Why Boston is “not an opera town.” The Boston Opera Company (1908-1915) and its upshots.
Boston Globe, January 15, 2012.
If I had to guess who first said that Boston wasn’t an opera town, I’d say Heinrich Conried, the onetime manager of the Metropolitan Opera; after disappointing Boston box office during the company’s 1905 tour, Conried bypassed the city altogether the following season. (Read between the lines of this article, for instance.) Was the founding of the Boston Opera Company and the building of the Opera House, in some small part, a riposte to Conried? The author Henry C. Lahee thought so, writing that Conried’s snub served to “fix a determination in the hearts of Bostonians to have an opera company of their own, and no longer be dependent for their annual homoeopathic dose of opera on the Metropolitan or any other visiting company.”
One of the more interesting plans surrounding the Boston Opera Company before its bankruptcy was the possibility of an “opera trust,” which would have combined the major American opera companies—Boston, the Metropolitan in New York, the Chicago Opera Theatre—into a syndicate. Instead of hiring singers on a per-appearance basis, the syndicate would have contracted singers for a full (half-year) season, during which they would appear with multiple companies. The idea was masterminded by Otto Kahn, the head of the Metropolitan, and would have been engineered through interlocking board memberships, which is why Kahn ended up on the Boston Opera Company’s board, and the BOC’s Henry Russell and the Met’s Giulio Gatti-Casazza served as “advisory associates” for each others’ companies. As was the case with the Boston Opera Company itself, World War I was the official death knell for the opera trust, though it’s easy to imagine the trust unraveling on its own as competition and the convenience of transatlantic travel increased.
Boston’s political sea-change from Brahmin to Irish neatly coincided with the Opera Company’s lifespan. Mayor Hibbard was a no-show at the groundbreaking for the Opera House; “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald was in office for the Opera Company’s early seasons; Both Honey Fitz and his successor, James Curley, saw the company off for their swan song, a 1914 European tour. (The expense of that tour, incidentally, is sometimes cited as a cause of the company’s bankruptcy, but contemporary news reports emphasize that the tour was independently financed.) One can sense, in Fitzgerald’s and Curley’s relations with the opera, the gradual widening of the gap between the ascendent Irish and venerable Yankee society. Fitzgerald might have been an Opera Company stockholder, but Curley wasn’t; and Curley seems to have gotten at least as much political capital out of the company’s demise as its survival, to judge from this report, in the November 11, 1914 Boston Evening Transcript:
MAYOR STILL THE “ANGEL”
Provides Three More Members of the Boston Theatre Opera Company with Fare to New York
Today three more members of the Boston Theatre Opera Company, making thirty in all, appeared at the office of Mayor Curley seeking car fare to New York. The mayor gave then $10 each, and, turning his empty pockets inside out, exclaimed that he had done his share for the relief of the distressed company, though inquiring if there were any more who had failed to get out of town.
Both the gesture and the presence of a reporter are pure Curley. (Though there was, from time to time, a distinct Boston Theatre Opera Company, the timing and circumstances would seem to indicate the soon-to-declare-bankruptcy Boston Opera Company.)
The notion I explore in the article, that the wedge between Brahmin society and the Italian immigrant population, in particular, tripped up any possible revival of a Boston Opera Company is, to be sure, speculation. Even more speculative, though equally interesting, is whether Bostonian anti-Semitism played a part as well. There doesn’t seem to be indication of it in the collapse of the original Opera Company—the fact that both Russell and Kahn were Jewish, for instance, rates hardly a mention in contemporary news coverage. By the 1920s and 30s, though, fueled by the Red Scare and an increasingly vocal Catholic hierarchy, anti-Semitism was rampant. In his book The Crimson Letter, historian Douglas Shand-Tucci has traced how anti-Semitism, in combination with traditional Boston prudishness, shifted the locus of modern art in America from Boston to New York—with two of his case histories being those of the Massachusetts-raised, Harvard-educated Leonard Bernstein and Lincoln Kirstein. The opera doesn’t exactly fall under the modernist umbrella, but one could make the argument that the flight of such talent only made it harder to establish a new company in Boston. Consider that the groundbreaking for Lincoln Center came only a year after the demolition of the Boston Opera House, then consider that two-thirds of Lincoln Center’s tenants were Kirstein’s New York Ballet and Bernstein’s Philharmonic, and one can get a sense of the missed opportunities.
If, indeed, anti-Semitism also indirectly contributed to the less-than-amenable operatic atmosphere in Boston, then it would be a small irony to find one of the city’s most notorious anti-Semitic demagogues, Father Leonard Feeney, lamenting (in a 1956 issue of his magazine The Point) that “Boston is a ‘symphony’ rather than an ‘opera’ town,” because of a preponderance of Jewish conductors—“with about three notable exceptions, the men who gesticulate before the chief orchestras of the nation are all Jews.” The article goes on:
Shall we start a crusade to rescue the holy precincts of Symphony Hall from the sacrilegious hands of the Jews? Shall we picket the box-office? Shall we assault the place? Storm it in mid-season? Shall we sweat and bleed and die for the right to hear Beethoven conducted by a Mayflower descendant?
After proper consideration, we think not. We think that perhaps this time we will restrain our wrath, run the risk of being labeled “above it all,” and just contemplate with medieval, Romish satisfaction, the prospect of a stuffy hall-full of heretics being serenaded by a pit-full of infidels—for all eternity.
Also: make sure to read Geoff Edgers’ autopsy of Opera Boston.