The city’s old and new money worlds sat cheek-to-cheek at the original Metropolitan Opera House,
which opened on this date in 1883, 135 years ago today — at 1411 Broadway (between West 39th and West 40th streets). The first performance was a real ‘bargain’ — Faust by Charles Gounod.
From all accounts that initial production was pandemonium.
“A very grand audience assembled last evening in the new Metropolitan Opera-house on the occasion of its formal public opening,” said the New York Times in its front-page story the following day. “The lines of carriages were so long that the three entrances were unequal to the test of receiving their occupants promptly, and at 8:23 o’clock, when Signor Vianesi lifted his baton people were still pouring in from every side.”
Ostensibly built to present operatic works, the Opera House also functioned as a show-and-tell for the rich, who sat arrayed in their finest outfits in 122 private loges in the theater’s “golden horseshoe.” (The Vanderbilts alone held five loges at one point!) According to Times, on opening night, “box holders [were] estimated to be worth $540,000,000 collectively.” (That total is not adjusted for inflation.)
Its less-acclaimed exterior, of “steel, yellow brick and mortar,” was nicknamed “the yellow brick brewery,” hardly an affectionate way to refer to the center of high society. The term was allegedly coined by opera impresario ‘Colonel’ James Mapleson whose production ruled at the downtown Academy of Music.
And the house provided inadequate from the very first performance. “Much disappointment was caused by the comparative failure of the acoustic properties of the auditorium.”
In time its stage became outdated for truly modern, high-tech productions. The opera moved up to its new house at Lincoln Center in 1966, and this theater was deemed an unessential relic—and demolished the next year.
Below: The condition of the old opera house in 1966, before it was torn down the following year. It was replaced with an office tower.
For more information on the Metropolitan Opera and its home at Lincoln Center, listen to our show from a couple years ago on the creation of Lincoln Center.
The expanded excerpt above is from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, available in bookstores everywhere.