Opera titan Bing dies

September 03, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Sir Rudolf Bing, who as the dapper and acerbic general manager of the Metropolitan Opera from 1950 to 1972 ushered the company into the modern era and into Lincoln Center, died on Tuesday at St. Joseph's Hospital in Yonkers. He was 95.

Mr. Bing firmly established the Met as not only the biggest but also in many ways the most prominent company on the world stage today. He used his well-developed European contacts to draw some of most prominent international stars to the Met, and he offered significant new opportunities for Americans. In particular, he broke the company's racial barrier by hiring Leontyne Price in 1953 and Marian Anderson in 1955.

He cut an autocratic figure at the Met, where he seemed to relish controversy when he did not actively court it. He had run-ins with some of the top international stars of the time, including Maria Callas and Lauritz Melchior. In 1968, he was called the man who "fired" Callas, although the incident, as he later took pains to explain, was not so simple, and he made attempts, which were unsuccessful, to lure her back to the Met.

His tenure included devastating strikes by members of the company in 1961 and 1969. He offered the Met board his resignation after the first one and resigned not long after the second.

"He revolutionized the way the company's productions looked by bringing to the Met the world's greatest directors and designers," said Joseph Volpe, the Met's current general manager.

Mr. Bing's later years took a farcical turn with a romance that was played out in the tabloids. In 1987, at 85, he married Carroll Douglas, who was 47 and had a history of three hospitalizations for psychiatric causes and three marriages to much older men. Mr. Bing was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, those close to him said, and they were able to have the marriage annulled in 1989.

Mr. Bing was born in Vienna in 1902, the youngest of three children. He studied voice. "I still believe that if I had stayed with it I might have become a lieder singer of real distinction," he wrote many years later.

He married Nina Schelemskaya-Schlesnaya, a Russian ballet dancer, in 1928, and they lived together until she died of a stroke in 1983. Both eventually became British citizens.

In 1934, Mr. Bing helped found the first Glyndebourne Festival in England. He was named general manager of the festival in 1935 and maintained the relationship until he left for the Met in 1949, although Glyndebourne ceased its standard season of opera productions during World War II and did not resume until 1951.

On Glyndebourne's behalf, he played a crucial role in the founding of the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in 1946 and was its artistic director until 1949.

Mr. Bing moved to New York in 1949, taking up residence with his wife in a suite at the Essex House on Central Park West. He lived there until after Nina's death, leading a closely regulated existence.

After a season spent observing the Met's operation under his predecessor, Edward Johnson, Mr. Bing took control in June 1950. "All my life up to 1949 could be seen as the proper preparation for being manager of the Metropolitan," he wrote later.

In 1966, the company moved into its new home at Lincoln Center, with the premiere of Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra." The occasion was dampened by poor reviews.

In addition to hiring Volpe, the current general manager, for that prouction, Mr. Bing also hired James Levine, now the company's artistic director, for his Met debut as a conductor in 1971.

"You don't need wit to run an opera house," Mr. Bing wrote in his 1981 memoir "A Knight at the Opera." "You need style." Style he surely had, yet few would have denied that he also had wit, and a quick one.

His targets included himself. "Don't be misled," he once said, "behind that cold, austere, severe exterior, there beats a heart of stone."

Bing has often been been criticized for a perceived neglect of contemporary music and innovative stage direction. Operas given their premieres during his tenure, in addition to "Antony and Cleopatra," were Barber's "Vanessa," in 1958, and Marvin David Levy's "Mourning Becomes Elektra," in 1967. Perhaps the most controversial staging was an aborted Wagner "Ring" cycle, darkly directed as well as conducted in its first installments by Herbert von Karajan.

His favorite directors included Franco Zeffirelli, who mounted a late production of Verdi's "Falstaff" at the old Met, in 1964, and Verdi's "Otello" as the last new production of Mr. Bing's tenure.

But perhaps his favorite production of all was the Mozart's "Zauberflote," designed in 1967 by his friend the painter Marc Chagall. Mr. Bing also arranged for Chagall to paint the large murals at the new Met, which are visible from Lincoln Center Plaza.

Mr. Bing was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1971. He left the Met in April 1972 with a gala concert and a performance of Verdi's "Don Carlo, with which he had also opened his tenure.

He wrote two books of memoirs, "5,000 Nights at the Opera," in 1972 and "A Knight at the Opera" in 1981.

Sir Rudolf's passing finally removes the sting from one of his most famous barbs. When told that the conductor George Szell, with whom he had crossed swords several times, was his own worst enemy, Mr. Bing responded, "Not while I'm alive."

There are no survivors in his immediate family.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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