The House that Opera Built

The House that Opera Built

“Whenever I’m in the neighborhood,” says a 90-year-old Leontyne Price, “I come over and say, remember me? You know, I opened you.”

And so, just as Price opened the Metropolitan Opera’s current location at Lincoln Center in 1966, starring as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” the soprano opens “The Opera House,” a documentary that chronicles the history of the Met’s challenging move from W. 39th Street to its new home.

Directed by Susan Froemke, “The Opera House” combines an impressive catalog of archival material with interviews from a range of subjects to create a film that not only tells the history of the Met Opera, but also of New York City itself. We spoke with Froemke about the making of the film, Robert Moses and his relentless vision, the role of opera and, of course, Leontyne Price.

Topping-Out Ceremony, January 20, 1964: Soprano Leontyne Price and tenor Robert Merrill perform and autograph the new Met’s highest steel beam. Photo: Courtesy of Lincoln Center Archives.

How did this film come together?

I was having dinner with Peter Gelb, and he said it was going to be the 50th anniversary of the Met being at Lincoln Center. And I said, you know, I live in the Lincoln Square area, and I never really knew how the Met got there, and I never really knew how Lincoln Center was built. And so Peter said, well, why don’t you start doing some research?

The Met being at Lincoln Center and Lincoln Center’s creation are very intertwined, and it’s very much the story of post-war New York City. And it’s got Robert Moses very involved in the storyline. It’s got the Rockefellers. It’s got Rudolf Bing, who was the general manager of the Met but also a very big personality in the cultural world of New York, as well as high society. And then the different architects that designed the different buildings, but in particular Wallace Harrison, who was the head architect for the entire Lincoln Center and also the architect who designed the Met Opera. It’s a really fascinating history. And so we started thinking that there’s a fantastic film to be made here.

John D. Rockefeller III, right, hands a check to Mayor Robert Wagner to purchase the land for Lincoln Center, with city planner Robert Moses looking on. Photo: Queens library, Archives, New York Herald Tribune, Photo Collection.

In the film, there are a lot of fantastic stories not only about the Met, but also about the actual neighborhood that was razed in order to build the Met. How did the different conversations you unearthed with people shape or change the narrative of the film?

I think many of us who made the film were always told that Lincoln Center sat upon what was at one point a big slum area. Once we started, we thought, well, wait a second — who was living in that slum? We had heard that many people were displaced. And so we thought, well, this would be a fabulous story if we could also tell the story of the neighborhood.

First of all, it was a very, very vibrant community and it wasn’t necessarily a slum. Robert Moses called it a slum, but the people that lived in the neighborhood, many of their families had lived there for three generations, and they were very attached. They had deep roots in that area. The buildings certainly were quote-unquote “tenement buildings,” and they probably needed a lot of repair and work, but to demolish the entire area was quite traumatic to a lot of people. And so we started finding this out, and then we started trying to really find some people.

We still had to keep our focus on the Met’s move, how Lincoln Center got built and opening night. And that was a very complicated story in itself. But we were very glad that we were able to find at least two people who still felt very passionate about the neighborhood and still miss it.

A preliminary Wallace K. Harrison design for the new opera house at Lincoln Center. Rendering by Hugh Ferriss (1955). Image: Courtesy Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

What struck me while I watched the film was how loss and home seemed to link the demolishing of the old opera house and the trauma of building Lincoln Center. How does the loss of the old opera house relate to the loss of the neighborhood?

There is a lot about the loss of something that’s very much beloved, a community that’s very much beloved. In the storyline of the residents of Lincoln Square, that was a loss that stayed a loss because they were dispersed all over. Even though the Rockefellers and many of the people who were the movers and shakers that got Lincoln Center going — the politicians and the wealthy philanthropists — really tried to move people into what they were hoping would be better homes. But from the people that we spoke to, it was devastating because the community ties were broken. Many of them went up to housing projects in the South Bronx or in South Harlem or over to Staten Island. And they never kind of connected again. So it really was a loss.

