I do not know how many people still exist who performed on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House down on 39th Street in midtown New York, but I do know that I am one of them.
In February 1950, at the tender age of 16, I carried a flag in the Triumphal Scene in Aida. The big star was Ljuba Welitsch whose debut as Salome under Fritz Reiner in New York in 1949, which I also witnessed, was the most sensational event at the Metropolitan in the early post-Second World War years.
Ljuba Welitsch as Aida. Photo © Louis Melançon, Metropolitan Opera Archives
Welitsch was also famous for her Salome in Europe and glimpses of it may be seen in the early post-war espionage film The Man Between. Her Metropolitan Salome is also available on underground CDs. Eloquence has released her Decca recordings. She is less well remembered now as she lost her voice in the early 1950s and her career was cut short. Even at the time of her Aida performances, critics were noting weaknesses in her voice that had not been apparent the previous year. The Radamès, Ramon Vinay, and the Amonasro, Robert Merrill, had long international careers and were very well known. The Amneris, Margaret Harshaw, had a respectable Metropolitan career, but was little known outside the United States. The conductor, if I remember correctly, was Giuseppe Antonicelli, then of the Metropolitan’s ‘Italian wing’.
It was well known that the Metropolitan Opera hired supernumeraries in order to fill up the stage in crowd scenes. Many of us from school used to try our luck. All one had to do was to line up about an hour before the performance was due to begin. A Met employee then appeared, counted off the number wanted, took them away into the opera house, handed them appropriate costumes – most of them pretty old and moth-eaten – and ordered them to wait until they were needed. For this they were paid two dollars and, as a bonus, they could hang around backstage after their appearance and watch the rest of the performance.
In those far off days, opera houses adhered very closely to the composer’s original stage directions. There were, therefore, horses in the triumphal scene in Aida and there were accordingly men with dust pans and brooms following behind them to clean up the ensuing mess, if any. The Ethiopian captives seemed to have been hired more for the size of their stomachs than anything else. The horses and their chariots continuously went offstage and then onstage, giving the audience the impression that there were many more of them involved than was the case.
Backstage, it was sometimes difficult to believe one was in an opera house. All sorts of noises and activities took place. It was more like a warehouse or a barn. There was, for example, a light which went on and off to keep the backstage chorus in time with the orchestra as it was impossible to hear either the music or the singing. The horses required continual and scrupulous attention. Onstage, the lights were so bright that it was impossible for us to see the audience. The stars went about their business impervious to all this, although I do remember a snide remark made by Merrill as he came offstage, which suggested he might be jealous of the reception Welitsch was receiving. There was also a large book placed just offstage in the wings in which every performance of Aida that had ever taken place in the theatre was entered, together with its timing.
As this was a Saturday afternoon, the performance was broadcast and recordings of it have appeared on underground labels. Unfortunately, these were the days before television, and so my one performance at the Metropolitan cannot not now be seen. And, of course, I was forbidden to sing a note.
The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD season continues with The Exterminating Angel in Dendy Cinemas on December 9.