Metropolitan Opera Turns 50

In the storied history of the Metropolitan Opera, it was the institution’s move to Lincoln Center in 1966 that truly led to its status as the world’s premier opera house. This spring, the Met has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of that move with a special gala and exhibits dedicated to its history—and the alternative routes the Met could have taken.

The Metropolitan Opera was originally built in New York City in 1883, but it eventually became apparent that the original location on 39th and Broadway had inadequate space for the productions the Met desired to put on.

“It was pretty obvious about 25 years after they built the [original] house that it didn’t have adequate backspace,” explains Peter Clark, director of archives for the Metropolitan Opera. For years, there were plans to move the Met to another location—including a possible spot at Rockefeller Center—but all of them fell through, until it finally made its move to Lincoln Center in 1966.

Old Met Exterior_HR-edit
The Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th St. in the 1890s (Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera archives)

“Having the Met finally get a home that was technically adequate [for] theatre, was probably the crux event in … [its] history,” Clark says. “It changed pretty much everything about the company: it changed the types of performances we could do, it changed the amount of money that it cost to put on a production, it changed the amount of people involved.”

To honor the Met’s anniversary, Clark worked for six months to put together two special exhibitions that are housed in the lower level lobby area of the opera house and open to the public from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. from Monday through Friday and from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sundays. It’s also open for ticket holders during all performances.

The auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Metropolitan Opera House auditorium (Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The first exhibit documents the move to Lincoln Center and features archived photos of the Met. It also discusses the possible moves that could have happened, including the aforementioned move to Rockefeller Center, and the alternative ways the company could have developed. The second exhibit discusses the nine productions that opened the year the opera house made its way to its new home, including the world premier of “Antony and Cleopatra,” an opera created by American composer Samuel Barber that is based on Shakespeare’s adored play.

The Met’s golden anniversary celebrations will culminate with a gala at Lincoln Center May 7, at which attendees will view an exceptional repertory by some of the greatest opera performers today. The curated operatic selections to be staged include excerpts from “Porgy and Bess,” “Samson et Dalila,” “Les Troyens,” “I Lombardi” and, for the first time since the house opened, “Antony and Cleopatra.” The event, which will also feature a special gala dinner following the performances, is an occasion to honor the successes of years past and look ahead to the prosperous seasons to come.

By Ashley Burnett

Feature Photo: The Met’s auditorium (Photo by Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera)