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The Opera Quarterly 19.1 (2003) 16-27

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The Metropolitan Opera's Sunday Evening Concerts and Verdi

George Martin


IN its first sixty-three years, 1883 through the spring of 1946, the Metropolitan Opera offered annually (despite some gaps at the start) a series of concerts in its home house in New York. Most took place on Sunday evening—hence their name—and though their number and format changed over the years, in essence they remained the same.

Metropolitan artists would present a program of operatic excerpts—arias, duets, ensembles—as well as non-operatic songs, the latter ranging in style from Schubert, Brahms, or Tosti to dramatic ballads, such as Walter Damrosch's setting of Kipling's "Danny Deever," or settings by others of the lyric poems of Robert Burns, such as "John Anderson My Jo" and "Comin' Thro' the Rye." Typically, the operatic numbers would be accompanied by the orchestra in the pit and the songs by a piano onstage, often with the singer at the keyboard. In addition, the company's chorus might offer a number or accompany a soloist, the orchestra play a prelude or overture, or the dancers present an opera's ballet. But the emphasis was on the company's soloists, in operatic excerpts they themselves presumably had selected.

There was an exception, however. Singers sometimes shared the stage with a virtuoso instrumentalist, such as Pablo Casals or Josef Hofmann, who would play some cello or piano solos and then, as the major work, a concerto with the orchestra. On the first such occasion, 9 December 1883, the artist was Lino Mattioli, a cellist from Milan, who played a Concerto in A major by Georg Eduard Goltermann. On the last, 26 April 1940 and a most untypical concert, two violinists were featured, Fritz Kreisler and Albert Spalding. After each had played his solo pieces, for a finale they joined the orchestra in Bach's Concerto in D minor.

During the 1930s singing in costume became more frequent, and the program's arias, duets, and trios now frequently expanded into full scenes. At the [End Page 16] same time the company's ballet corps, in part because of the direction of George Balanchine (1935-38), presented more dances, and the orchestra increased its role with more overtures, suites, and intermezzos. Yet the basic aim continued as before: to offer an evening of operatic excerpts for the public's entertainment and, no less important, for its education.

The public, no doubt, already knew well the excerpt most frequently sung, the quartet from Rigoletto.In the forty-one years from 1883 to 1923-24 (seven years without concerts and an eighth with only two), 1 the famous ensemble was sung at least forty-two times, not including instant repeats, sometimes demanded, and not including its appearance thrice in the guise of Liszt's piano transcription. 2 But how many of the audience in 1892 were familiar with Verdi's tenor aria from Jérusalem, "Je veux encore entendre ta voix" (his French version of "La mia letizia infondere" from I Lombardi) or in 1907 with his aria for baritone, "O vecchio cor" from I due Foscari?In the concerts' sixty-three years, each was sung only once. 3 Still, singers scheduled their favorite but unfamiliar arias, hoping to stir calls for an immediate repeat, or to have a chance to reschedule it several concerts later, or even perhaps, if the artist was a draw at the box office, to persuade the management to revive an old opera in a new production.

The printed programs, however, forbade encores. And at the frequent "All Wagner Concerts" the rule was observed. But at concerts with selections from French and Italian composers, it continually was broken. In response to cries from the audience, the gracious artist might repeat the aria just sung or offer an alternative. At a concert on 5 December 1915, Sophie Braslau, intending to sing as an encore the Habanera from Carmen, on discovering the orchestra did not have the music, sat down at the...