Sunday, September 1, 2013

84. Rudolph Bing, Big Daddy of the Met

     When Vienna-born Rudolph Bing (1902-1997) came to the Metropolitan Opera in 1949, to observe its operation prior to becoming general manager the following year, he found a beautiful auditorium with a world-famous Diamond Horseshoe that gave box holders excellent views of each other, but a host of problems: 20 percent of the seats with limited or obstructed view of the stage; limited public areas without adequate soundproofing, so that latecomers had to be seated at once, climbing over those already seated; cramped and dirty backstage areas, so that every change of scene had to be done on the main stage while the audience waited, serenaded by banging noises behind the curtain; scenery half-covered with tarpaulins stored temporarily outside on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk, exposed to the rigors of the elements; tiny dressing rooms with bad plumbing; ancient and flimsy stage sets, so that when a soprano took a deep breath, the castle behind her could be seen to tremble; chorus, ballet, and orchestra all crowded into ill-ventilated common rooms; and undisciplined stage crews who showed up when they felt like it, talked behind the drops during performances and, worse still, smoked, the whole place being a tinderbox.  Many of these problems would be solved only with the move to the new house in Lincoln Center in 1966, sixteen long years later.

     When he assumed the duties of general manager in 1950 – a position he would hold until 1972 – what kind of immediate problems beset him?  His memos tell the tale: 

·      In the last act of Carmen, Mario del Monaco and Kurt Baum must use rubber knives, not real ones, since they so throw themselves into the role that Rise Stevens, singing Carmen, is terrified.
·      A stool should be placed in the new elevator so the old man running it doesn’t have to stand all the time.
·      Box office and ushers must stop regarding the patrons as a nuisance.
·      The machine for special effects for Don Giovanni costs too much and must be returned.
·      The paid claque has occasioned complaints from subscribers and must be eliminated.  (It never was.)
·      The orchestra must stand the first time the conductor enters the pit. 

And on and on.  And all this in addition to dealing with temperamental performers, a budget-conscious board, and entrenched and demanding unions, as well as touring this country and Europe to recruit promising new singers and remind established ones of the glory of singing at the Met.

     Who was Rudolph Bing, the man who, day in, day out, had to cope with these and a thousand other problems?  He came with solid credentials, having been the manager of the Glyndebourne Festival in England and the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.  Photos show a tall, slender man of about fifty, his receding hair neatly combed, always dressed conservatively and never garishly, with a necktie for daytime rehearsals, but dark formal wear for special occasions at night, his black bowtie perched above an immaculate shirtfront like a neat little butterfly, always placed properly, never the least bit awry.  Obviously an Old World gentleman who  exuded dignity and authority, and also, when necessary, charm.  I have never seen a photo of him in shirtsleeves or with an open collar.  For Rudolph Bing, the Met was a very special place where one should dress appropriately. 

     He was also, by all accounts, an autocrat, and it was just as well, for who else could deal with board members and singers and conductors, and keep one of the greatest opera houses in the world running efficiently and, one hopes, brilliantly.  Level-headed and patient, he had to be reigning monarch, diplomat, arbiter, psychologist, and troubleshooter all rolled into one.  But he could also be sharp: when told that a conductor with whom he had had difficulties was his own worst enemy, he quipped, “Not while I’m alive.”

     When he first witnessed opening night in 1949, he was appalled by the audience, many of whom, he soon learned, graced the Met with their presence only this once in a season: café society of the lowest order, gossip columnists, celebrity-seekers and clowns looking eagerly for any freakish occurrence that would be publicized in the press and the new medium of television.  Worse still, openings were reserved for the Monday night subscription audience, socially prominent patrons who paid no more than other subscribers.  So he at once removed the opening night from the subscription program and sold tickets for it separately and at a substantially higher price.  The head of the board was furious that his well-connected friends should lose this perquisite, but Bing insisted.

      One segment of the audience that Bing esteemed highly were the standees, whom he saw as the only source of genuine enthusiasm in the house, an enthusiasm that could become infectious.  Whenever the house resounded with exciting and well-deserved ovations, it came from the standing room, inspired the artists, and enhanced the whole tone of the evening.  As a result, he was determined that the standing room space should not be curtailed.  And when standees lined up for hours at a time for the opening night of a new season, he went out personally to serve them coffee.

