Rudolf Bing’s name towers in the world of opera. The Austrian-born impresario, born on January 9, 1902, has an enduring legacy, in many ways tainted by the scandals and feuds Bing was known to have with the opera’s greatest figures and lesser-known figures during many of the company’s most tumultuous years.
But to see the general manager who wielded his power like a tyrant overlooks many of the essential things he did, not only for the Met, but also the opera world as a whole. Here are some Bing’s greatest achievements as the head of the Met during his tenure from 1949 through 1972.
1. New Standards for Stars
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Everyone knows the Callas story. Most New Yorkers still have a sour distaste over the insulting comments he threw at beloved American gem Beverly Sills. His laundry list of feuds included such major artists as Renata Tebaldi, Regina Resnik, Lauritz Melchior, George Szell and Franco Corelli among others. The bottom line? Bing was not known for being buddy-buddy with other stars.
While he is known for having solid relationships with some singers, such as Birgit Nilsson, he had no tolerance for any self-importance that many singers gave themselves. Prior to his arrival, it was customary for principal singers to avoid attending rehearsals if they so pleased. Bing had no tolerance for that and famously battled with Melchior on this issue as the great Wagnerian was known for skipping rehearsals during his time at the Met. Since Bing, stars, no matter how big, are held to the same standard and attend rehearsals.
Yet it must be pointed out that despite his feuds with singers, Bing did bring a plethora of major stars to the Met for the first time during his tenure as he always sought to make the Met the greatest in the world for singers. His first major act was to bring back Kirsten Flagstad to the Met after she had been shunned for many years during the prior administration. Other major singers to appear at the Met for the first time under Bing? Here are just a few: Tito Gobbi, Mario Del Monaco, Ettore Bastianini, Nicolai Gedda, Antonietta Stella, Mario Sereni, Leonie Rysanek, Franco Corelli, Joan Sutherland, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Lucine Amara, Roberta Peters, Giorgio Tozzi, Teresa Stratas, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti among others. And of course Callas’ only performances at the great house came under Bing’s tenure.
2. New House Practices on the Administrative Front
Did you know that opening night was not always available to the general public? Before Bing came along, the big event was only available for subscribers at rather hefty prices. Bing, despite taking on an aristocratic position in many cases, was actually quite progressive in respect to opening opera to a wider audience and allowed anyone able to pay for opening night to get the opportunity, thus making it less of an elitist affair.
He also shifted the overall season schedule from 18 weeks to 31 and increased the number of subscription series from six to 22.
He also eventually got rid of the famed Met Opera tour when it became financially implausible, thus increasing the Met season in New York and ensuring financial stability for the company.
His other major contribution, one that still stands today, is how he obtained financing for new productions. Facing financial constraints from the board, Bing reached out to wealthy patrons as a means to fund his new productions – a practice that still holds serve to this day.
3. Breaking the Racial Divide
Racism was rampant in the middle of the 1900’s and the apex of the Civil Rights movement was still a few years when Bing came to power at the Met. Yet within two years of his tenure, dancer Janet Collins became the first black American to be hired full-time at the opera house and in 1954, Marian Anderson made her debut as Ulrica in “Un Ballo in Maschera,” the first black singer to ever grace the stage. Black singers to have strong careers under Bing’s tenure include Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry among others.
Bing was ensured that black musicians, singers and dancers were given their due respect during tours to the South. There is also a story recounting how he made tickets available to black teenagers in Atlanta and ensured that they got their due respect when some white ushers behaved inappropriately toward them.
4. The New House
Bing, working alongside rival Anthony Bliss, ensured that the company made a successful transition from the Old House to the new one that stands today in Lincoln Center. In the process toward the successful opening night in 1966, he had to overcome major financial constraints, conflicted audience perception, a wary board, major labor disputes and his own overreaching ambitions (he originally scheduled nine new productions for the opening season, an unreasonable number that he was forced to alter as problems built up in the weeks to opening night).
5. James Levine
The arrival of James Levine at the Met is often an act attributed to Bing’s successor Goeran Gentele and his music director Rafael Kubilek, who famously asked for a principal conductor so that he may continue residing in Europe. But Levine’s Met debut came in 1971 after he had been signed to a contract in November of 1970 by none other than Bing. That decision would come to shape the Metropolitan Opera for ensuing decades, including today.
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Mayer, Martin. “The Met: One Hundred Years of Grand Opera.” Simon Schuster, The Metropolitan Opera Guild, New York, NY, 1983.
Merling, F. & Freeman J.W. & Fitzerald G. “The Golden Horseshoe: The Life and Times of the Metropolitan Opera House.” The Viking Press, New York, NY, 1965.