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Big Oil, Big Opera: Handel at the Met

Handel was born with an umlaut on his name: Händel.  He rubbed it out after he left his native Germany for a sojourn of several years in Italy before emigrating to non-diacritical England in 1711 as the chief importer to that island nation of big-time Italian opera.

Shorn of those two Teutonic dots, Handel’s name changed its meaning. If read by German eyes it now meant “trade” or “commerce”—an apt rebranding for a musical entrepreneur engaged in the risky business of opera. Indeed, the venture, whether funded by kings or robber barons, is notoriously costly, not to say bankrupting. Handel knew this all too well. His operatic obsessions nearly drove him to physical and financial ruin.

Back in the first half of the eighteenth century, as opera established itself as Europe’s blockbuster entertainment from Naples to London to St. Petersburg, the Hamburg musician and man of letters (especially, but by no means exclusively, on matters musical) Johann Mattheson rightly observed that “where the best banks are found, so, too, are found the best opera houses.” Those words might have been echoing through the cavernous, curvaceous lobby of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House last Friday before the opening night of a revival of stage director Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Handel’s Rodelinda.

More likely, Mattheson’s dictum was resounding only in my head as I contemplated the austere white stone slab on which are inscribed the original patrons of the Met when it took up residence in its current home in Lincoln Center in 1966.

Some three hundred years after his death, Mattheson would probably have substituted “oil companies” for “opera houses” had he happened into the performance of his erstwhile Hamburg pal Handel’s tale of a deposed and depressed Lombardic king and his more resolute and resourceful wife, the work’s title character.

Flanking the top line of the patrons list are the Rockefeller Foundation and the source from which that money flowed, Standard Oil (of New Jersey; Standard Oil of California is farther down in this traffic jam of captains and commodores of industry). In the lane between these limos is the Ford Foundation, and rightly so, since the car is the main consumer of all that refined Rockefeller crude. Farther down in the scrum come Mobil, Shell, and Texaco. The last of these Big Oilers sponsored the Saturday radio broadcast from the Met from 1940 until 2005.  Mattheson would have nodded knowingly at the appearance, too, of the great banks of the American Century, not least Morgan Guarantee Trust.

Perhaps a wry smile would have flashed across his face as his gaze alighted on the first-to-fall in the financial onslaught of 20o8:  Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.

Bubbling and gurgling beneath these lucrous strata is that other gooey, frackable liquid, Coca Cola.

Nearby the Real Thing comes my favorite name of the bunch:  Carl Marks. Here I imagined Karl Marx—a music lover after all—anglicizing a few letters of his name, shaving off the rebellious beard, ditching the critique of Kapital and infiltrating Wall Street in the most astounding if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em stunt in human history.

Turns out that this Carl Marks made his money in foreign exchange in the 1920s and that the firm he founded is still hard at it, creating, according to their website, “value through clear thinking, creative advice and adept execution of plans, all built on a solid foundation of uncompromised integrity that has endured over time.” Whether this outfit will outlast the Monument to Mammon that includes the name of Carl Marks seems unlikely: this stone appears more durable than many of the disappeared financial entities carved into it. Suffice it to state the obvious, that the pale marble monolith to money stands in gleaming contrast to the black gold which paid for it.

The slab has myriad stories to tell, many if not most of them operatic in their scope and tragedy.

Mattheson now turns to take in the large square that extends from the façade of the Met out to Broadway. In 1704 in the plaza in front of the Hamburg opera he fought a duel with Handel because the upstart refused to yield the harpsichord to him at a performance of the Mattheson’s opera, Cleopatra. Mattheson had sung the tenor role of Antony until that character’s death, and then returned to the orchestra. That was when the trouble started. Many decades later the combatants offered divergent accounts of the clash, one saying it was a coat button, the other a rolled-up score that saved Handel’s life from the thrust of Mattheson’s sword.

A reenactment of those contretemps would have livened up the two intermissions each stretching to nearly an hour between the three acts of Rodelinda. Jugglers, comedians, cabaret acts, dancing, barber shop quartets: something beyond the sale of overpriced drinks and the slow-motion sight of well-heeled dinners at their tables in the foyer restaurant needs to fill these intervals if the Met wants to keep its clientele young and engaged and paying. For this musically rich opera—vividly staged and with a cast that supplied much unforgettable singing—the auditorium was maybe a bit more than half full. Perhaps many, especially older, operagoers are still playing it safe an account of the pandemic.

As befits the behemoths that paid for the place, the Met is enormous: perhaps too big to fail, but way too big for a show like Rodelina. The King’s Theatre on the Haymarket in London where the work was premiered in 1725 could, when overstuffed, accommodate 900 people, but more normally had a capacity of some 600. The Met seats nearly 4,000.

I had arrived early to clear vaccination control and then tour the house from the orchestra to the nosebleed seats and to survey the architectural grandeur and opulent décor—ascend the swoop of the red-carpeted staircase; take in the towering Chagall murals (The Source of Music and The Triumph of Music) flanking the lobby’s mezzanine and visible from across the plaza; admire the vintage costumes in their glass cases;  ogle the bronzes, not costumed but mother naked; estimate the sheer tonnage of stone. I stopped in at each balcony to appraise the various views and the value for money they offered.

After these aerobic investigations, I took my seat in the first row of the Grand Tier and watched the hall fill up, spying with my pocket-sized binoculars the parade of outfits, from casual to couture, from leotards to lederhosen (sported by a French woman, I later ascertained).

I started thinking back nearly forty years to when I first came to Met to see my brother dance Benvolio in American Ballet Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet.  He and I never wore life-saving frock coats nor wielded swords, but we did have more than a few youthful brawls. He always won.

It is a pity that the spectacle of the audience itself disappears into darkness once the Met’s space-age chandeliers are hoisted up towards the heights and the house lights are dimmed.

In Handel’s theater the orchestra was not sunken in a pit but arrayed on the same level as the ground-floor audience.  With the lights up the conductor and his musicians were part of the drama.  Given that arrangement, one understands better why the disagreement between would-be opera titans Mattheson and Handel in 1704 would have a matter of public humiliation.

I was still somewhere in the 1980s: the Reagan years; the nightmares of nuclear annihilation; the dangers of New York City under Ed Koch; my brother’s ABT colleague getting mugged at the back of the Met on 10thAvenue and then buying a pistol grip shotgun that he packed beneath his trench coat and deposited in his locker backstage before each performance. Lincoln Center had erased the neighborhood of West Side Story, but some of the streets were still mean.

Scattered applause began as the night’s conductor, Harry Bicket, appeared at the back of the pit in tails and a black mask and made his through the orchestra.

Having displayed the Met’s concern for public safety, Bicket turned to the pared down baroque-sized band and took off his mask. He was going to need the oxygen for Handel’s high energy music. He raised his hands and the Overture started. The past surged into the present.

(Next: Music and Time at the Met’s Rodelina. David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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