     I have vivid impressions of the standees of the mid-1950s, for I was one of them.  Stealing time from my graduate studies in French at Columbia, I would get a standee ticket and wait patiently to be admitted to the house.  Usually I stood in the back of the house, and once, standing there, I was lucky enough to be given a ticket by a woman who had to leave after the first act of Boris Godunov.  For the rest of the evening I found myself seated in the middle of the twelfth row with probably the best view in the house, watching George London perform admirably in the lead role, and a spirited mazurka that filled the stage in Act III, set in Poland. 

     But I wasn’t always so lucky.  Standing for London in Don Giovanni, I found myself on the wrong side of the theater for the dramatic scene where the Don is dragged off to hell by the ghost of the Commendatore, whom he killed in the first act.  Only when London played briefly toward the center of the stage could I see his brilliant silver-clad form, stark against a dark backdrop, staggering in vain resistance against the relentless summons of his victim.  The old hands, of course, had all positioned themselves on the other side of the standing room.

     The mix of standees could be quite picturesque.  Once when I was standing in a crowd of them well up front on one side of the stage, an outrageously flamboyant gay standee arrived and was greeted warmly by the regulars.  A sailor in uniform was also on hand, having chosen to stand because it was the only way he could glimpse the fabled interior of the Met.  “Jesus, these fairies!” he exclaimed to me.  “There’s no excuse for that.”  But fifteen minutes later he was listening as another standee patiently explained the story of the opera.  This standee too was gay, but the sailor had no inkling and listened patiently.

     The Met fare was predominantly Italian, with some French thrown in, because that’s what the audience wanted, but Bing tried to do German and Russian as well.  When he first came, he thought of doing opera in English, but subscribers emphatically preferred to hear the operas in their original language, and he realized too that international stars might mispronounce English, to the amusement or indignation of the entire audience.  He also entertained the notion of occasionally presenting a new work of opera, but soon learned that, after a few performances well attended by the composer’s friends and supporters, they’d be playing to an empty house, except for some loyal and long-suffering subscribers.  The Met audience was not adventurous; they wanted the tried and true.

     And who was that audience?  One might be surprised.  My partner Bob’s parents, who lived in Jersey City, had a subscription in both the old house and the new.  Bob’s father, a subway carpenter, had learned long before, during the Depression, that after work he could pick up tickets at the Met box office for a reasonable price and so, without any musical tradition in his family, acquired a taste for opera.  He had a keen analytical mind, could appraise a singer’s voice very accurately, commenting on the high and low registers.  Bob’s mother, on the other hand, lacked this ability, but being German by birth she had a rich musical heritage from childhood and appreciated music on a deep emotional level.  Two very different ways of listening, both legitimate.  Bob inherited both.  He and his mother often heard the Met’s Easter season performance of Parsifal, listening silently, hand in hand, in a very deep and moving communion.

     Me and music:  I lacked this deep affinity with music, and if I came to love both instrumental and operatic music, it’s nothing short of a miracle, since I never learned to read music (still haven’t), couldn’t sing on key (still can’t), and dreaded music class as my worst subject in grade and junior high school.  For two dreary years, in seventh and eighth grade, I was tormented by a gray-haired little harpy, mean, tight, and dry, who professed to be a music teacher.  I still recall my dread as the class ascended the steep stairs to the third floor, where she held forth and terrorized. 

File:BWV847 measures 1-9 Fuga a 3 voci.svg
Yes, the little black dots go up and down, meaning that
the music rises and falls, but what about all that other
stuff?  Worse than algebra!

     Miss Kraus (not her real name) had the best students sit in back and worst ones in front, so they could benefit from her personal and acerbic attention; I was well toward the front.  Moving about the room, she would listen closely to each of us, and if she detected a flaw, she would stop the singing and require the offender to solo, so she could correct him (it was almost always a “him,” as she had it in for adolescent males), while referring to her victim as “this boy.”  Her criticism was edged and wounding; she never hesitated to humiliate you in front of the class.  I’ll grant her a keen sense of beauty, musical and otherwise, but of the few bad teachers that I had, she is the only one I cannot forgive.  I can still see that mean little witch, her lips pressed tight to a pitch pipe, as she surveyed her captive audience.  She once mentioned in passing how, during her childhood in Texas, she had almost been stuck in quicksand, and I have pondered ever since: God put that quicksand there for a purpose.  Why didn’t it do its job?

