High Notes

Metropolitan Opera 50th Anniversary Gala: 50 Iconic & Historic Moments From the New House

The Metropolitan Opera celebrates its 50th anniversary Sunday with a massive gala featuring the greatest stars in opera.

The company, which moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, is among the most renowned opera institutions in the world, a place where the greatest of all singers commune on one of the biggest stages in one of the biggest theaters.

A few days ago, we gave the floor for some of the best singers around to relate some of the greatest stories or memories they experienced at the new house.

Today we take a look at 50 of the Met Opera’s most important evenings at Lincoln Center. Enjoy!

1. The Big Opening Night, “Anthony and Cleopatra” (9/16/1966)

Where to start but the very beginning. Everyone has heard the stories of Leontyne Price’s vocal majesty, Samuel Barber’s imperfect score and Franco Zeffirelli’s glitchy production. But this night will forever live as the one in which the theater opened its doors. 50 years later, it is still standing.

2. The Second World Premiere in the New House (3/17/1967)

As part of the company’s first season, Bing commission two World Premieres. “Anthony and Cleopatra” was the first and “Mourning Becomes Electra” was the second. This opera, which starred Evelyn Lear, John Reardon, Marie Collier and Sherrill Milnes was performed in the presence of composer Marvin David Levy.

3. Domingo’s Debut (9/28/1968)

Today, Plácido Domingo is one of the few artists that can truly sell out the Met on his own. He famously made his debut in “Adriana Lecouvreur” when Franco Corelli called in sick at the last minute. To this day, he has appeared with the company close to 900 times as both singer and conductor.

4. Pavarotti’s Debut (11/23/1968)

Almost two months after Domingo made his first Met appearance, Luciano Pavarotti wowed audiences for the first time in “La Bohème.” He would perform the opera 34 times at the Met, giving close to 400 performances in his lifetime.

5. The Genius Maestro Makes His Debut (6/5/1971)

James Levine has become synonymous with the new house, as evidenced by many of the following entries. He made his debut at the house in 1971 leading Franco Corelli, Grace Bumbry and Peter Glossop in “Tosca.”

6. Rudolf Bing’s Big Night (4/24/1972)

He was a controversial figure, but Bing was one of the most important figures in the company’s history, bringing tremendous artistic growth to the organization. This gala featured a plethora of major superstars of the opera world including Franco Corelli, Irene Dallas, Teresa Stratas, Thomas Stewart, Paul Plishka, Ruggero Raimondi, Martina Arroyo, Anna Moffo, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Cornell MacNeil, Fernando Corena, Plácido Domingo, Montserrat Caballé, Grace Bumbry, Mario Sereni, Regina Resnik and James McCracken among many others.

7. Britten Revival (10/18/1974)

For the two previous decades, the only opera showcased at the Met was “Peter Grimes.” On this night the Met hosted the United States premiere of “Death in Venice,” kickstarting a Britten “revival” of sorts. “Billy Buddy” would join a repertoire a few years later and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” would follow decades thereafter. John Shirley-Quirk debuted in seven roles on a night with 29 cast members, conductor Steuart Bedford and six production members would showcase their talents at the Met for the very first time. The opera was also the company’s first major “LGBT” work in the repertory.

8. An American Diva Finally Arrives At the Met (4/7/1975)

For years audiences languished as they saw Beverly Sills sing everywhere but the Met. Rudolf Bing infamously refused to allow her an opportunity to sing at the famed house and it wasn’t until this night, at age 45, that Sills finally made her mark at the Met on opening night. Incidentally, this was the first new opera by Rossini to premiere at the house in almost 80 years.

9. The Met and TV (3/14/1977)

For the first time in its history, a Met performance was recorded live on video and transmitted for television audiences. That evening would be a game changer and also hint at one of the most transformative moments of the Met’s recent history. The opera in question was “La Bohème” featuring Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Scotto in lead roles. James Levine conducted.

10. A Televised Opening Night (9/24/1979)

With Plácido Domingo as “Otello,” Gilda Cruz-Romo as his Desdemona and Sherrill Milnes as the villainous Iago, the Met recorded opening night for the first time in its history and broadcast it live to 282 U.S. stations. The transmission also reached Canada and Mexico. The event also marked the first time that Domingo brought his iconic portrayal to the Met stage. He would sing “Otello” 40 times at the Met throughout his career.

