OBITUARY : Sir Rudolf Bing

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The Independent Online
During his 22-year tenure as the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Rudolf Bing was responsible not only for the move from the old theatre on Broadway to Lincoln Center, but for the even more traumatic move from 19th- century practice to 20th- century technology.

Arriving in New York in 1950, Bing found a company whose standards, once so high and bright, had stagnated and become tarnished. When he retired in 1972, Bing left a flourishing institution which could claim to be, with some confidence, the finest opera house in the world. This transformation was not brought about easily or without friction. Bing had to fight everyone - management, board, star singers, musicians, back-stage staff, unions and the press - to achieve all the changes and improvements that he considered imperative, but in the end he won most of those battles and when he could not win he managed a compromise.

Rudolf Bing became an opera administrator by accident. Born in Vienna in 1902 of a middle-class family, he was automatically taken to the opera and to concerts as a child. When his voice broke he developed a light baritone and studied singing for a while with the Finnish bass Helge Lindberg. On leaving school he decided to go into publishing and to that end went to work in a bookshop, Hugo Heller, which was also a concert agency. From 1921, Bing worked exclusively for the agency side of the business, which two years later was expanded to include opera and theatre. Bing started to travel around Europe and paid his first visit to London as manager of two concerts at the Albert Hall given by the British-born tenor Alfred Piccaver.

After an unhappy year in Berlin, working for an agency that handled poor singers for provincial theatres, in 1928 he became assistant to Carl Ebert, the newly appointed Intendant of the Hessian State Theatre, Darmstadt. It was here, juggling performances of Wagner with comic operas by Lortzing and the operettas of Johann Strauss, that Bing learnt his trade as an administrator. Another unproductive period of six months working for a Berlin film studio was followed, in 1931, by a re-union with Ebert at the City Opera, Charlottenberg. A golden age was inaugurated when the conductor Fritz Busch joined Ebert for Un ballo in maschera. Two years later, after Hitler's accession to power, Bing as well as Ebert and Busch left Berlin.

Bing was briefly employed at Teplitz in Czechoslovakia but by January 1934 he was back in Vienna, without a job. Then he received a letter from Busch, about "a very rich Englishman named John Christie" who had a country estate at Glyndebourne in Sussex where he intended staging a Mozart Festival. Bing was asked to hire artists for the first season, in which Le nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan tutte would be conducted by Busch and directed by Ebert.

Bing found the singers required and decided to move to London. After the second Glyndebourne season, during which he worked as assistant producer/stage manager, he was appointed General Manager. With Ebert, Busch and Bing together again, a second golden age had begun, but it lasted hardly longer than the first one, until the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.

Bing had applied for British citizenship but his papers did not come through until 1946 and he was technically an enemy alien. During the war years he managed a tour of The Beggar's Opera for Glyndebourne, then ran the Sadler's Wells Ballet from its base at Dartington Hall in Devon. Later he worked for the John Lewis Partnership, becoming a divisional manager at Peter Jones. In 1944 Bing opened a new Glyndebourne office in London and began planning for the re-opening of the Festival after the war. Although involved in the production by the English Opera Group of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, which was premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, by then he was already deeply involved in a new project, the Edinburgh Festival, for which Glyndebourne would provide the operatic element.

Bing was appointed Artistic Director, and at the first Festival in 1947 he provided a mouth-watering feast for culture-starved British lovers of music and theatre, whose delights included the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter, with Kathleen Ferrier as the unforgettable soloist in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, the Louis Jouvet company from Paris in Moliere and Glyndebourne productions of Le nozze di Figaro and Macbeth.

The second Edinburgh Festival, nearly as exciting as the first, offered the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Renaud-Barrault company playing Marivaux and Gide's translation of Hamlet, as well as the Glyndebourne company in Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni. After the third Festival, which featured a new Glyndebourne staging by Ebert of Un ballo in maschera, Bing resigned, both from Edinburgh and from Glyndebourne; he had been appointed General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. He went to New York in November 1949, in order to spend a year as an observer before taking up his new position at the start of the 1950-51 season.

