The Metropolitan Opera was founded in 1883 by a group of businessmen who wanted their own theatre. The first building was built at the corner of Broadway and 39th Street. In the first few years, management changed strategies several times, initially giving all performances in Italian, even operas written in French or German, then everything in German including works written in Italian or other languages, until the time came when operas were presented in their original language.
The Metropolitan Opera has always hired the finest artists. Christine Nilsson and Marcella Sembrich shared the principal roles during the opening season. In the German seasons that followed, Lilli Lehmann dominated the Wagnerian repertory and everything she chose to sing. In the 1890s, Nellie Melba and Emma Calvé shared the limelight with the De Reszke Brothers, Jean and Edouard, and two American sopranos, Emma Eames and Lillian Nordica. Enrico Caruso arrived in 1903, and when he died eighteen years later, he had sung more at the Met than at all the other opera companies of the world combined.
American singers acquired greater fame with Geraldine Farrar and Rosa Ponselle, who became key members of the company. In the 1920s, Lawrence Tibbett became the first in a line of top-flight American baritones who called the Met home. Today the Met continues to present the finest talents and discovers and trains young artists through several different programmes.
It was obvious from the start that the 39th Street building did not have adequate stage equipment. However, it was only when the Metropolitan Opera joined up with other New York institutions to create the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts that a new building could be planned. The new Metropolitan Opera, which opened at Lincoln Center in September 1966, was equipped with the finest technical equipment.
Many great conductors added a special touch to the Met, starting with Wagner disciple Anton Seidl in the 1880s and 1890s and Arturo Toscanini, who débuted here in 1908. There were two seasons with Toscanini and Gustav Mahler as conductors; the following seasons saw Artur Bodanzky, Bruno Walter, George Szell, Fritz Reiner and Dimitri Mitropoulos as powerful musical directors. James Levine made his début here in 1971, and in the 2010–11 season celebrated his fortieth anniversary with the Met, where he has been musical director since 1976.
The Met was responsible for the U.S. premieres of some of the most important operas in the repertory. Among Wagner’s works, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Das Rheingold, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal premiered at the Met. Other American premieres included Boris Godunov, Der Rosenkavalier, Turandot, Simon Boccanegra, and Arabella. But there was also Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and Il Trittico, Humperdinck’s Königskinder, and five recent works — The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano and William Hoffman (1991), The Voyage by Philip Glass (1992), The Great Gatsby by John Harbison (1999), An American Tragedy by Tobias Picker (2005), and The First Emperor by Tan Dun (2006). Since 1976, thirty-seven operas have premiered at the Met.
Hänsel und Gretel was the first complete opera broadcast from the Met on Christmas Day, 1931. Saturday afternoon live broadcasts quickly made the Met a permanent presence in communities throughout the United States and Canada. Since the 1970s, the Met has broadcast many performances on TV and radio, and since 2006, live broadcasts in high definition in cinemas in many countries around the world have been a huge success, enabling a very wide audience to enjoy opera.