Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes The Memoirs of Sir Rudolf Bing

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated the birth of the opera impresario Sir Rudolf Bing in 1902 and, using excerpts from his memoir 5000 Nights at the Opera, sketched his life and career up to 1950: the year he took over as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Bing was not the first, nor – sadly – the last senior manager to take on a job only to find out that the institution he was hired to run was in much worse condition than he ever thought possible. For Bing, the Met was a Mess, and to his eternal credit and everlasting fame, it was a mess he cleaned up.

He didn’t do it alone, though, and one of the things I admire about Bing’s memoir is the extent to which he credits others – his staff, board members, volunteers, etc. – with helping to turn the Met around. But then, Bing was clever enough to hire and then lead the right people, and so his modesty aside, we must give credit where credit is due.

Dealing With Artists

Rudolf Bings observes:

“Dealing with artists is not like dealing with people in any other profession. Bank officials and law clerks no doubt have their ambitions, but they do not have to put their lives on the line, to fight for their existence every night at eight o’clock. And these are nervous, irritable, sensitive, talented people!”

Richard Tucker
Richard Tucker (1913-1975)

Richard Tucker (1913-1975)

“One of the first artists I hired [on coming to the Met] – for fear someone in Europe would hear this remarkably beautiful voice and steal the man away – was [the American tenor] Richard Tucker. We had a minor disagreement about fee, winding up our negotiations with $50 per performance still separating us. I foolishly suggested that we toss a coin. We did, and I won, and he never forgot it; he would remind me of this episode in all subsequent negotiations over a period of twenty-odd years and accuse me of using his coin and pocketing it at the end.”

At the end of every Metropolitan season, Bing would fly to Europe for a hectic few weeks of auditioning singers.

“Travelling as general manager of the Metropolitan was a strange experience. I would arrive in a city and be surrounded from the moment I left the plane – reporters, photographers, singers, and agents. I would hold auditions all day, and go to performances all night, and meet with the agents somehow in between, trying to remember what we needed now, what we needed later, and what we could afford. All these trips were frantic, much too crowded and busy. To save my life, I cannot remember in which year I first heard which artists, or under what circumstances. One of the few auditions I remember vividly is that of [the Italian baritone] Tito Gobbi, who was already too eminent an artist to participate in the day-long series of auditions held for me at [Rome’s] Teatro Argentina. But he graciously agreed that I should hear him before offering him an engagement, and he told me he had a large enough room at home. I went to his house and settled down on a couch to listen, and just as his pianist struck the first chord his pet lion came in through a swinging door and started straight for me. I am extremely fond of animals, and this was only a baby lion, but I must admit it was a distracting experience. Gobbi kept singing, and before the lion reached me across the big room his little daughter came dashing through the same door, grabbed the lion by the tail, and dragged him back to where he came from. Eventually we did engage Gobbi, but that audition did not speed the process.”

Early in his tenure at the Met, securing conductors was a challenge for Bing, not because there weren’t enough of them but because they had become way too lax about things in the years before Bing took over. Fritz Reiner conducted for Bing at the Met for three years before leaving in a huff and moving on to the Chicago Symphony. George Szell conducted for Bing but could not get along with anyone before he simply walked off the job. Erich Kleiber was willing to conduct at the Met, but his European commitments were too numerous and precluded him from doing so. For his part, Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) desperately wanted to conduct at the Met, but his perceived association with the Nazis was still too fresh in the early 1950s.…

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