HBO's theatre-talent-filled prestige period drama The Gilded Age is currently back for season two to explore the lives of the ultra rich at the turn of the century. And this season, it's tackling an infamous (and somewhat forgotten) moment in New York cultural history: the 1883 Opera War that led to the creation of the Metropolitan Opera.
Season 2 of Julian Fellowes' show The Gilded Age picks up in 1883, the very same year that the Metropolitan Opera appeared to challenge The Academy of Music—the latter had long been recognized as the crowning jewel of the high class society in New York. The 1883 Opera War serves as a motivating factor throughout the entire second season—it is led in the show by dueling matriarchs played by Carrie Coon and Tony winner Donna Murphy.
What is true and what has been embellished for television? We arts enthusiasts at Playbill are here to provide the historical background of what actually happened in Manhattan 140 years ago, and how we are still feeling the ramifications of the feud today.
Warning! Spoilers for the first three episodes of The Gilded Age Season 2 will appear below, as well as historical spoilers that will likely be explored in future episodes.
The first episode of Season 2, "You Don't Even Like Opera," kickstarts a new conflict between the old and new money families. Bertha Russell, the matriarch of the powerful fictional new money family played by Carrie Coon, learns that her application to purchase a box at the Academy of Music has been delayed.
The Russell family is an amalgamation of many infamous new money families from the Gilded Age era, including the Vanderbilts. As detailed in Season 1, Bertha has climbed her way up the social ladder in order to establish high esteem for her family, pushing directly against the quasi aristocracy established by the old money families, led by Mrs. Caroline Astor.
Played on The Gilded Age by Donna Murphy, Mrs. Astor was the ultimate socialite of the old money set, with her Four Hundred list denoting who was and was not a part of New York high class in crowd. While Bertha had successfully worked her way into Mrs. Astor's circle by the end of Season 1, Season 2 opens with the pair at odds over the issue of the boxes.
But, as Mr. Russell states, "You don't even like opera." Bertha's interest in the opera, and therefore obtaining one of its boxes to seat her family, is not an artistic one. During the late 19th century, to go to the opera was to be publicly seen, and to be seated in one of the Academy's few private boxes was to be publicly declared "in." Boxes were passed down from parent to child within the oldest and most prominent families in New York's upper class, making it next to impossible for the new money families to break into the status symbol. Historically, there are records of new money families offering to pay as much as $30,000 for an Academy box, the equivalent of $1,000,000 today, only to be firmly denied.
For the real-life Mrs. Astor, this particular status symbol was deeply personal: The Astor family was embedded in the very heart of the Academy's history, with the Astor Opera House (located on the similarly named Astor Place) preceding the Academy in New York cultural history. The Astor Opera House had been closed only a few short years after its opening when riots broke out in the streets, due to competitive fury over two simultaneous performances of Macbeth in the area. The Academy had been founded with the intention of avoiding such displays, putting endless barriers in place to separate the high and the low brow while also silencing any competition within the market. This history has yet to be explored within The Gilded Age, but we wouldn't be surprised to see it appear in a later episode this season.
In the show, when Mrs. Astor tells Bertha to wait her turn, Bertha is inspired to push against their exclusion by supporting a rival opera company, something that would have been considered beyond gauche in Mrs. Astor's eyes. After all, the launch of a competing company could very well have been considered an act of war in the eyes of high society, reviving the buried legacy of the Astor Opera House.
Every war needs a diplomat, and on The Gilded Age, that role is personified by Mr. Gilbert, a fictional financier for the fledgling Metropolitan Opera company. Mr. Gilbert is also played by Jeremy Shamos (who is currently starring in the final Sondheim musical, Here We Are).
In a dramatic show of soft power, Episode 1 ends with Bertha throwing a star-studded dinner party, filled with many of the most powerful new and old money families. At the party, Mr. Gilbert reveals several key aspects of the Mets plan to challenge the Academy, including their intention to produce at a loss for the first several years of their existence.