What shocked Bing most profoundly on his arrival at the Metropolitan was the lack of importance accorded to production. Used to working with European directors such as Carl Ebert, he was appalled at the way operas were staged, with little or no rehearsal, and by the extent to which singers were allowed to do exactly as they pleased.

He planned his opening production, Verdi's Don Carlos, with extreme care, engaging the American stage director Margaret Webster (a Shakespearean specialist) and choosing a cast that mixed familiar singers such as Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill with new voices from Europe such as Boris Christoff. When Christoff, as a Bulgarian, could not obtain a visa, Bing replaced him with Cesare Siepi.

Bing continued to engage eminent, sometimes controversial directors from the world of theatre and film, including Barson Kanin, Alfred Lunt, Tyrone Guthrie, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Peter Brook and Jean-Louis Barrault. He annoyed some Wagner-lovers by allowing Lauritz Melchior to leave, then outraged others by re-engaging Kirsten Flagstad (her husband was reputed to have been a Quisling during the war) to sing Isolde, Fidelio and Brunnhilde, which she did quite gloriously and to thunderous applause. Bing went to Europe to find new artists. Throughout the Fifties and early Sixties the quickest route for American singers to reach the Met was via an engagement at a German or Austrian opera house.

There was, however, one American singer whom Bing had been trying to engage ever since his arrival in New York - Marian Anderson. Early in 1955 the contralto's busy concert schedule finally allowed her to accept his offer and she made operatic history as the first black singer to appear in a major role at the Metropolitan, singing Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera. This was the most momentous action taken by Bing during the entire period of his reign at the Met, as it opened the door for all the other immensely gifted black artists, headed by Leontyne Price and Grace Bumbry, who have sung there since.

Renata Tebaldi also made her Metropolitan debut in 1955, as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello; she remained for 17 seasons. The following year Maria Callas made her debut as Norma; she only stayed for two seasons as in 1958/59 she refused to sing in a new production of Macbeth in alternation with La traviata. As a result "BING FIRES CALLAS" the newspaper headlines screamed and Leonie Rysanek sang Lady Macbeth in her place.

During the final years in the old house, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli (Bing's favourite tenor, despite his frequent attacks of temperament), Jon Vickers, Joan Sutherland and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf joined the Met. Bing was less successful in engaging first-class conductors, but the roster did include Eugene Ormandy, Karl Bohm, Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein.

The new house in Lincoln Center opened on 16 September 1966 with the premiere of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. The libretto was adapted from Shakespeare by Franco Zeffirelli, who also directed. Although this was not the unmitigated disaster it has been made out, the weight of the sets caused one of the turntables to break, jamming the new machinery. Later in the season the first Met staging of Die Frau ohne Schatten and a production of The Magic Flute designed by Marc Chagall were a great deal more popular. American singers now had a shorter road to the Met: they merely crossed the Plaza from the New York City Opera, which also moved to Lincoln Center. Foreign singers, for instance Placido Domingo, also took this route.

The culmination of Bing's years at the Met should have been a new production, jointly mounted with the Salzburg Festival, of the complete Ring cycle, directed and conducted by Herbert von Karajan; in the event, only Die Walkure and Das Rheingold (in that order) were performed before Bing retired. This was mainly due to the three-month strike which closed the theatre in the autumn of 1969, but partly to the antagonism existing between Karajan and Nilsson, an indispensable Brunnhilde in any Ring cycle.

Rudolf Bing, who had remained a British citizen throughout his time in the US, was appointed KBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours of 1971 for his services to Anglo-American relations. The following year, after his retirement from the Metropolitan, he published his autobiography, 5,000 Nights at the Opera. For a while he lectured at Brooklyn College, City University. The final years of his life were marred by Alzheimer's disease.

Rudolf Franz Joseph Bing, opera administrator: born Vienna 9 January 1902; General Manager, Glyndebourne Opera 1935-49; Artistic Director, Edinburgh Festival 1947-49; General Manager, Metropolitan Opera, New York 1950-72; CBE 1956, KBE 1971; Distinguished Professor, Brooklyn College, City University of New York 1972-75; married 1929 Nina Schelemskaja (died 1983), 1987 Carroll Lee Douglass (marriage dissolved 1989); died New York 2 September 1997.