Metropolitan Opera 50th Anniversary Gala: The 50 Iconic Figures Of The New House

By David Salazar

We have gone through emotional anecdotes. We sifted through some of the essential nights in the new house’s history.

Now we turn to the people that have made it great. In compiling a list of the 50 most influential people in the history of the new house, we realized rather early on that we would be leaving many people out (and that this would make some people unhappy). So we do apologize in advance for any favorites seemingly getting overlooked and we invite you to add your thoughts in the comments below.

In creating the list we put together artists, managers, and other prominent figures, we considered their importance in transforming the organization and leaving a lasting mark in diverse ways. We have divided up the article into five distinct categories including General Managers, Conductors, Director, Singers and Major Contributors.

Managers (In order of Debuts)

1. Rudolf Bing

Bing was the man that deserves the most credit for the new house itself, as he was its greatest champion and the general manager who oversaw its creation and first few seasons.

2. Anthony Bliss

Bliss was also a heavyweight in the creation of the new house, working alongside Bing as a board member to bring it about. Eventually, he became the man in charge, holding the spot of executive director from 1975 until 1984-85. He oversaw many major revolutions at the Met, establishing its media and marketing department and with it, the famed Live from the Met telecast. He was also a major player in several labor disputes.

3. Joseph Volpe

Volpe started his career as a carpenter and rose up the ranks during the 1980 labor dispute, eventually cementing himself as a major part of the company’s management. He would become General Director in 1990 and then its manager in 1992, ushering in numerous changes to the house, including four world premieres and 22 Met Opera premieres, among others.

4. Peter Gelb

Volpe’s successor has had his own prominent impact at the Met, his tenure marked by the influx of theater directors and his ability to expand the Met’s media reach. He implemented the Live in HD series to cinemas worldwide and embraced an opening night event that streams the performance to Times Square.

Conductors (In order of Debuts)

5. James Levine

Quite possibly the most prominent figure at the Met since his debut in 1971, Levine has had a hand in reshaping the quality of the orchestra, the breadth of the repertoire, and even in picking which directors showcase their talents with the company. He, of course, brought famed artists to perform on the Met stage and as the founder of the Lindeman Young Artists program, he helped pave the way for its future. He has also performed over 2500 times at the Met.

6. David Stivender

The Met’s chorus is one of the greatest in the world and there is no coincidence that it has managed this feat during the tenure of David Stivender, who became its chorus master since 1973 until his death in 1990. He also conducted 63 performances at the Met throughout his career.

7.  Raymond Hughes

After Stivender passed away, Hughes was the man to step in as chorus master and continued to build and grow the ensemble. He held the position for 16 years.

8. Valery Gergiev

Gergiev was the company’s first Principal Guest Conductor and was a major reason for the company’s expansion of Russian repertoire. He ushered in five Met premieres of Russian operas, including “The Gambler,” “War and Peace,” “Mazeppa,” “The Nose,” and “Iolanta.”

9. Marco Armiliato

Since his debut in 1998, only James Levine has conducted more performances at the Met than the Italian maestro. He has led the company in a number of Met premieres including “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Sly,” and “Anna Bolena.”

10. Fabio Luisi

The Italian maestro has been a pivotal figure at the Met over the last decade. He was the principal guest conductor, the second one in history after Gergiev, and eventually became Principal conductor in 2011. While Levine was struggling with health, it was Luisi who came in and led major projects including the final installments of the new “Ring Cycle” and “Les Troyens” among many others.

11. Donald Palumbo

The current chorus master, Donald Palumbo has continued building the group’s reputation since becoming the main man since 2007-08.

12. Yannick Nezet-Seguin

The incoming music director has made his mark since his debut in 2009, leading the company in a wide range of repertoire and showing versatility in a number of styles.

Directors (In order of Debuts)

13. John Dexter

Dexter was one of the most prominent figures during Bliss’ years in charge, mounting several acclaimed productions at the Met of rarer repertoire, such as “Billy Budd, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and “Les Vêpres Siciliennes,” among many others. In all, he directed 14 productions at the new house between 1974 and 1981.

14. Franco Zeffirelli

The famed Italian produced the Met’s opening night production of “Anthony and Cleopatra” before creating another 10 major productions including arguably the company’s two most famous offerings – “Turandot” and “La Bohème.”

15. Jean-Pierre Ponelle

One of the directors that James Levine most favored early on in his tenure, the Frenchman directed seven productions between 1973 and 1997, including “Idomeneo,” “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “L’Italiana in Algeri” and “Manon.”

16. Otto Schenk

Another famous director during the 80s, Schenk created over 15 new productions for the company including the famed Ring Cycle from 1986. He also appeared numerous times in “Die Fledermaus.”

