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Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Gilded Age Opera Wars: The Academy of Music vs. The Metropolitan Opera

One of the major plot points running through the second season of HBO’s The Gilded Age was the clash between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera.  Although the battle between the two opera houses was historically documented, the conflict was amplified on the show for maximum drama.  The Academy of Music had been New York’s established opera house since the 1850s and only those with “old money” and connections had boxes.[1]  With the influx of “new money” into New York, many families were unable to get a box due to the academy’s exclusivity and lack of space.  As a result, families with “new money” decided to pool their resources and build a brand-new opera house, the Metropolitan Opera.  When the Metropolitan Opera opened its doors for the very first time in 1883, they did so on the same exact night as the opening for the Academy of Music.  This set up the two opera houses for a clash where only one would triumph in the end! But which opera house did Ruth & Ogden Mills choose?  Read on to find out!

Puck Magazine, a publication often using humor or satire to depict current events, showcased the clash in the October 31, 1883 edition, Artist Joseph Keppler, Library of Congress.

Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) & Mrs. Russell
(Carrie Coon) face off in an episode of
HBO's The Gilded Age, Courtesy of HBO
On the show, new moneyed social climber Bertha Russell continues to push the queen of the old guard, Caroline Astor, for further acceptance into the upper echelons of society. Mrs. Russell knew that the opera was one of the important places to see and be seen, but she could not get a box at the Academy of Music. She makes the point that the opera is a gateway into society and new social opportunities. She could never be fully accepted without a box at the Academy. When Mrs. Astor makes it clear that she will not help her and she is unlikely to ever get a box, Mrs. Russell puts her efforts and money behind a new opera house, the Metropolitan Opera. Historically Mrs. Astor was one of the most visible patrons of the Academy of Music. The season follows the ups and downs as the two companies head towards opening night on October 22, 1883. Because the Metropolitan Opera House and the Academy of Music opened on the same night, society had to pick a side. Some families may have purchased boxes at both opera houses, but when it came to opening night, they still had to make a decision.

The Academy of Music opened in 1854 and was located on the corner of East 14th Street and Irving Place, Engraving c. 1870, Museum of the City of New York

The Academy of Music opened in 1854 and was located on the corner of East 14th Street & Irving Place.  The interior was lavishly decorated and there were 4,000 seats as well as several tiers of private boxes boasting gilt decoration and chandeliers.  Patrons would dress to the nines and the women would be dripping in jewels.  It was the place to be seen and owning a box here declared one’s place in society.  After industrialization and the increasing number of wealthy families created by it, there were more newly rich families who wanted a box at the Academy, but there just were not enough boxes. There were only 18 boxes and they had been taken for decades by old moneyed Knickerbocker families. Trying to remain exclusive, the Academy board refused to expand and build more boxes.  William H. Vanderbilt offered $30,000 to buy a box, which was far above the normal annual cost, but the Academy refused his admission.  In response, Vanderbilt and other “new money” families who were similarly shut out like him began to work toward building a new venue and founded the Metropolitan Opera House Company.  By April 1880, Vanderbilt along with fellow millionaires such as Robert & Ogden Goelet, J. Pierpont Morgan, Jay Gould, James A. Roosevelt, Adrian Iselin, and Vanderbilt's own sons Cornelius II & William K. had raised over half a million dollars to put towards the endeavor. 

Metropolitan Opera, 1905, Library of Congress

Christina Nilsson (1843-1921), 1870,  
Carte deVisite Collection,
Boston Public Library
In all, over 70 individuals raised the $1.7 million needed to buy the land and build the new opera house.  Not only was the new opera house larger and more opulent, the Metropolitan Opera also secured top notch performers.  They were able to pay performers more money than the Academy so they were able to get the best talent.  For the opening night, one of the most famous operatic singers in the world, Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson, sang the role of “Marguerite” in Faust.  She had performed at the Academy in the past, but moved to the Metropolitan when they made an offer.  Instead of shying away from competition, the Metropolitan Opera declared that opera house would open on October 22, 1883, which was the exact same night as the season opening for the Academy of Music.  The program at the Academy was the Italian opera La Sonnambula with Hungarian soprano Etelka Gerster (1855-1920) performing the part of Amina, which was one of her signature roles.

According to the New York Tribune, the opening night for both opera houses was a success, and despite the grand opening of the Metropolitan Opera, the Academy of Music was still full.[2]  A full house at both the Academy and the Metropolitan was pleasing to the directors of both houses because it showed that New York was now large and culturally rich enough to support two opera houses, which was a major win for the musical community. 

New York Tribune, October 23, 1883, p.5

The newspapers the next day could not help but make comparisons between the two opera houses, which included both positive and negative aspects of both.  The newspapers gushed over the opulence of the new opera house. Yet The Sun reported, “In fact, it [the Metropolitan Opera House] seems in many ways an unimaginative house, and though it is more brilliant than the Academy, the lines are not as pleasing or graceful.”[3]  They said that the space was too large to truly feature the voice of solo artists and the acoustics were better suited for an ensemble.  Upon reviewing opening night at the Academy of Music, The Sun, mentioned that the scenery was “rustic” and “mellowed by age” since they had not purchased new scenery as rumored.  Most likely, the scenery of the Academy was dreary compared to the dazzling and opulent new Metropolitan Opera house.