     Let us ascend now from the trivial to the sublimeIf Miss Kraus had her hands full with a bunch of us, Rudolph Bing had plenty to cope with in managing the Met's stellar singers.  Lauritz Melchior, on the plump side but still one of the best Wagnerian tenors in the world, simply refused to attend rehearsals; if a conductor needed to communicate with him, he could make an appointment to see Melchior in Melchior’s apartment.  Bing was more effective when Franco Corelli, running out of breath while Birgit Nilsson sustained her tone, stalked off the stage in a tizzy.  Informed, Bing rushed to Corelli’s dressing room, where he heard Corelli and his wife screaming because when, in anger, he slammed his hand down on the dressing table, he had picked up a tiny splinter that cost him a drop of blood; the wife was calling for an ambulance.  Bing calmed them, then told Corelli that, to get even, in the love scene in the next act he could bite Miss Nilsson’s ear.  This idea so delighted Corelli that he told Nilsson what he intended, thus unsettling her without the trouble of actually doing it.  Renata Tebaldi was not given to histrionics, but could be quietly and firmly insistent; Bing said she had “dimples of iron.”  On the afternoon of a matinée, Giuseppe di Stefano’s wife phoned to say, once again, how sick he was; in that case, said Bing, he was going to send an ambulance to take the singer to a hospital.  Within an hour di Stefano, hale and robust, was at the theater.  But on another occasion Bing had no solution: when Leonard Warren collapsed onstage during a performance of La Forza del Destino and died.  But the opera world has little time for mourning; the next day Bing was on the phone arranging for a baritone replacement.

For all their ups and downs, I sense real affection
here.  She was, in some ways, a little girl who
needed Big Daddy.
     No singer was more difficult to deal with than Maria Callas.  Bing first heard of her in 1950, with stories of the remarkable range of her voice and the amazing diversity of the roles she could play.  Protracted negotiations began, with much discussion of fees, schedules, and repertoire.  When he met her in Florence in 1951, he was surprised to find her fat and awkward.  Subsequently she lost fifty pounds and became the svelte, dark-featured, strikingly beautiful woman who would conquer the operatic world.  Negotiations dragged on, but Callas ended up signing with the Chicago Lyric Opera for 1954 and 1955.  Finally Bing flew to Chicago, where the Lyric Opera managers were most definitely not glad to see him, knowing that if Callas signed with the Met, Chicago would hear her no more.  Sign she did at last, but while still in Chicago she was served with a summons by a man who claimed that she had long before signed an exclusive management contract with him, which meant that in New York her earnings would have to be carefully sheltered from the claimant.  In the end her then husband, Giovanni Batista Meneghini, insisted on being paid in cash before each performance; annoyed, Bing finally paid him in five-dollar bills, to make the wad as burdensome as possible.

Callas shrieking at the process server who
 served her with a summons backstage in

Chicago.  Widely circulated, this photo
 earned her the name of the Tigress.
     Callas’s 1956 debut at the Met in Norma was less than brilliant, but by now the public’s interest in her had reached a fever pitch.  On the Saturday matinée following the debut, she sent word from her dressing room that she was unable to go on.  Rushing to her, Bing found that she was genuinely ill, but after a few words of encouragement from him she agreed to perform, thus forestalling a riot in the theater.  She then had obligations elsewhere, but agreed to return for future seasons.  In the interim she walked out in mid-performance in Rome, with the President of Italy in the audience, provoking a firestorm of criticism abroad.  Further complications developed, arising in part from Callas’s jealousy of a rival soprano, Renata Tebaldi, who also had commitments with the Met.  Finally the negotiations broke down, and the ill-informed press blazoned the headline  BING  FIRES  CALLAS.  After that there was little love between them; according to his memoir, in Milan she actually canceled a performance, for fear lest he be in the audience.  But in time both mellowed, and after she shed her husband Meneghini, always a difficult go-between, they became friends again.  In his memoir Bing emphasizes that Callas was in fact quite girlish, with an innocent dependence on others when she didn't feel she had to be wary. When Tebaldi sang an opening night Adriana Lecouvreur at the new Met in 1968, Callas was a guest in Bing’s box.  Afterward Callas agreed to go backstage to see Tebaldi; when they met, the two rivals fell into each other’s arms amid an amplitude of tears.