17. Marc Chagall

The artist directed “The Magic Flute” during the inaugural season of the new house, but his biggest contribution, the two massive 30 by 36 murals (“The Triumph of Music” and “The Source of Music”) hanging in the lobby, remain a major feature of the Lincoln Center locale.

18. Brian Large

The television director is the man behind over 80 video recordings of Metropolitan Opera performances. In fact, his style was exemplary for its ability to capture performances without ever reminding the viewer that they were watching a video broadcast.

Singers (In order of Debuts)

19. Robert Merrill

One of the greatest baritones in Met history, Merrill only participated in the opening of one new production (“La Traviata” during the inaugural season), but he performed at the new house for almost 20 years in 244 performances, including eight galas.

20. Richard Tucker

Tucker performed 214 times at the new house, leading three new productions during his time there and performed in three opening nights. He was one of the great tenors in Met history and the company even offered up a performance to honor him after his death.

21. Rosalind Elias

The mezzo-soprano was a staple of the Met singing in a wide range of repertoire including Mozart, Ponchielli, Flowtow, Bizet, Strauss, Massenet, Rossini, and Verdi, among others. She led four new productions, including the opening night World Premiere of “Anthony and Cleopatra.”

22. Charles Anthony

If there is one record that Domingo doesn’t hold, it’s the one for most performances ever at the Met. That distinction belongs to Anthony, who was a constant presence with the company from his debut in 1954 to his death in 2012. He performed with the company 2,928 times.

23. Renata Tebaldi

Tebaldi was one of the reigning divas of her time, leading a new production of “La Gioconda” during the first season at the new house. In sum, she performed 111 times at the new house and led opening night in 1968.

24. Cornell MacNeil

The famed baritone sang 545 times at the new house as one of its go-to Verdi baritones, performing 245 times in a work by the great composer at the new house. He participated in six new productions, three opening nights, 10 telecasts and the Met Opera premiere of “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”

25. Birgit Nilsson

The famed soprano led “Turandot” in the opening season and led a whopping six new productions in her time at the new house, including a new Ring Cycle in the early 1970s.

26. Leonie Rysanek

Over the course of 190 performances at the new house, Rysanek led two Met Opera premieres (“Die Frau Ohne Schatten” and “Katya Kabanova”) and six new productions.

27. Joan Sutherland

Of one of most beloved Met stars in history, the Dame led five new productions throughout her time at the new house in 179 performances. Her “Lucia Di Lammermoor” remains the most iconic in Met history, the telecast from 1982 one of the most famous in history.

28. Leontyne Price

The famed soprano led the opening night performance of “Anthony and Cleopatra” and performed 101 times at the new house for the ensuing 19 years. Her farewell performance on Jan. 3, 1985 remains a historical event in Met history.

29. Franco Corelli

The famous Italian tenor had a prominent career at the Met prior to the opening of the new house, but 235 of his 369 performances came in the new house and of the six new productions he launched, four came at Lincoln Center. He had a plethora of highlights, most notably his run of “La Gioconda” in the opening season of the new house and “Turandot” with Birgit Nilsson.

30. Mirella Freni

The soprano appeared in 11 performances during the opening season and would go on to perform 131 times at the new house in two new productions and four opening nights. She also appeared in six telecasts in her time.

31. Renata Scotto

The Italian diva led over 307 performances at the new house, including seven new productions and two opening night performances. She also famously appeared in the Met’s first ever live broadcast in 1977 and appeared in 11 telecasts.

32. Sherill Milnes

Do you want to talk about longevity? Try 633 performances for the iconic baritone who sang in a wide range of languages, participated in 18 new productions, 14 telecasts, seven opening nights and the world premiere of “Mourning Becomes Electra.”

33. Paul Plishka

Plishka’s dedication to the Met is so massive that when he could no longer sing major roles, he opted for smaller roles to keep on performing. Of his 1600 performances at the Met, several hundred have been dedicated to the Sacristan in “Tosca” and the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro in “La Bohème.” And yet he was a major player in a number of productions, including “I Vespri Siciliani, “Don Carlo,” “Aida,” and “Simon Boccanegra,” among many others. He has been a part of four premieres, 14 opening nights and 17 new productions.

34. Plácido Domingo

He has appeared in 23 opening night performances and 19 new productions. He has performed 845 times at the Met as tenor, conductor, and baritone. He also appeared in 38 broadcasts. There is nothing that Domingo hasn’t done here. And even today, he is one of the few artists capable of selling out the house on his own.

