following year. Its original rival, the Academy of Music, had met a similar fate forty years earlier in 1926.