Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Night at the Opera

Looking towards the Empire State Building from a pier along Hudson River Park. 10:00 PM. Photo: JH.
9/23. Tuesday. Yesterday was warm and overcast in New York, suggesting rain which never came. It was also the first day of General Assembly Week at the United Nations. The world has come to New York to convene, converse, to lecture, to receive, to hope. That was the good news. The bad news: it ties up the town in gridlock.

At one JH and I met at Swifty’s
with Betsy Messerschmitt, Gillian Miniter, Eleanora Kennedy and Nancy Paduano – all of the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy – to present them with a check for $30,000 which was raised by selling JH’s photographs from the New York Social Diary last May at the Chinese Porcelain Company.
JH, Betsy Messerschmitt, DPC, Gillian Miniter, Nancy Paduano, and Eleanora Kennedy at Swifty's.
At six, I went over to Lincoln Center to attend the opening night of the 125th Anniversary Season of the Metropolitan Opera.

History lesson. Before the Met, the opera house in New York was the Academy of Music which was located on 14th Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place. It was in the words of Johanna Fiedler in her marvelous history of the Met, “Molto Agitato,” New York’s premier opera presenter and social venue. “Conservatives cherished it for being small,” wrote Edith Wharton, “and inconvenient, and thus keeping out ‘the new people.’”

Last night's program.
One of those “new” people was a transplanted Southern belle named Alva Vanderbilt, whose husband William K. was heir to a $200 million fortune. In 1870, Mrs. Vanderbilt applied for one of the eighteen boxes at the Academy and was turned down by the directors. This rejection did not work for Alva Vanderbilt who was not one to sit idly by and take “no” for an answer.

Ten years later in 1880, a small group of investors raised $600,000 and purchased a site on 39th Street at 39th Street and Broadway. Three years later on October 22, 1883, the Metropolitan Opera opened for business with Gounod’s Faust.

Monday nights at the opera became the night for society to attend. Mrs. Astor, resplendent in her acres of diamonds, some of which were said to have once belonged to Marie Antoinette, arrived at her Box Number 7 promptly at nine, no matter the curtain time. She stayed for one or two intermissions (when she received guests) and then departed. No one left before Mrs. Astor. After the final curtain Mrs. Astor entertained at a supper every Monday night, first at her house on 34th and Fifth (where the Empire State stands today) and later at 65th and Fifth (where Temple Emanu-El now stands). Mrs. Astor’s menu, incidentally, was made up of ten courses.

One hundred twenty-five years later,
Monday nights still remain the opening night for todays smart set and opera lovers although much has changed besides the location (now at Lincoln Center). Last night’s anniversary was a fund-raiser (they raised $6 million) with performances from Act II of Verdi’s La Traviata (production and set design by Franco Zeffirelli, costumes for Renee Fleming by Christian Lacroix with James Levine conducting), Act III of Massenet’s Manon (production, set and costume design by Jean Pierre Ponnelle, costumes for Miss Fleming by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and Marco Armiliato conducting), and the Final Scene from Richard Strauss’ Capriccio (conducted by Patrick Summers; production by John Cox, set design by Mauro Pagano and costume for Miss Fleming by John Galliano). Miss Fleming starred in all three acts along with Ramon Vargas and Thomas Hampson in Traviata, and Mr. Vargas in Manon.
The Metropolitan Opera House.
Even with appearances in all three acts, audiences cannot get enough of Renee Fleming. As beautiful and glamorous as a movie star and a glorious voice, she is the 21st century prima donna, thoroughly modern, the “people’s diva.”

After the performances, guests moved to the tent in Damrosch Park which was decorated for occasion by David Monn with seating for several hundred. The guestlist ran the gamut from Wall Street to Hollywood, from Seventh Avenue to the art world to Martha Stewart (who was joined at table by Renee Fleming). Jane Fonda was there although she left after the first intermission (there were two). Faye Dunaway was at Peggy Siegal’s table.
dinner under the tent, interiors designed by David Monn.
The table centerpieces.
At Mercedes and Sid Bass’ table there was Barbara Walters, Nancy and Henry Kissinger, Annette and Oscar de la Renta, Lynn Nesbit, Shirley Lord Rosenthal, Elaine and James Wolfensohn, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Volpe, John Richardson, Ralph Rucci and Georgette Mosbacher, Susan Braddock, Frank Langella. Among those at the next table along with Miss Fleming were Thomas Hampson, Ramon Vargas, Peter Gelb, director of the Met, Martha Stewart and Barbara and Arthur Gelb, parents of Peter Gelb.

Arthur Gelb was for many years the City Editor of the New York Times. He and Mrs. Gelb published a massive biography of Eugene O’Neill in the 1960s which this writer happened to have read. I told Mr. Gelb this when I introduced myself and he told me that they were just completing a new biography of O’Neill, written because there was so much new information that had become available on the playwright. Many of O’Neill’s contemporaries – authors, actors, artists in those days were in the habit of keeping Diaries, many of which are now in university archives. Arthur Gelb told me last night that these diaries contained copious details of the private lives of the diarists as well as their friends, associates and sexual liaisons – of which there were multitudes from the sound of it.
Renee Fleming arrives wearing her John Galliano from the last act of last night's performance.
Among those I saw in the crowd: Karl Wellner and Deborah Norville, Bruce Wasserstein, Sheila and George Stephenson, Bill and Ophelia Rudin, Samantha Rudin, Cliff Klenk, Alex Papachristidis and Scott Nelson, Zac Posen, Ezra and Cecile Zilkha, Peter Brown, David Kleinberg, Ann Ziff, Anka Palitz, Joel Grey and Jean Halberstam, Christine Baranski, Angel Sanchez, Tory Burch and Lyor Cohen, Lara and Lisa Meiland.

As it was in Mrs. Astor’s day, it was a long night (although far earlier ending at about midnight). Furthermore under Peter Gelb’s direction, the opera performance was transmitted onto screens in Times Square as well as in 600 theatres across North, Central and South America, reaching potentially more than a million people.
Mercedes Bass Anka Palitz Ann Ziff
Stephanie Krieger and Brian Stewart Frederic Fekkai and Shirin von Wulffen Lyor Cohen and Tory Burch
Barbara and Arthur Gelb Oscar de la Renta and Barbara Walters
Barbara Walters and Sid Bass Peggy Siegal with Deborah Norville and Karl Wellner Joel Grey and Jean Halberstam
Hilary Dick and Kate Allen Zac Posen Joseph Volpe and the great James Levine

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