     There were no tears shed in Bing’s engagement with the critics, whom he viewed as frustrated musicians or conductors, ill informed and nasty.  He was well aware that good reviews get little attention, whereas bad ones get a lot.  Reviewers, he insisted, fault the Med for inadequate rehearsals, without ever having bothered to attend one.  Some of them would complain of a singer’s faulty diction in French or German, without themselves knowing a word of the language mentioned.  But Bing too could be harsh.  When columnist Dorothy Kilgallen reviewed the opening night production of the 1961-62 season, Girl of the Golden West, describing it as the story of a Negro saloon keeper and a Jewish cowboy (Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker), he was furious, and decreed that la Kilgallen should never again set foot in the hallowed precincts of the Met.  And to my knowledge, she never did.

     The move to Lincoln Center was preceded by endless negotiations and debate.  One faction on the board wanted a 5,000-seat house, which Bing knew would be far too large, taxing the singers’ lung power, dwarfing certain productions, and guaranteeing a lot of empty seats; even the 3,800 seats that he ended up with struck him as excessive.  Complicating matters was Bing’s admitted ignorance of architecture, and the architects’ and engineers’ ignorance of opera.  Some board members wanted a “popular” house with few boxes, but Bing fought for the boxes as traditional in an opera house.  There must be no seats with an obstructed view, he emphasized, and the acoustics must be perfect.  He was bitterly opposed to the City Center Opera’s also moving to the new site, deeming it an inferior company and fearing its low-priced competition – opposition that he later regretted, finding that the two houses were quite compatible and even mutually beneficial.  The move cost far more than projected, but Bing got from his board everything for which he could demonstrate a need.  When the new house opened in 1966, it had all the backstage facilities required, a splendid and acoustically sound interior, and a glass façade behind high arches, giving at night an impressive view into the interior, with its grand central staircase, and paintings on either side by Chagall.  I have seen that façade at night many times, its central location dominating the whole spacious plaza; it is indeed magnificent.

Metropolitan Opera - listen to online radio streaming

      When not being Big Daddy to the world's most renowned and temperamental opera stars, Bing lived quietly with his wife Nina at Essex House on Central Park South and rarely entertained there.  His entertaining was done at the general manager’s box at the opera house, though he rarely invited singers or conductors currently performing at the Met, or board members or donors either.  Instead, he preferred guests safely removed from the world of opera, chiefly members of the diplomatic corps, especially from the U.N.  The mayor also had access to the box, and John Lindsay brought such stellar guests as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the king of Morocco, and Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel.  Courteous and urbane, Bing surely could exchange small talk – or talk not so small – with all of them.

     By the early 1970s Bing was ready to retire from the Met.  The problems and crises were predictable, the work had lost its challenge.  When he stepped down in 1972, Sir Rudolph (a British citizen, he had been knighted by the queen the year before) tried his hand at teaching, didn’t like it, then found more congenial employment at Columbia Artists Management.  His wife died in 1983, and four years later he surprised everyone when, at 85, he married a woman of 47 who already had three marriages to oldsters under her belt, and three hospitalizations for psychiatric causes; the tabloids ate it up.  But in 1989 a court annulled the marriage, deeming Sir Rudolph too affected by Alzeimer’s to enter responsibly into such a serious commitment.  He died in 1997.

     There is little doubt that Rudolph Bing was one of the great general managers of opera, producing time and again – especially in the early years -- memorable productions with singers and conductors of the highest order.  His memoir gives an idea of the difficulties he constantly faced and often – though not always – overcame.  “There are two sighs of relief every night in the life of an opera manager,” he said.  “The first comes when the curtain goes up.  The second comes when the final curtain goes down without any disaster, and one realizes, gratefully, that the miracle has happened again.”  For twenty-two years his whole life was the Met, where under his supervision the miracle happened over and over again.

     Me and opera:  Though my knowledge of opera lacks the breadth and depth that my partner Bob and our friend John display, I will impose my likes and dislikes anyway.  Here goes!