11. The Resurrection (12/10/1980)

The Met has had many hotly contested labor disputes throughout its history. But the one in 1980 actually shut down the house for two months. When things were finally settled, James Levine opened the season with an apt selection, Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony featuring Marilyn Horne and Judith Blegen. On a side note, hearing the Met opening its season with a symphony is a rather rare occasion.

12. The Parade of French Music (2/20/1981)

As part of his initiative to expand the Met repertory, Levine performed three rare French operas on the night including Satie’s “Parade,” Poulenc’s “Les Mamelles de Tiresias, and Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.”

13. The Most Iconic Production in Met History (12/14/1981)

Since its inception, Franco Zeffirelli’s “La Bohème” has been on the stage in almost every single season. It’s imagery is iconic and I have yet to attend a performance of this production that is not greeted with tremendous applause in the second act. On that night, the ovations for the production lasted nearly a minute. The opening night showcased Teresa Stratas, José Carreras, Renata Scotto and Richard Stilwell among others.

14. 100 Years (10/22/1983)

The Met’s Centennial Gala was a two-part event that came the day after a major agreement had arisen in a labor dispute. The monumental event featured, as expected, a plethora of major artists but also saw the final Met appearance of Birgit Nilsson, Leonard Bernstein, Anna Moffo, Robert Merril, and Regina Resnik, among others, with the company. Other major artists included Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, James McCracken, Thomas Stewart, Régine Crespin, Roberta Peter, James Morris, Joan Sutherland, Judith Blegen, Nicolai Gedda, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Frederica Von Stade, Kathleen Battle, Plácido Domingo, Mirella Freni, José Carreras, Monserrat Caballé, Giuseppe Giacomini, Ileana Cortubas, Italo Tajo, Simon Estes, Katia Ricciarelli, Luciano Pavarotti, and Leontyne Price, among many others.

15. Finally Getting a Handel on Things (1/19/1984)

Handel wrote his final opera in 1741. The Met did not premiere a single opera by the famed baroque composer until this day. The performance of “Rinaldo” also included the debut of Samuel Ramey alongside Marilyn Horne in the title role. But this day is crucial because the Met finally acknowledged a legendary composer that made a belated debut.

16. A Long Goodbye To A Heroine of Opera (1/3/1985)

Leontyne Price was one of the most important figures in opera history and remains one of the most admired artists ever. She opened the house and became intertwined with the company for decades. Her farewell remains one of the iconic performances, the soprano singing her signature role “Aida” with James Levine in the pit.

17. George Gershwin Gets his Due (2/6/1985)

“Porgy and Bess” finally had its Metropolitan Opera premiered on this night with a superstar cast that included Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry and Florence Quivar. James Levine conducted 14 singers who were making their debuts in a production by Nathaniel Merrill. The opera has received 54 performances in its history and had a whopping 16 showcases in its debut year.

18. The Night Joan Sutherland Stopped the Show (11/14/1986)

The night has been described as magical. As she came onstage, one of the Met’s favored divas literally stopped the show as the thunderous applause would not stop. It was her 25th-anniversary celebration and she was Elvira in “I Puritani.” She thanked the adoring fans, walked offstage and then came back to restart the second scene of the opera’s first act.

19. A New Ring (10/9/1987)

Otto Schenck’s “Ring” production was one of the most beloved in the Met recent history and spanned two decades. This first performance of “Das Rheinghold” featured Waltraud Meier, James Morris, and Siegfried Jerusalem among others. James Levine conducted the production. That production would be replaced in 2010 by Robert LePage’s multi-million dollar “machine.”

20. A Fitzgerald Masterwork Brought to the Opera Stage (12/20/1990)

Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” made its operatic debut on the Met stage in late 1999. Composed by John Harbison, the new production starred Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, Dwayne Croft and Mark W. Baker in the lead roles.

21. Three 25th Anniversary Celebrations (3/24/1991)

For years, the Met has lavished major 25th anniversary galas on its greatest artists. But to celebrate three artists on the same night is unheard of. On this night, Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Ghiaurov all got to celebrate 25 years with the company performing scenes from three different works. The trio shared the stage for Act 3 of “Faust” while Freni and Ghiaurov got to perform in Act 4 of “Don Carlo.” Freni capped the night with the final act of “Madama Butterfly. Other artists showcased on the night included Frederica von Stade, Loretta Di Franco, Vladimir Chernov in his first appearance, Samuel Ramey, Domingo and Wendy White among others.

