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Get to know the operatic power struggle in HBO's "The Gilded Age"

Alison Rosa for HBO
Photographer: Alison Cohen Rosa
Alison Rosa for HBO
"The opera wars are heating up."

In the late 1800s, on the corner of New York’s 14th Street and Irving Place stood "one of the last bastions of decency and standards in this city,” according to Christine Baranski’s Agnes van Rhijn in HBO’s new period piece The Gilded Age.

The Academy of Music was a heavily contested front in the social battle between Manhattan’s old guard and nouveau riche, so throughout the show’s first season it has been mentioned and even visited with some frequency. While the building itself was not demolished until the mid-1920s, the setting of the show is approaching the time in which the institution itself folded. And the tale of the Academy’s rise and fall is a lesson in the perils of exclusivity that may even be useful for classical music today.

The Gilded Age begins in 1882 - a time where the technology to play recorded music had not yet arrived in homes. So if music was to be heard, it needed to be live.

While Amy Beach would not write her Gaelic Symphony for another decade, a couple of generations of American composers had come into their own. The Fisk Jubilee Singers had toured Europe to much acclaim, and it was an American Steinway & Sons piano that won first grand gold medal at the 1862 World’s Fair in London. So by the 1880s America’s music had taken a strong position on the world’s stage. But along with the high quality came a whole world of pride and fashion.

The real Astor family, which holds so much social sway in The Gilded Age, had previously attached their name to an opera house. The Astor Opera House, on Astor Place, opened in 1847 and lasted less than a decade.

It was the project of an impresario named Edward Fry, who had planned to only attract the so-called “uppertens” - the wealthiest people in New York. Luxuriously equipped with only 500 seats, rather than the benches that were customary at the time, the house intended to keep out the rowdy theater crowds. However, it was two competing performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that led to the infamous Astor Place Riot, and the house's subsequent closure.

Not seeing that the cautionary tale in that previous game of one-upmanship, New York’s elite immediately set to work in 1852 to fund another opera house, in a more genteel location. This time it was Union Square.

Editorials in the New York Times predicted a likely failure. Interestingly, one particular writer suggested it would “at once become a Temple of Fashion,” referring to its thousand-dollar subscription price (the equivalent of around $27,000 today). The writer offered that if an institution is built for music, then modest furnishings and decor would allow it to be sustained for the sake of its music, rather than its luxury.


The Academy did not seek to install a permanent opera company, despite calling itself an opera house, nor did they use modest furnishings. But in 1854 it opened with visits from Italian opera companies, as well as theatrical productions, political rallies, and even receptions of world leaders.

The New York Times review of the opening night bemoaned the opulence of the space.

“There is too much ornamentation about the house; too much modeling, and too little color. It writhes in the eye, and looks cold and cheerless.”
New York Times

The review went on to say specifically about the art work that “the quality is excellent; the quantity oppressive.” Similarly, many of the 2,200 seats did not provide a good view of the stage, especially around the sculptures everywhere. But, the sound and acoustics of the room were apparently very good.

Despite mixed feelings, the venue seemed as if it might succeed. The Academy brought the American premieres of many operas and orchestral works to Manhattan. But the nonmusical programming was a different story.

Masked balls in the building held by the nouveau riche were filled with drunken debauchery all while the trustees of the institution claimed The Academy as a pillar of polite society - as long as the box seats were claimed by the oldest families in town. 

This historic exclusivity allows the Academy to be a perfect setting for the power struggles taking place across the street in The Gilded Age. Agnes van Rhijn sends her penniless niece Marian as a guest of another member of society to a performance of the visiting Boston Symphony, led by composer John Knowles Paine. But Bertha Russell of the impossibly palatial mansion across the street, who is even ready to throw money at the charity who the concert is benefitting, has to be invited by the same patron - with many a comment on her position on the waiting list for a box.

The Gilded Age isn’t the first work of fiction to use The Academy of Music as a setting for social intrigue. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence opens with Newland Archer arriving fashionably late to a performance of Gounod’s Faust. Wharton describes Newland sitting with the men, who instead of focusing on the performance, point their glasses toward the ladies in the boxes.

While the absurdity of the experience is on display throughout the opening scene, the irony that the crowd is watching a fictional operatic deal with the devil might have been lost on many readers.

Leaving these box seats out of reach for the Vanderbilts and the Morgans proved to be a fatal mistake for The Academy of Music, as was demonstrated in 1883 (one year after the setting of The Gilded Age season 1). The Academy begrudgingly offered to add 26 new boxes to allow some “new” families into its fold. But, the formation of the Metropolitan Opera Association was already well underway.

The new Metropolitan Opera house opened at the corner of 39th and Broadway with three whole tiers of boxes that October.

Within three years the Academy’s season was canceled. The Met Opera’s current home in Lincoln Center opened in 1966, and the company continues.

It was the exclusion of the innovative industrialists that led to this paradigm shift. But, it’s not fair to say that the comeuppance for the Academy was a reset of New York society’s moral compass. Another term for these industrialists was robber barons. Each of the financiers had built an empire on intimidation, exploitation, and monopolization. 

But as such, they had the resources to point their philanthropy in places that suited them socially, with massive wealth giveaways as a favored show of power. A dichotomy of morals that large institutions, especially in older cities like New York with higher costs, still face.

Read more in the New York Times: about Russian Oligarchs and their role as patrons of the arts in the United States

As Red Cross founder Clara Barton remarks in The Gilded Age, charities at the time were well aware of their status as social ladders. She remarks that the only thing for it is to be grateful when you’re the chosen ladder and try to do some good with it.

The larger hall at the Met also allowed for the growing middle class to attend, which proved to be complicated for the management, as it led to a difference in priorities and tastes.

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (the same Mrs. Astor portrayed in The Gilded Age) may have been bedecked in diamonds in her box seat every Monday at 9, but it was the crowd below in the less expensive seats that called for an end to the customary vocal socializing in the boxes. Much to the consternation of the wealthy patrons, the middle class was actually there for the music - and knew quite a lot about what they were hearing.

In the general admission area, opera was to be seen and heard. For the boxes, it remained a place to be seen.

Still today this is an element of a visit to Lincoln Center for an evening at the Metropolitan Opera - to a different degree than any Broadway theater, or even next door at David Geffen Hall’s New York Philharmonic performances. The affable Instagram accountLast Night At The Met shares detail on the high fashion spotted throughout the crowds. And when the option to pivot to video performances or more accessible concert styles appeared in the pandemic, the organization instead furloughed just about everyone they employed. HD video performances were available online and archives were aired on radio, but the gala was filmed overseas.

Read more from NPR about the Metropolitan Opera furlough.

Now that the company has returned to its home space in Lincoln Center with live audiences, it is slowly beginning to answer increased calls to diversify its programming and cut ties with artists who are vocally aligned with oppressive dictators. And pressure remains for the venue to create a more welcoming experience for Black opera-goers. Proof that even now, a century and a half later, history holds the lesson that our personal prejudices remain an existential threat to classical music.

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.