Witness to History

by Susan Spector, oboist

The Last Night at the old Met—April 16, 1966 (Photo from Life Magazine)

The Last Night at the old Met—April 16, 1966 (Photo from Life Magazine)

You cannot see her in this photo, but MET Orchestra violist Marilyn Stroh was just outside of the frame of this photo, set to play for what would be the final Metropolitan Opera performance at this location at 39th Street and Broadway.

About six years before, she had auditioned at the Met. For clarification, she asked if her audition was for a substitute position. She was told rather emphatically, “No! It’s for life!”

Marilyn Stroh is still devoting her life and passion to making music at the Metropolitan Opera, fifty-one years after this historic performance and after having played in the MET Orchestra for a total of fifty-seven seasons.

As you might imagine, Marilyn has a lot of great stories to tell. She has shared some of them already for Allegro, the monthly publication of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, and for Backstage Stories, the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s Tumblr account.

Marilyn is the only current MET Orchestra Musician to have played at the old Metropolitan Opera House and, thus, to have played for the auspicious opening of the new house at Lincoln Center. As the Met anticipates a star-studded 50th Anniversary Gala to mark 50 years at its Lincoln Center home, I asked Marilyn about that special night and her very first impressions when she first saw her new work space.

Space, she said, was literally the very first thing she and other musicians noticed. Along with the augmented facilities, the musicians were excitedly anticipating the simultaneous expansion of the orchestra roster to include additional musicians who could now be accommodated. The additional personnel would, in turn, provide the regular musicians some much-needed work relief. 

The enhanced facilities affected Marilyn personally in a very direct way: She finally had a locker room.

Marilyn Stroh (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Marilyn Stroh (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

At the old opera house, Marilyn shared a locker with a female harp player. That gave her a place for her personal belongings, but a place for changing into her concert attire proved more challenging. The harpist would occasionally resort to changing inside her harp case, but Marilyn’s viola case didn’t afford such possibilities. Without a women’s locker room, her options were to change at home, in an artist’s dressing room (that is, if the evening’s Prima Ballerina or those assigned dressing rooms who were singing comprimario roles happened to be sympathetic), or—as a last resort—in the Women’s Chorus dressing room. Her resourcefulness enabled her to change more or less comfortably, but because the entrance to the pit at the old opera house was through the Orchestra (i.e., men’s) dressing room, getting to her seat for a performance no doubt still afforded some awkward moments for her and her colleagues.

Marilyn was the first full-time female musician to join the ranks of the MET Orchestra. She has alluded to having experienced some subtle misogyny in her early tenure with the orchestra which, considering the gender makeup of the ensemble and the time period—the 1960s—is not surprising. Thus, having a locker room—even a small one—must have been a dramatic improvement for Marilyn and the two other full-time female orchestra members who had joined the ensemble after her.

When asked specifically about the contrast between the former orchestra pit and the new one at Lincoln Center, Marilyn said that it was larger than the previous space. The height of the new orchestra pit was also readily adjustable. In order to ascertain the sonic possibilities at each of the various levels, a test was undertaken by conductor Thomas Schippers and the orchestra. A non-scientific test of the acoustical results produced by the orchestra playing with the floor set at different heights was undertaken, with those out in the hall assessing the results. The lengthy process proved to be a bust, Marilyn said. The ideal orchestral sound was produced, they had found, when the pit was at its lowest setting—all the way down. However, with the pit at that height, it was not possible for the conductor to see the stage and to communicate with those onstage. 

Asked about the opening night’s premiere, Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, Marilyn’s outstanding memory of the opera was hearing Leontyne Price’s glorious voice. Price had been a favorite artist of hers in other repertoire, but Marilyn waxed nostalgic as she remembered the soprano’s signature aria from the Barber work. 

Marilyn indicated that, for her, Barber’s Vanessa is a more cohesive, satisfying work. If Antony and Cleopatra is in any way viewed as a lesser work, she assigns at least partial blame to the rehearsal and staging process itself.

The signature technical feature of the new stage was to have been its turntable. When a tremendously heavy design element broke the turntable and rendered it unusable, Marilyn said that it was personally crushing to then-General Manager Rudolf Bing. She described seeing him, down on his knees, trying to force the turntable into submission through sheer force of will. Not only was Bing unable to show off the new mechanism, but the break-down necessitated changing much of the planned staging. And, in turn, the constant staging changes ending up effecting the work itself as the composer, Marilyn said, had been under continual pressure to “write more music!”

A director traditionally plans the staging to fit the music, not the other way around. If musical accommodations are to be made in the service of staging, music is usually excised through cuts; inserting additional music, in most cases, is simply not an option.

Carmen, 1966: Marc Chagall’s promotional poster for the opening of the new home of the Metropolitan Opera.

Carmen, 1966: Marc Chagall’s promotional poster for the opening of the new home of the Metropolitan Opera.

The unanticipated technical problems led directly to changes in the mounting of the production and the expectation that the composer accommodate these changes to some extent. Barber had been put in the unenviable position of constantly revising his own composition—perhaps not to his own liking. Marilyn speculates that, when all of the various changes that he had been requested to make leading up to the first performance were tallied, Barber could very well have been left with what he could have viewed as a compromise of his original compositional vision.

On May 19, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower participated in groundbreaking ceremonies for the future Lincoln Center. On that occasion, he had the following to say:

"Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts symbolizes an increasing interest in America in cultural matters, as well as a stimulating approach to one of the Nation's pressing problems: urban blight."

We will begin this evening’s festivities by playing the Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. As we do so, we’ll be sitting in the exact geographic location of the musical’s setting. But the time setting of the musical features warring gang factions and other symptoms of the “urban blight” Eisenhower mentioned. When the gala begins, I will be thinking of the dual purpose the “new” Met has served, as both an artistic performance space and for the repurposing of a previously unsightly area of our fair city.

But I’ll also be sitting near Marilyn and thinking of the Met history that she’s been a part of creating from well before we all called Lincoln Center home.