22. The New House’s First Major Milestone (9/23/1991)

In honor of the 25th anniversary at Lincoln Center, the company put on a gala featuring three different acts from three operas. In the final act of “Rigoletto,” audiences saw Leo Nucci, Cheryl Studer, Luciano Pavarotti, Birgitta Svendén and Nicolai Ghiaurov. In the third act of “Otello,” Plácido Domingo, Mirella Freni and Justino Díaz led the cast. For the second act of “Die Fledermaus,” the cast showcased Barbara Daniels, Hermann Prey, Anne Sofie von Otter and Dwayne Croft among others. And of course, in the middle of the act, there were a plethora of guest performances from June Anderson, Thomas Hampson, Aprille Millo, Kathleen Battle, and the duet from “La Bohème” featuring Domingo and Pavarotti. The event was also the first pay-per-view presentation in the company’s history and was subsequently released on home video.

23. The Ghosts of Versailles (12/19/1991)

Another major World Premiere, this time of the John Corigliano opera that had been years in the making. The interminable cast list included Teresa Stratas, Marilyn Horne, Gino Quilico, and Renée Fleming among many, many others.

24. A New Voyage (10/12/1992)

Yet another of the company’s world premieres, Philip Glass’ “The Voyage” featured Tatiana Troyanos as the headliner in the ensemble cast. That night also saw a whopping nine debuts among the cast and production team.

25. Two Great Tenors Share The Stage (9/27/1993)

Domingo and Pavarotti shared opening night with three different operas. While the Spanish tenor opened with the first act of “Die Walküre,” his Italian counterpart took on Act 1 of “Otello.” Then the two surprised the audience. Programs did not note which tenor would be singing the third act of “Il Trovatore.” Domingo appeared singing “Ah si ben mio” before suddenly Pavarotti came on for “Di quella pira.” Domingo actually also momentarily sang the role of Ruiz, though Charles Anthony also came onstage. At the end, the two singers joined forces for the climactic high C.

26. A New Way to Read Opera (10/2/1995)

For years audiences struggled with following opera’s text. Of course that changed on this day when Joseph Volpe and company introduced the now iconic Met Titles on the back of every seat in the house. These titles are crucial to experiencing any opera and are now offered in up to four languages: English, German, Spanish and Italian.

27. The 8 Hour Night (4/27/1996)

No figure has been more important to this very building than Levine himself. Since he took over as the artistic director, he took over most performances every season and molded the company’s artistic presence in his image. His gala was quite the occasion, most famous for lasting eight hours. It began at 6 p.m. and ended right before 2 a.m. Cast members included Deborah Voigt, Renée Fleming, Frederica Von Stade, Thomas Hampson, Ghena Dimitrova, Gabriela Benacková, Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Dolora Zajick, James Morris, Bryn Terfel, Alfredo Kraus, Jessye Norma, Plácido Domingo, and many, many, many hours. Most notable of all? Levine conducted the entire gala.

28. A Complete Tristan (11/22/1999)

For years, the Met has performed the famed masterwork in its truncated version. And for 15 years, Levine did not schedule the opera, waiting for the right singers and production to make it happen. On this night he resurrected arguably the greatest opera of all from its longest absence in the company’s history with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the title roles.

29. In the Wake of 9/11 (9/22/2001)

In honor of the victims of 9/11, the company offered up a preview performance of its opening night that season, with performers donating their services for that evening. The event raised over $2.5 million for victims of the World Trade Center disaster. Among the artists involved were Deborah Voigt, Neil Shicoff, Plácido Domingo, Veronica Villarroel, Franz Grundheber and Daniela Barcellona among others.

30. War and Peace (2/14/2002)

Prokofiev’s massive opera had to wait until the new century to finally grace the Met stage. The massive undertaking, often compared to mounting a “Ring Cycle” production, features a cast of hundreds and this occasion saw 25 debuts across the cast and production team, including a young soprano known as Anna Netrebko. She is now opera’s biggest superstar. That night also featured Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Elena Obraztsova, Ekaterina Semenchuk (also her debut), Samuel Ramey, Evegeny Nikitin (also debuting), and Mikhail Petrenko among many, many, many, many others. Valery Gergiev conducted the production by Andrei Konchalonvsky.

31. An American Tragedy (12/2/2005)

Picker’s “An American Tragedy” premiered with a superstar cast that included Nathan Gunn, Patricia Racette, Susan Graham, Dolora Zajick and Jennifer Larmore among others. James Conlon conducted the evening and Francesca Zambello directed.

32. One Manager Leaves… (5/20/2006)

Joseph Volpe had been at the Met for 42 years and had virtually transformed the organization and artistry during his tenure. This big gala in his honor featured a plethora of major stars including Deborah Voigt, Olga Borodina, Ildar Abdrazakov, Plácido Domingo, Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming, Natalie Dessay, Denyce Graves, Waltraud Meier, Ben Heppner, Stephanie Blythe, Juan Diego Flórez, René Pape, Susan Graham, and Karita Matilla, among others.

33. …And Another Arrives (09/25/2006)

Peter Gelb took the reins as general manager to kick off the 2006-07 season and he did it in style. He showcased a new production of “Madama Butterfly” by Anthony Minghella, which was transmitted to Times Square, the first time the company had ever attempted such a feat. The cast included Cristina Gallardo-Domâs in the title role, Marcello Giordani, Maria Zifchak, and Dwayne Croft, among others. James Levine opened the season after a four-month absence.

34. Emperor Domingo (12/21/2006)

Plácido Domingo led the cast of Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor” in its first ever performances. The opera was also showcased as part of the company’s live in HD series and also subsequently released on DVD.

35. The Met at the Movie Theaters (12/30/2006)

One of general manager Peter Gelb’s most revolutionary initiatives at the Met was his Live in HD series. It all started with Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” on this fateful night in 2006. Featuring Ying Huang, Matthew Polenzani, René Pape, Nathan Gunn and Erika Miklósa among others, this performance heralded a major change for the opera world.

36. The Scottish Play Returns (10/22/2007)

On Jan. 23, 1988, Bantcho Bantchevsky hurled himself from the balcony during a performance of “Macbeth.” After that run, the opera disappeared from the stage altogether, seemingly gone from the repertory. But in 2007, the company revived the work in a new production starring Željko Lučić and Maria Guleghina. The work has gotten several revivals since and has firmly established itself as a Met repertory staple.

37. The Next Wave Makes Its Mark (4/1/2007)

Perhaps no class of Met National Council Audition winners has made its mark quite like the class of 2007. Angela Meade, Amber Wagner, Jamie Barton, and Michael Fabiano are all Met favorites. Of course, another reason that they are so recognized is because the Met allowed access for the competition to be filmed that year. The result is the famed documentary “The Audition.”

38. Opera’s Hottest Couple (4/3/2007)

Back in 2007 Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko were opera’s star pairing. And to honor the Met’s 40th anniversary at the new house, Gelb and company sought to showcase the two stars in three operas: “La Bohème,” “Manon” and “L’Elisir d’Amore.”

39. A Happy Ending At Last (3/28/2008)

One of the most hotly anticipated casts of the 2007-08 season was “Tristan und Isolde” with Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt. But it was not meant to be, at first. In a truly unusual sequence of events, this run of six performances became one of the big stories of the season. First Heppner canceled the opening with illness. Voigt sang with John Mac Master. But Mac Master was replaced by debutant Gary Lehman for the second show. In the second performance Voigt left the stage in the second act, stopping the opera and forcing Janice Baird to perform in her stead. Voigt and Lehman would get a show together, but the tenor would hit his head after a production malfunction that stopped the show. In the fourth performance Lehman was replaced by Robert Dean Smith for the HD transmission. For performance number five, Ben Heppner was finally ready to go on, but Voigt was out. Finally the two got together for the sixth and final performance of the opera, without any technical malfunctions or unexpected issues.

40. Two for Flórez (4/21/2008)

In a major move away from tradition, Juan Diego Flórez was allowed to sing an encore of the famous “Pour mon âme,” featuring its nine high C’s on the opening night of the new production of “La Fille du Régiment.” He would repeat the feat on three other performances of the run. It was the first time in 14 years that an encore was permitted at the Met.

41. A Requiem for Pavarotti (9/18/2008)

The opera world was struck by the death of its beloved tenor on Sept. 6, 2007. A year later, the company put together a performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” in his honor featuring Barbara Frittoli, Olga Borodina, Marcello Giordani and Ildar Abdrazakov.

