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Grail Crazy

The Met premiere of Parsifal, in 1903, was headline news all over the musical world. JEFFERY S. McMILLAN traces the U.S. performance history of Wagner's opera, which will be presented in a new staging this month by The Met: Live in HD.

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Cosima and Richard Wagner
OPERA NEWS Archives

Defying the concerted opposition of the composer's widow, not to mention numerous other parties and factions, the Metropolitan Opera produced the U.S. premiere of Richard Wagner's Parsifal on Christmas Eve in 1903. Wagner wrote Parsifal, his final opera, to be performed in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, where the rarefied atmosphere and unique acoustics of the house's "invisible orchestra pit" were critical to his realization of the work. It was Wagner's stated wish that performances of Parsifal be restricted to Bayreuth, but he was also open to circumstances, especially financially lucrative ones, that might require its presentation elsewhere. Above all, his preoccupation was that Parsifal be presented correctly, and while he still lived, that was possible only under his direct supervision in Bayreuth. After his death, on February 13, 1883, Cosima Wagner held that the restrictions on Parsifal were intractable: the composer's final decree must be observed in perpetuity. Though the law was on her side in Europe, it was the moral imperative to respect the master's wishes that was most effective in establishing Parsifal as an exclusive, almost sacred, property of Bayreuth. In spite of the official restrictions on it, New Yorkers knew Parsifal well from two decades of performances on its concert stages. The great transgression of 1903 occurred only once it was clear that the Metropolitan produced Wagner as well as, or better than, Bayreuth, and it was, therefore, meeting the Master's wishes to present Parsifal correctly — in New York.

Considering the great distance between New York and Bayreuth, the amount of press coverage and the number of daily extras devoted to the 1882 premiere of Parsifal were extraordinary. The work's synopsis, examples of its themes and lengthy analyses appeared regularly in New York newspapers, allowing those who could not make the trip to follow along with the premiere vicariously. The premiere of the "stage consecrating" work, on July 26, 1882, under Wagner's fastidious direction, had achieved the triumph the composer had desired for his massive Der Ring des Nibelungen, which had opened the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 to ruinous financial losses and less than satisfactory artistic results. (He spent much of the intervening years trying to recover from the setback.) For the new work, he enlisted his ideal interpreters: Amalie Materna, the original Brünnhilde from the Ring Festival, would be Kundry; bass Emil Scaria — who would have created Hagen in the first Götterdämmerung had his salary requirements been more modest — was Gurnemanz; and Hermann Winkelmann, a rising talent and future star of the Vienna Opera, assumed the title role. 

As with the Ring Festival, this second Bayreuth Festival was the cultural happening of the day and attracted devoted Wagnerites, outspoken contrarians and curiosity-seekers "from China and California," as one critic reported. Among the American delegation was Walter Damrosch, son of Dr. Leopold Damrosch, one of America's most important musical figures. Wagner presented the young Damrosch with a manuscript of the Act I finale of Parsifal to take back to his father for presentation in New York.

Dr. Damrosch, indeed, performed the Act I scene on November 4 at New York's Academy of Music, but another American maestro, Theodore Thomas, presented the opera's third act in Brooklyn on the same night. Local papers scrambled to have reporters in both places to get the scoop on Wagner's newest music drama. Damrosch's final dress rehearsal attracted several hundred eager observers, but it did not bode well: many of his choristers failed to show up, and the soloist assigned Amfortas's tortured monologue arrived late, forcing the conductor to murmur the Grail King's words from the podium with a different sort of anguish. Thomas had better luck with Act III, and the Brooklyn audience applauded heartily.

New Yorkers did not have to wait long to hear more of the new opera. Four days after it was learned that Wagner had died, Dr. Damrosch hastily added the funeral march from Götterdämmerung to a program that already included the "Good Friday Spell" from Parsifal, so his next concert could memorialize the composer. Thomas gave his own tribute with the New York Chorus Society, which included the Flowermaiden scene from Act II. Parsifal was out of the news for several months while a new musical story dominated New York headlines — the erection of the new Metropolitan Opera House, on the corner of Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street, and the ensuing war between its Italian company and the Academy of Music.

Curiously, Wagner's Parsifal once again entered the fray on the day after the conclusion of the Metropolitan's inaugural season in 1884. Thomas rented the opera house for a series of Wagner concerts featuring three vocal soloists with unimpeachable Wagnerian credentials — Winkelmann, Materna and Scaria, the original Parsifal, Kundry and Gurnemanz from Bayreuth. Thomas and his imported crack team presented the music of Wagner as it had never before been presented in the Western Hemisphere. Materna was the most familiar of the three. Having visited the U.S. in 1882 for Thomas's May Festival tour, she told reporters at the time of the difficult new role she was studying for the upcoming Bayreuth Festival. Two days after the Bayreuth trio's arrival in 1884, their concerts were sold out, and a second series was added. "Ah! How my heart warms to America," Materna remarked upon her return.

After years of piecemeal, usually Italianized presentations, New York audiences finally heard extracts from the Ring, Tristan, Meistersinger and Parsifal sung by the voices Wagner declared ideal for his revolutionary music of the future. These heavy doses of legitimate Wagnerian art had dramatic repercussions. Within a few months, the board of directors of the new opera house had jettisoned its expensive Italian company for an all-German one that would feature the works of Wagner. To Thomas's profound disappointment, Dr. Damrosch received the nod to direct the nascent company.