·      My favorite opera: Lucia di Lammermoor.  A tough choice, given the competition.  Tomorrow it may be Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos or something else.
·      The most impressive production I’ve ever seen:  Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten with Leonie Rysanek at the new Met, Karl Bohm conducting.  It was epic, almost cosmic, taking full advantage of the new house’s huge stage and advanced technology.
·      The most painful scene to watch:  Long ago, the presentation of the rose in the City Center’s Der Rosenkavalier.  The attendants raised their right arm in salutation, then were obliged to hold the arm up throughout the entire scene.  Of course their arms sagged, then stiffened, then sagged again.  Painful for them to do, painful for the audience to watch.
·      The most ludicrous production: Lohengrin, as attempted ingloriously by a provincial company in Besançon, France, in the late fall or winter of 1951.  Besançon, where I was studying, was, in Gallic parlance, a trou, a hole, and any opera company that played there had to be at the bottom of the heap.  I sat with the other students up near the heavens, where we could see the Lohengrin, an elderly  who should long since have been put out to pasture, waiting in the wings for his entrance.  The company’s technical skills were such that, in the last act, where the swan is transformed into a young boy, the flat pasteboard swan was simply pushed over and a boy ran onto the stage.  But the high point of the night had come in the first act when a stagehand, needing to fix something onstage, crept out on all fours behind some scenery, thinking himself unseen by the audience.  But he was creeping in front of some lights that cast his shadow, greatly magnified, on a backdrop.  At the sight of this huge creeping shadow, the students howled, setting the tone for the evening.  As we all left afterward, one of the French students remarked, “On a bien rigolé!” – which comes off as, “We’ve had a blast!”  Indeed we had.
·      The house where I always had a good view of the stage, where every scene was skillfully directed, and where I paid the least: the Amato Opera on the Bowery, now, alas, deceased.  So what if the stage was tiny, the orchestra a piano and a handful of other instruments, and the chorus’s entry down the main aisle so close that they brushed you in passing and almost sat in your lap?  That was all part of the charm of it, and somehow it all worked.  Anthony Amato made no claim to be a Rudolph Bing, but he directed his performers with skill; they actually acted!  The voices weren’t of the caliber of the Met’s, but Bob usually assured me that one or two had real promise, might have a distinguished career.  I miss the Amato keenly.

File:Amato Opera 319 Bowery jeh.JPG
Gone but not forgotten.

     I have asked Bob for his three most exceptional performances, for he is much more knowledgeable than I am.  Here they are:

1.    Zinka Milanov in Andrea Chénierher farewell performance at the old Met.
2.    Magda Olivero in Tosca at the new Met.
3.    George London and Leonie Rysanek in The Flying Dutchman at the old Met.

     Source note:  Much of the information in this post comes from Rudolph Bing's memoir, 5000 Nights at the Opera, published in 1972.  It is quite readable and conveys the excitement and woes of managing a major opera house.  The illustrations are excellent.

     Coming soon:  Next Wednesday, another post on Colorful New Yorkers: The Mad Poet of Broadway, Fernandy, and the Mephistopheles of Wall Street.  Next Sunday, September 8: Walter Winchell, a New Kind of Terrorist (with a glance at the super-exclusive Stork Club, where I once got partway in).  In the works: Fifth Avenue: from goats to greatness, and how Mrs. Vanderbilt outmaneuvered Mrs. Astor with help from Bo Peep and the Electric Light.  

©  2013  Clifford Browder

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for another wonderful piece. Although I spent most of my life in the jazz world, I always loved opera and retain vivid memories of the Royal Danish Opera's star tenor (Royal Chamber Singer), Stefano Islandi, whom my mother dated during a lull between her third and fourth husbands. I told mother that he would not be number four, because he was simply too deeply in love with himself. He had the most expensive audio equipment B&O made, but only his own recordings, and the walls of his 12-room apartment were dominated by huge paintings of himself in various roles.

    I have a wonderful diary kept by my great great grandfather on a 1834 trip to Sicily. He stopped in Milano and spent several nights listening to Malibran at La Scala. I gather that she was the 19th Century Callas. He was totally captivated.

    Thank you for this blog. it never fails to hold my attention.