42. Renée Fleming’s Big Night (9/22/2008)

In the last of its kind, to date, the Met presented an opening night gala featuring excerpts from major operas, all revolving around soprano Renée Fleming. Audiences saw scenes from “Manon,” “Capriccio” and “La Traviata” with such stars as Ramón Vargas, Thomas Hampson and Dwayne Croft among others. The evening was recorded and transmitted as part of the company’s “Live in HD series,” the only time in its history that the series has recorded opening night.

43. 125 Anniversary & Domingo’s 40th (3/15/2009)

In a big move to honor the company’s legacy, this gala was filled with sets and costumes based on original productions. And while the gala had the likes of Angela Gheorghiu, Sondra Radvonovsky, Roberto Alagna, Maria Guleghina, Stephanie Blythe, Deborah Voigt, Ben Heppner, Watraud Meier, Juan Diego Flórez, James Morris, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky among others, the big star was Domingo who appeared in four different sections of the evening. He performed from “La Fanciulla del West,” “Parsifal,” “Simon Boccanegra” and “Otello.”

44. The Next Maestro Takes His First Bow (12/31/2009)

In a few seasons time, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be the new musical director at the Met. That first performance in his new job will obviously be another touchstone moment for the company, but his first ever appearance with the company is just as important, marking the start of a journey to the top. He led a new production of “Carmen” starring Elina Garanca, Roberto Alagna and Barbara Frittoli.

45. Jonas Kaufmann in Recital (10/30/2011)

He might not be coming around these parts anymore, but tenor Jonas Kaufmann was always an electric performer on the Met stage. One of his biggest moments came during a recital at the house which was broadcast and reinitiated an annual recital from one of opera’s biggest stars.

46. The Latest World Premiere (12/31/2011)

The last time the Met produced a world premiere was the baroque pastiche, “The Enchanted Island.” The opera combined music from a number of different works with a new libretto fully in English. Plácido Domingo, David Daniels, Joyce DiDonato and Daniele DeNiese headlined the cast.

47.The Legend Returns (9/24/2013)

At the end of the 2011 season, James Levine seemed like he was on his way out. His health was deteriorating and he would miss out on the 2011-12 and 2012-13 season. But at the start of 2013 he made a triumphant return in leading “Così fan tutte” with a cast featuring Susanna Phillips, Matthew Polenzani, Isabel Leonard, Danielle De Niese, Rodion Pogossov and Maurizio Muraro.

48. Infusing The Company With Youthful Music (10/21/2013)

When his “Two Boys” premiered at the Met on this day, Nico Muhly suddenly became the youngest composer to ever be commission by the Metropolitan Opera. Moreover, the premiere of “Two Boys” marked the US premiere of the work, the first such occasion since “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

49. Three Queens Complete (4/19/2016)

When Sondra Radvonovsky took her bow at the end of this night, she did so after having completed one of the most incredible operatic feats there is: she concluded a season-long run of performing the three operas in Donizetti’s famed Tudor trilogy (“Anna Bolena,” “Maria Stuarda,” “Roberto Devereux”). To that point, those operas had no history at the Met, appearing for the first time in 2011, 2012 and 2016 respectively. Radvonovsky sang all three lead roles in the same season, a feat that few, if any, sopranos had ever accomplished.

50. A Step in the Right Direction (12/1/2016)

For years female conductors and composers were virtually non-existent at the Met. While it has not been rectified just yet, the company made a step in the right direction with the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin.” The opera also featured Susanna Malkki, only the fourth woman to conduct at the Met.

Did we miss any other iconic moments from the last 50 years? Please chime in in the comments section!


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3 Responses

  1. Do not deserve a mention Javier Camarena’s encores?

  2. In reading your article on the Met’s gala Sunday night I was very upset not to find mention of one of the Met’s great singers. Lucine Amara had several opening nights in leading roles. Her Liu in Turandot, Nedda in Pagliacci ( 2 opening Nights),both Leonora’s in Trovatore and Forza, and as the wonderful Joan Sutherland once told me after complementing her on her Tails of Hoffmann thanked me and then said, but there is only one person who sings Antonia better then any one else and that is Lucine Amara. I believe she has performed over 42 leading rolls. At age 92 she is still a leading lady.

  3. Kathleen Battle’s historic return on 11/13/16!!!

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