In the story of the old Met — this was a real surprise to me in making the film — was the deep, deep attachment to the original opera house, which was on Broadway and 39th Street. It had been built in 1883 by some of the wealthy families in New York City, and they ran it. They built it really to be seen. From the minute it was built, it really wasn’t the kind of theater that was right for putting on operas. But it was quite beautiful and it had terrific acoustics. And so people just absolutely loved it.

In terms of the actual singers, and we had quite a few singers that we were able to speak to or people who were part of the company, their attachment was really extreme, and they felt very emotional about the opera house. Part of it was the beauty; part of it was just the fact that this great art form that they grew to love, opera, thrived in it. When it was destroyed, people were devastated.

The “Diamond Horseshoe,” the interior of the auditorium at the old Met (1939-40).

I think we all relate to it because when you leave the house you grew up in or a beloved apartment you had in college, it’s a very wrenching feeling when you realize you’re leaving and you’re not going to go back. And I think that certainly both in Lincoln Square, where you did lose that sense of community and families were dispersed, and at the opera house, you felt it too.

We have Leontyne Price singing Verdi’s “Requiem” as you see the building being demolished and the curtain being taken out, and when I watch that scene, I get choked up, and it always surprises me.

What did you find was the role of opera then as a cultural institution and how does opera function in that capacity now?

Opera was kind of the center of the cultural world in New York City. In the ’20s and ’30s, the social season opened when the opera opened. I feel like, on some level, the art form had a different kind of social status than it does now.

Post-war New York City, in the late ’40s, early ’50s, was in urban decline, and that’s where Robert Moses and a lot of other leaders felt like we had to start cleaning up and rebuilding. And New York City was a city that many people wanted to make the capital of the world. One way they saw to do that was to build Lincoln Center, and that would show that the United States really believed in culture to the same degree that people did in Germany and in France and in England and in Austria. It gave a real opportunity to bring the United States to the forefront of culture and to show that they were cultural leaders of the world.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower breaking ground for Lincoln Center (1959). Photo: Courtesy of Lincoln Center Archives.

I think opera finds itself in a very different environment now, but I think what you see in this film is that these great art forms and this great music sustains people throughout their entire lives. I think one reason why people feel so passionate about these buildings and these homes is because they are where these art forms thrive. And it’s the art form that is really what sustains you.

What we tried to do in this film was to use as much beautiful opera music as we could. Almost like a movie soundtrack to make it cinematic so that people would kind of be introduced to some of the great themes.

How was it working with the Met and their expansive archive? What was that process like?

We had a great beginning by being at the Met. The other thing too, besides the Met Opera archives, there’s the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts archive. And they worked very closely with us getting some of the earliest footage of the Met being built and the whole sequence of all the infighting between the different architects. It was a real collaborative effort. There was kind of a spirit about making this film. We just love the history and love the people. And then the Leontyne interview — her interview was the last interview that we did.

Really? That’s incredible because it seems like her interview just pins the whole documentary.

First of all, she hadn’t done an interview in like 20 years. She’s well known for not doing interviews. And it was really Peter Gelb who was able to open that door. But nobody knew what state she was in. Then when she walked through the door, and she was so vibrant and so beautiful and so funny. She hit on so many things that we already knew about. And I just felt during that interview that it was going to tie everything together. Her own story is so extraordinary. And what was so wonderful about her interview is that her memory is ironclad. I mean, she could remember details of meeting with Rudolf Bing and Samuel Barber. She could remember every detail of the meeting when they asked her to be the star of the opening opera at Lincoln Center.

Soprano Leontyne Price and director Franco Zeffirelli in rehearsal for Antony and Cleopatra (1966). Photo: Frank Dunand / Metropolitan Opera Archives.

When the interview was over, I texted Peter Gelb and Peter Livingston, who was the editor. And I said, we’ve got a film. I knew it. We knew we had a film then because she pulled every storyline together. She has a love for this art form, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s love for this great art form and how it really nourishes you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Watch “Great Performances: The Opera House” online here after May 25.

Top Image: The new Met under construction in May 1964. Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera Archives