35. Luciano Pavarotti

The tenor was a major favorite at the Met throughout his career, performing seven opening nights and opening 11 new productions. Bliss famously had to come out with a shield every time he was tasked with announcing Pavarotti’s cancelation. His most iconic moment came when he became King of High C’s in “La Fille du Régiment” and also encored “E Luce van le stelle” in “Tosca” in 1994.

36. Marilyn Horne

Since her debut in 1970, Horne performed over 252 times at the Met and led a whopping nine new productions. She also led the company in two Met premieres including the first ever performance of a Handel opera, “Rinaldo.” The other premiere? The World Premiere of “The Ghosts of Versailles.” She also claimed two opening night performances.

37. James Morris

The iconic bass is closing in on 1000 performances. While he has only led one Met Opera premiere (“Billy Budd”), he has participated in 11 new productions, including a new Ring Cycle back in 1987. In fact, when you think about Wotan, there is none more iconic in recent history than Morris, who made the role his signature over the course of 93 performances at the Met.

38. Beverly Sills

The soprano’s arrival caused tremendous furor as she had been ignored from the Met throughout much of her early career. But once she arrived at the Met she became a major asset, ushering in the first new Rossini opera to premiere at the Met in 80 years. She also brought in two new productions.

39. Samuel Ramey

From his debut in Rinaldo (again, the first ever Handel performance in Met history) and onward, Ramey was a towering presence at the Met, taking on a wide range of repertoire and leading six Met premieres over his vast career. He is the reasons that Boito’s “Mefistofele” made a return to the repertoire after a 73-year absence.

40. Renée Fleming

The Met’s reigning diva has performed over 250 times with the company and led the 125th season’s opening night with a gala featuring the soprano in three different operas. It was the first of its kind for the company. Fleming has also been a part of seven opening night events and has ushered in four new productions.

41. Sondra Radvanovsky

The famed soprano has given over 200 performances at the Met since her debut in 1996. While she didn’t become a household name until the 2000s, Radvonovsky has become a major tour de force on the Met stage, dominating the Verdi and dramatic bel canto repertoire. Her feat of singing the three Queens in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy over the course of one season is a feat that has rarely ever been seen in the entire history of opera. Moreover, she is the first and only one to do it at the Met.

42. Juan Diego Flórez

The Peruvian tenor was the first to sing an encore in 14 years during “La Fille du Régiment.” He also ushered in two Met premieres of two Rossini operas, “La Donna del Lago” and “Le Comte Ory.” In the process, he was also featured in six new productions.

43. Anna Netrebko

The only soprano in Met history to lead three straight opening nights, Netrebko has also appeared in 13 performances of the Live in HD series since its inception. In her 15-year career, she has appeared in three Met premieres and has been the centerpiece of two of those works, “Anna Bolena” and “Iolanta.”

Major Contributors

44. Wallace Harrison

This might not be the most iconic of names (especially after the list you just sifted through), but Harrison is the reason the new Met actually came together. As its architect, he designed the entire building.

45. Hans Rath

Another strange name? You might also notice his contribution every single time you walk into the opera house. In fact, you can’t miss them as they are an iconic fixture of the hall – the glorious chandeliers that grace the ceiling of the auditorium. Rath designed those himself.

46. Sybil Harrington

Do you love Zeffirelli’s “La Bohème” and “Turandot” productions? Then thank Sybil Harrington, who put up the funds for it, as she did with 16 productions at the Met. She also supported 13 telecasts and provided funding for the company’s computerized lighting board. On a side note, the Met’s auditorium is called Sybill Harrington Auditorium.

47. Peter Allen

Allen spent 29 years (1975-2004) as the voice, and face, of the Met on its radio and television broadcasts. His vivacious and yet serious demeanor made him a favorite for all audiences. One of his most iconic moments as host was during the tragic suicide of Bantcho Bantchevsky, during which Allen improvised for an hour for TV and radio audiences.

48. Louise Humphrey

Humphrey was the first female president of the Metropolitan Opera in 1986 until 1991. She would become an honorary director of the company’s board until her death in 2012. She joined the board in 1974 and was a major part of the company for close to 40 years.

49. Ann Ziff

The Met’s chairwoman is renowned for giving the single biggest gift in Metropolitan Opera history back in 2010 in the form of $30 million.

50. Margaret Juntwait

Her tenure was cut off short by an early death in 2015, but Juntwait quickly became a fan favorite as the radio presence at the Met for her 11-year tenure. She recorded hundreds of introductions for archived performances and hosted three to four broadcasts a week. She was also the first Met announcer on Sirius-XM satellite radio.

Are there any other figures that feel are crucial to the new Met’s legacy?


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