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Music: Gatti’s Last

4 minute read

Enrico Caruso was the tenor, Arturo Toscanini the conductor on that November night in 1908 when Giulio Gatti-Casazza mounted his first performance as manager of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera Company. The opera was A’ida, chosen by Gatti out of reverence for his friend and hero, Composer Giuseppe Verdi. Lately Gatti has been accused of being old-fashioned and reactionary. But last week as he began his farewell season at the Metropolitan, the sphinxy Gatti behaved as if he had never heard the carping. Again for the opening night he chose Aïda.

Since Depression no opera night has been so brilliant. Standees, in line for hours, found the old house with its face washed clean of grime, its lobbies sparkling with new chandeliers and trimmings. Box-office attendants were jubilant because the house was once more sold to the doors. Downstairs, subscribers were enjoying the new upholstered chairs, and a new $250,000 lighting system was at work backstage.

Society’s pageant did not properly start until the intermission when opera glasses were brought out for the annual inspection of the Diamond Horseshoe. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt was there, in hair ribbon and diamond stomacher. Goelets, Blisses and Wilsons had their oldtime boxes. In the Morgan box sat Mrs. Herbert Satterlee, Mr. Morgan’s sister. With Mrs. Watts Sherman was her granddaughter, Eileen Gillespie, who almost became Mrs. John Jacob Astor III. Missing was old Mrs. Vanderbilt, Society’s long-time peeress, and Otto Hermann Kahn, for years the Metropolitan’s best friend. Both had died within the year.

Throughout the many changes at the Metropolitan, Verdi’s melodies remained fresh and vital. And Gatti, hearing them again last week, was almost happy. The cast was the best he could provide. As the Ethiopian Aïda, Soprano Elisabeth Rethberg sang her music with fine regard for line and feeling. As her Egyptian rival, Maria Olszewska made a voluptuous Amneris. Lawrence M. Tibbett was in blackface but everyone recognized him by the power in his voice, the authority of his acting. Giovanni Martinelli sang the “Celeste Aïda” with all his might, clung to the last B flat until the gallery was almost beside itself. To crown the performance Gatti had a new conductor, Ettore Panizza, onetime conductor of the Scala in Milan. Conductor Panizza is a lean, sparse-haired man who wears pincenez and a measly mustache. But he quickly proved himself a sure-fire opera leader, made the tunes so fetching that even the boxholders were hard put to it not to whistle.

What will happen to the Metropolitan next season no one yet knows. This winter’s performances are bound to eat up the small guarantee fund raised last spring. The long-discussed merger with the Philharmonic-Symphony has been definitely dropped (TIME, Dec. 24). Board Chairman Paul Drennan Cravath and his associates will soon have to meet and decide upon a successor for Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza.

For one with his experience and acumen they will have to look far. From his musty backstage office he has guided the Metropolitan through 26 of its 49 seasons. He has kept comparative peace in a hotbed of a dozen nationalities. While his critics have accused him of running an Italian opera house he has produced 15 U. S. works. Though few were worth the price of production, no U. S. operas were ever produced at the Metropolitan before Gatti’s regime. For some of his critics it has seemed pertinent that after 26 years in Manhattan he still speaks little English. But Gatti has no gift for languages. Even his French is garbled, often inaccurate.

Until Depression Manager Gatti made Metropolitan performances pay for themselves. And although he engaged the most expensive singers he managed to set aside a surplus of $1,000,000 which lasted him into 1932. Gatti’s credo, then as now, came from Verdi who once said to him: “The theatre is meant to be full—not empty.” When the surplus was exhausted Metropolitan performances necessarily suffered.

First-nighters thought Gatti might break his rule last week, take a curtain call with the singers and the new conductor. But Gatti took his first and last bow from the Metropolitan stage in 1908, standing proudly between his friends Toscanini and Caruso.

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