Obituary: Michael Manuel

Elizabeth Forbes
Thursday 08 April 1999 23:02

A STAGE director at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, for 10 years, Michael Manuel will be chiefly remembered for his involvement in the short- lived Metropolitan Opera National Company, which was established to bring opera to every corner of the United States and to give young singers, directors, designers and conductors a chance to learn their trade outside the glare of publicity in New York. Unfortunately, during its two years of existence, the National Company lost several million dollars, at a time when the parent company was itself in dire trouble after the move to the new opera house in Lincoln Center. Something had to be jettisoned and it was not going to be the Met itself.

Michael Manuel was born in London, and after a year at the Royal Academy of Music, 1944-45, in 1948 joined the Covent Garden Opera (later the Royal Opera) as an assistant stage manager. Later he transferred to the Ballet (then still known as the Sadler's Wells Ballet) as stage manager.

In 1957 he went to New York to join the Met, first as an executive stage manager, then as stage director. In December 1960 he both directed and designed a new production of Gluck's opera Alceste for the Metropolitan debut of the great American soprano Eileen Farrell, with Nicolai Gedda as Admete. The following year he restaged Margaret Webster's production of Simon Boccanegra; Caspar Neber's production of Berg's Wozzeck, with Hermann Uhde in the title role and Eleanor Steber as Marie; he also rehearsed La forza del destino, with Farrell, Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill, who was taking over the role of Don Carlo from Leonard Warren, who had collapsed on stage during Act 2 the previous season and died shortly afterwards.

The following year Manuel directed Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice with Kerstin Meyer and Lucine Amara, and Richard Strauss's Elektra with Gerda Lammers in the title role and Regina Resnik as Klytemnestra. The casts at the Met in those days were mouth-watering. During the summer season at the Zoo Gardens in Cincinnati, he directed Madama Butterfly, Salome, La Boheme and Tosca.

Shortly afterwards Manuel became embroiled in the planning and preparation for the Metropolitan Opera National Company. From the start the Metropolitan board was divided over the wisdom of such a venture. The president of the board, Anthony Bliss, was an enthusiastic supporter, while Rudolf Bing, the general manager of the Met, was strongly against the project. Another committed supporter was Mrs De Witt Wallace, of Reader's Digest, who kept announcing wistfully (according to Bing himself), "If only I could have heard Rigoletto, when I was a girl in . . ."

The idea was to perform unusual operas not in the Met's repertory and familiar works in unfamiliar productions. Walter Felsenstein, the renowned director of the Komische Opera in East Berlin, was invited to oversee the productions, but was not granted a visa by the US authorities. Finally, Rise Stevens, the famous American mezzo-soprano, who had just retired from singing, was appointed director, with Manuel as administrator. Singers and conductors were auditioned and, after more than a year of preparatory work, in the late summer of 1965 the company spent two months in rehearsal in a newly built hall in Indianapolis. There the tour began, with Carmen, Madama Butterfly, La Cenerentola and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah.

The first season of the National Company was a fair success, with 248 performances in 72 cities over nine months. However, it lost more than $500,000. The second season was a disaster. The operas performed, La traviata, La Boheme, The Marriage of Figaro and Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, were less popular, and attendance figures fell steadily. The Met, "bleeding cash from every pore in Lincoln Center", as Bing put it, had to advance a million dollars to the National Company in order to pay its debts. The Metropolitan board voted overwhelmingly to cancel the third season, planned to include Tosca, Rigoletto and The Barber of Seville. Mrs De Witt Wallace personally offered a million dollars and other sponsors also collected money, but it was rejected. The Metropolitan Opera National Company was disbanded.

Michael Manuel, presumably fed up with opera, became a researcher and script writer for educational television and video productions.

Michael Manuel, opera director and writer: born London 9 September 1928; died Fleming, New Jersey 5 April 1999.

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