Damrosch's German Opera got off to an auspicious start, and when Materna appeared as Brünnhilde in the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Die Walküre on January 30, 1885, it was clear that a new age had dawned. Definitive performances of the music dramas swept aside memories of the indulgent Italian operas with their more idealized, poetic truth. Though Damrosch would not live to see it, all but one of Wagner's mature stage works had their premieres at the Met within the next few seasons. Attempting to capitalize on New York's craze for all things Wagner, Damrosch's son Walter rented the house in March 1886 for his Oratorio Society to present the U.S. concert premiere of the only holdout, Parsifal. The move to perform the various parts of the opera in order was welcomed by the public, though at just over three hours it was hardly a complete performance. Critics admired the work's choral scenes, but reactions could be summed up by one newsman's observation: "Parsifal in its entirety is a protracted series of more or less slow and dismal recitatives."

Audience interest in Parsifal encouraged the Metropolitan's general manager to explore the possibility of staging the opera during a future season, but the company's reigning diva, Lilli Lehmann, dissuaded him on the grounds that it would be injurious to Bayreuth and would put German artists working at the Met in an awkward position. Damrosch's concert premiere had another unforeseen consequence: it provoked the ire of the Metropolitan's new chief conductor, Anton Seidl. Damrosch had recruited Seidl for the Met after his father's death, but when the new conductor emerged shortly thereafter as the greatest exponent of the art-religion of Wagnerian music drama that New York had ever seen, Walter found his role in the company drastically diminished. Presenting Parsifal, in fact, sealed Damrosch's fate at the Met with Seidl, because it had violated the master's wishes, and because it preempted Seidl from introducing the work himself — though Parsifal hardly needed an introduction at this point.

Seidl conducted his own concert version of Parsifal in 1890 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music amid lush floral decorations and a backdrop depicting the Temple of the Grail painted by the Metropolitan's scenic artists. His starry cast included Lehmann, in her only performance as Kundry, and Theodor Reichman, the original Bayreuth Amfortas. Unable to recruit and train a chorus in time for the concert, Seidl was forced to omit Parsifal's choral scenes in Acts I and III; so his Temple of the Grail lacked knights. Critics, as ever, admired Seidl's performance, but they noted that the performance was "at a disadvantage compared with that offered by the Oratorio Society under the direction of Walter Damrosch in March 1886." The comparison to an old event by his less distinguished colleague no doubt infuriated Seidl.

A new generation of Wagnerian stars in the late 1890s helped Parsifal remain a semi-regular concert presentation at the Metropolitan Opera House, while artists of different stripes popularized the opera in novel forms. Throughout the decade Eugene Ysaye played his "Parsifal Paraphrase," a rhapsodic arrangement for violin soloist with orchestra, and John Philip Sousa arranged the opera's grail scenes for his fabulously popular concert band.

The Rubicon was definitively crossed early in 1903 when the Met's incoming general manager, Heinrich Conried, announced that the main attraction of his first season would be a fully staged production of Wagner's Parsifal. The push-back was immediate and frantic, but ultimately Cosima did not have a case, and her lawsuit and an appeal to the mayor by local Wagner societies to halt the production failed. Hoping to curse the effort with mediocre talent, she threatened that any artists who participated in Conried's "Rape of the Grail" would never work in the Festspielhaus again, but Bayreuth's claim of primacy had long since lost out to the Metropolitan's superior performances. Undeterred, conductor Alfred Hertz and singers Alois Burgstaller, Milka Ternina, Anton van Rooy and Robert Blass enthusiastically answered the call to make stage history. Only the esteemed Wagner conductor Felix Mottl balked, but even he assisted the effort from behind the scenes with score preparations and help at rehearsals. In order to meet Wagner's own specification — that the work be presented correctly — Conried went to extravagant measures, spending lavishly to modernize the Met's stage and fly galleries so that the scene changes and transformation effects would not only be convincing but set a new standard for stagecraft and theatrical illusion.

Though it may be hard to imagine Parsifal as a tremendous commercial hit, Conried's production was a box-office sensation like no other. Even at the astronomical price of $10 a seat (regular orchestra seats were $5), the opera was given twelve times during the 1903–04 season as a special non-subscription event, and crowds filled every performance. The following season, Conried offered it eight more times at the same inflated price and took it on the road for an ambitious tour that covered major cities from Boston to San Francisco but also included numerous stops in smaller cities not known for opera, such as Nashville and Birmingham. In some cases, these locales probably have not witnessed a performance of Parsifal since 1905. A rival impresario named Henry Savage saw Conried's success and took his own English-language Parsifal production on the road with his Metropolitan English Grand Opera Company. Without stars such as Olive Fremstad and Lillian Nordica, Savage's production did not approach the Met's vocal glamour, but some felt it was superior in terms of scenic presentation. Savage's efforts to cultivate a Bayreuth-like aesthetic with a makeshift invisible pit and trumpeters playing the themes during intermission to recall audience members to their seats were also appreciated.

The Parsifal rage eventually subsided. When the dust settled, the Met had amassed forty-three performances in three seasons, and Savage's tour added another 200. Peripheral entertainments such as minstrel shows and comedic parodies briefly attempted to cash in on the Grail craze, but following the retirement of Fremstad and the final performances of her Kundry, the work was consigned to a small but distinguished corner of the repertory, being regularly programmed on Thanksgiving and Good Friday. Parsifal has never fallen far from standard-repertory status in New York. 

True to her word, Cosima spurned many of the artists who had participated in Conried's rogue production. Singers could work in both places, but once they sang in the Met's Parsifal, they rarely found themselves welcome at Bayreuth. But producing opera is a business, and even Cosima Wagner's hard idealism eventually caved: Burgstaller, the Met's first Parsifal, was hired for the Festivals of 1908 and 1909. spacer 

JEFFERY S. MCMILLAN, formerly an archivist at the Metropolitan Opera, is currently a writer and arts administrator in San Francisco. 

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3