Metropolitan OperaOne hundred twenty-five years ago today, the Metropolitan Opera opened its doors with a performance of Faust. New York already had one opera house, the Academy of Music, but it didn’t have enough boxes to accommodate the swelling number of affluent New Yorkers who required them. In the spring of 1880 a disaffected group of businessmen founded the Metropolitan Opera-house Company, Ltd., with the intent of having an adequate number of boxes for the viewing of opera in style. The architectural design that was adopted may have been deficient in its rehearsal space and storage areas, but nearly a quarter of its seats were devoted to 122 boxes, guaranteeing a place of privilege to a substantial group of the city’s wealthiest opera goers. (The following season, the directors acknowledged the excess and had the top tier of boxes converted to the Family Circle.) The house was known variously as “The Yellow Brick Brewery,” for the industrial look of its exterior, and “The Golden Horseshoe,” for the shape and color of its auditorium.

Metropolitan Opera interiorFor the opening night, ticket prices ran from $50 for a box (including six seats and a spacious anteroom) to $1 for general admission. Gounod’s Faust, one of the most popular operas of its time, was presented in Italian translation, as was the tradition; all productions were in Italian in the Met’s early years. Soprano Christine Nilsson was the only singer in the cast likely to be familiar to opera lovers. The opera itself lasts about two hours and forty minutes, but the performance that night ran five and a half hours, to allow the patrons plenty of time to socialize during the work’s four intermissions. The public’s response to the new house and to the performance was rapturous, and the critics were positive. The Met was off to a roaring start!

There are obviously no audio records of that performance, but here are some selections from a 1951 Metropolitan Opera production of Faust (in French, this time), with Cesare Siepi, Eleanor Steber, and Eugene Conley.

Faust
Fausto Cleva - Faust: Le veau d'or

Fausto Cleva - Faust: Il était un roi de Thule

Fausto Cleva - Faust: Marguerite!