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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Aristotle Traviata

By Robert Jackson Wood

Look at all them boxes! The interior of the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1937.
"What Aristotle said: When one buys anything it is because the benefit promises to be greater than the sacrifice. To this may be added, that when the quality is absent from the transaction, the sacrifice is greater than the benefit. A W&J Sloane price indicates the quality, and W&J Sloane quality substantiates the price." —W&J Sloane ad excerpted from below 

As readers probably know, New York City Opera was just at BAM doing Jonathan Miller’s fantastic production of La traviata. As we've written elsewhere, Verdi's warhorse has been here several times before, and we recently went poking around in the archives to see what we could find in the way of blog-worthy material evidence. Among the discoveries was this fascinating program from a 1922 performance by the Metropolitan Opera Company, conducted by Roberto Moranzoni in the wake of the storied reigns of Mahler and Toscanini. It’s a fascinating document, as much for the program proper as for the ads surrounding it: Aristotle selling fabrics and furniture, lunch in a refined atmosphere, diamonds and sapphires for sale.

Program from a 1922 performance of La traviata at BAM. 
We tend today to take for granted the (sometimes completely irrational) association of opera with wealth. But that marriage is an arranged one if anything, with seeds in the Astor Place riots of 1849 (read more about that here) and largely consolidated in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. From its Gilded Age beginning in 1883, the Met was known as much as a meeting place for moneyed industrialists and genteel up-and-comers as it was for the operas it put on. In fact, its original location at Broadway and 39th Street (supplanted by this lovely building, with notably worse acoustics) came to be largely because the older Academy of Music—4,000 seats in total but with a mere 18 luxury boxes—could hardly satisfy the degree of public preening demanded by the nouveau riche (William K. Vanderbilt offered to buy one for $30,000 but was refused). By contrast, the new Metropolitan Opera House had 122 boxes, arranged, as historian Joseph Horowitz has written, in a “diamond horseshoe [that] invited bejeweled boxholders to admire one another.” It also encouraged the conspicuous consumption of culture itself. For the newly wealthy, still self-conscious about their (and their nation’s) emergent status, nothing provided a better symbol of the moral betterment and spiritual uplift to which they aspired than glitzy European opera.

The original Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street, 1905.
Photo courtesy of the Detroit Publishing Company
To make a gross generalization, this all still held in the1920s when the company would regularly hop the East River to perform at the comparatively box-less BAM. For a furniture ad to peddle its high-end wares by way of Aristotle was to try and exploit the ways that spiritual and material consumption could become indistinguishable from one another, ways that were largely symbolized by the Met itself. My guess is that Met’s patrons didn’t need to be reminded that “when one buys anything it is because the benefit promises to be greater than the sacrifice.” But it couldn’t hurt to remind them that buying in general could be rationalized by the thinking of no less than a standard-bearing Greek philosopher.

For further reading, see Lawrence Levine's colorful Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in AmericaJoseph Horowitz's Wagner Nights: An American History, and our post on the early days of BAM.

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