Producing at a loss is an expensive gamble utilized by companies looking to crowd out competition. By opting to operate without a profit, a company can pour money into increasingly spectacular productions, drawing audiences away from other companies that are hindered by limited purse strings. Depending on the depth of the competitions coffers, those that produce at a loss either win the war of attrition, shifting to a for-profit margin after forcing the closure of the competition. Or, they find themselves so deep in the hole as to be forced to close themselves, unable to out sprint the competition. In the 21st century, we have seen loss leader gambling pay off for companies like Amazon, which successfully crowded out independent retailers by intentionally pricing items below the tenable rate.
In The Gilded Age, the stir triggered by this proclamation from Mr. Gilbert is compounded by the lineup he announces for the initial season, which is accurate to the Met's original opening lineup. Name dropped singers include Sofia Scalchi, Marcella Sembrich, Giuseppe Del Puente, Andrea Romano, Italo Campanini, and Roberto Stagno.
While many of those names are not necessarily familiar to contemporary ears, rest assured that they were the height of artistic excellence in their day, roughly equivalent to lining up Bernadette Peters, Lea Salonga, Barbra Streisand, Lea Michele, Leslie Odom, Jr., Hugh Jackman, and Patti LuPone in one fell swoop.
The pièce de résistance, however, descends as the party moves from the dining room to the Russells' grand entry hall.
There, the Russell family staff had installed an elaborate preview exhibition of the production set to open the Met: Faust, starring the incandescent Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson. Nilsson was considered one of the most famous women in the world at this time, redefining the very concept of an operatic diva. That she would be starring in the inaugural production of the new company, as well as appearing at this informal fundraising party, would be the equivalent of Audra McDonald showing up to personally perform at your dinner party. Naturally, the guests are flabbergasted.
Playing Nilsson on The Gilded Age is Metropolitan Opera alum Sarah Joy Miller, who brings the legendary soprano to life for an aria that closes out the inaugural episode. Hearing Miller perform in character is bittersweet for opera fans, as Nilsson, in spite of her reputation, was never gramophone recorded for posterity, leaving her brilliant coloratura a thing of the past.
Equally bittersweet in the moment is Mrs. Astor, who stands fuming. Nilsson had previously considered the Academy her American artistic home, exclusively performing there while in New York. Her being lured to the Met was a sign of what was to come, as detailed throughout the following episodes. And in real life, Nilsson did legitimize the Met in the eyes of New York society by performing as "Marguerite" in Faust, the opera house's inaugural production in 1883.
Episode 2 continues to build this tension as the families travel to Newport, with Met Opera impresario Henry Eugene Abbey name-dropped as the Met continues to shore up its soft power back in New York. Episode 3 sees the members of both sets coming to an idealogical collision at the American premiere of Oscar Wilde's first play Vera; or, The Nihilists—a Russian tragedy that sees the reigning aristocracy slain by newly emboldened revolutionaries: a bit of foreshadowing for what is to come, perhaps?
By the end of Episode 3, tensions threaten to boil over when it is revealed that the Met will begin its season with Nilsson on October 22, the very same day as the opening at the Academy. This decision, which is immediately met with fury from Mrs. Astor and the old money set, essentially forces all of New York society to pick a side: whichever season opening you attend, you will be putting your lot in, with no option to attend both in order to play both sides.
That's not just a convenient dramatic device; in real life, both opera houses did open their season on the same night, October 22, 1883. Some intrepid elites did manage to hurry across the 25 blocks from one opera house to another, catching portions of both opening performances.
In The Gilded Age, the October opening is only a few short episodes away, the powder keg is certain to follow Bertha Russell as she continues to strike at the kindling of high society. From our 21st century vantage point, we know the Met Opera will emerge as the victor in the opera wars—the Academy will stop producing opera in 1886 and its building will be demolished in 1926. But within the context of The Gilded Age, who knows who will be consumed by the flames.
Tune in to The Gilded Age on HBO, Sundays at 9 PM EST to witness the fiery aftermath.