If you want to talk about the rise of Atlanta, you have to talk about opera.
Consider the famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill. Upon learning the British Parliament proposed cutting funding for the arts during World War II, the prime minister is alleged to have replied, “Then what would we be fighting for?” There’s no record of him ever having said that, but you get the sentiment.
Art and culture make a civilization. Without it, humanity wouldn’t be worth saving.
Truth be told, there are a ton of reasons our metropolis gained better footing following the Civil War than cities of similar size and stature. There was the “Atlanta way,” a spirit of boosterism and get-it-doneness, where people didn’t get hung up on tradition and how things were done before.
The fact Atlanta was a relatively new city when the shells and fire destroyed her helped. It is easier to start over when you are just getting started.
There was money. Banks and real estate developers got to work immediately. Businesses and carpetbaggers looking for opportunities in the New South were welcome here, which wasn’t the case in many other places.
Transportation played a considerable role, as well. Atlanta — the Gate City— was a hub before the first plane took to the sky thanks to the railroads.
There are other reasons, too, and they are all well and good, but the city’s heart — her character — came from culture. And that came courtesy the Metropolitan Opera in New York beginning in 1910.
Social life in Atlanta revolved around the Met’s annual week of performances in the spring. It brought with it some of the world’s greatest singers like Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini; a full orchestra, sets, dancers and everything else. It was such a massive production, it had its own train. It was like the circus for the well-heeled.
Everyone who was anyone attended the performances.
To underscore the impact, I have to borrow from the New York Times, which quoted opera aficionado and Buckhead resident Bob Edge in 1983.
“When the Met started coming here in 1910, Atlanta was a big country town,” he said. “Sixty years before there was anything else that was first class in the arts, the Met was coming here. The Met helped create the whole cultural atmosphere in Atlanta. It was like a great pyramid sticking up out of the desert.’’
Atlantans dressed to the nines for a night out on the town when the Met arrived. The same New York Times article noted the Atlanta crowds were better dressed than those in New York.
True to Atlanta, patrons were known to leave after the first act. They had put in their appearance and were ready for the after-parties. People lined up outside to ask for their ticket stubs so they could watch the rest of the opera.
As the century progressed, the tours became more and more expensive. By the 1980s, it wasn’t a train. It was two jumbo jets. It was 350 people, 150 tons of sets, 500 wigs and more, much more. Finally, in 1986 the music stopped. The Met ended its touring schedule.
Fortunately for Atlanta, one of the many opera companies started in the city was still around and in reasonably decent shape. It was the Atlanta Opera, founded as the Atlanta Civic Opera in 1979. While the Met was struggling, the young opera company was well positioned to pick up the pieces and soldier on.
Feb. 8, the arts organization celebrates its 40th anniversary at the Atlanta Opera Gala.
In full disclosure my father, Alfred Kennedy, was the first executive director. It was an interim tag that stuck. He had been the chairman of the board of directors when the company lost its artistic director, and he stepped into the breach. It became a 20-year career.
The fact we have a thriving company to this day has a lot to do with him and a ton of others, but also it has everything to do with the Met and Opera Week.
Those touring productions nurtured a sophistication in Atlanta that helped us to become a truly cosmopolitan city.