The interior of the Metropolitan Opera House,
Ladies Home Journal, November 1, 1920
New York Public Library Collection

It is also telling that The New York Times prominently featured the opening of the Metropolitan Opera on the front page of the paper the following day, however, the Academy’s opening night was relegated to the fifth page.  The article about the Metropolitan covered about a third of the front page of the paper, and even though it was mostly positive, the review did include some criticisms about the acoustic properties of the new opera house.  The Academy received only a fraction of the print space, but the review was entirely positive.  Mrs. Astor’s name was conspicuously absent from the list of attendees at either opening night because she left town and remained away for opening night.  Ostensibly, she wanted to avoid giving her approval to the new opera house while at the same time, she did not want to appear left behind attending the event with much less buzz.  

So which opening night did Ruth & Ogden Mills attend?  The Metropolitan!

While the short answer is that they attended the Metropolitan Opera, to more fully understand their position in the opera war, we need to take a look at their respective families and the way their marriage bridged old and new society.   When Ruth & Ogden Mills were mentioned in the first season of HBO’s The Gilded Age, it was in respect to their marriage and the fact that Ruth, a Livingston and member of the old guard, had married an “upstart.”  A mention of their engagement appeared in many newspapers across the country proclaiming, “This is spoken of as an alliance between money and ‘blood.’”[4]  Ruth’s parents, Mrs. & Mrs. Maturin Livingston were considered leaders of New York Society, and Ruth’s mother was a contemporary of Mrs. Astor.  They attended the same social events regularly. They did not have one of the coveted boxes at the Academy, but many friends including their Staatsburgh neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. W.B Dinsmore did.  It is likely that they had attended the opera at the Academy of Music as the guest of a boxholder many times before the opening of the new opera house. 

Darius Ogden Mills (1825-1910), California Historical Society

On the other end of the spectrum was Ogden’s father, Darius Ogden Mills.  As a businessman with first-generation wealth, D.O. Mills invested in the Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1880 when he returned from California to settle in New York.  He joined other wealthy families locked out of the Academy and contributed money to the new opera house.  So why did Ruth and Ogden join D.O. at the Metropolitan?  Even though Ruth’s parents were old money, they did not have a box at the Academy and there was little chance that Ruth and Ogden would ever be able to get one without the Academy adding more boxes.  It made sense for the recently married couple to attend the new Metropolitan since Ogden’s father was a shareholder and they would ultimately inherit his box.

Diagram of boxes at the Metropolitan Opera, NY Tribune, October 21, 1883, p.9

When the Metropolitan Opera opened, D.O. Mills attended opening night in his box, which was #59 in the first tier (see map). While Ruth & Ogden Mills also attended opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, they did not sit with D.O. Mills, but were instead guests of Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt in their Box, which was #17 and in the parterre.  The Mills family continued to attend the Metropolitan Opera and maintained a box for decades.  In this program for the 1930-1931 season, Box 20 in the parterre is occupied by the Estate of Ogden Mills (he passed away in 1929) and his sister, Mrs. Whitelaw Reid.

This program from the 1930-1931 Metropolitan Opera season lists the boxholders and shows a map of the boxes, p.12

Historically, even Mrs. Astor was not as diametrically opposed to the Metropolitan Opera as was her portrayal on the show.  In fact, she had a box in both opera houses.  Hers wasn’t the only family to purchase a box in both spaces and the opening of a new opera house actually meant that more people were able to enjoy the opera.  Mrs. Astor may have stayed away from both opera houses on opening night, but relatives did attend.  If Mrs. Astor did feel betrayed by the development of the Metropolitan Opera, she would have had to look no further than her brother-in-law and daughter.  Her brother-in-law, John Jacob Astor, attended the Metropolitan in his box as did her daughter Mrs. James R. Roosevelt. Although she did continue to attend the Academy, Mrs. Astor was the patroness of the annual Bachelor’s Ball held at the Metropolitan Opera House in April 1884, just six months after opening.[5]  She continued to attend the Metropolitan Opera for many years and was known for arriving late and leaving early.  The Metropolitan Opera proved successful, and there was nothing to be gained by expressions of opposition.

The New York Times, December 13, 1886, p.5

In the end, the new Metropolitan Opera house triumphed, and its success spelled the beginning of the end for the Academy of Music. Just three years later, the 1886 opera season at The Academy of Music was cancelled and it faced an uncertain future.  By 1888 the Academy of Music turned to vaudeville and was no longer an exclusive place for New York high society.  There is a certain irony that just a few years after the opening of the Metropolitan Opera, the Academy of Music was now a place for popular music enjoyed by the masses.  In 1925 the Consolidated Gas Company purchased the building and demolished it to make way for the company’s new headquarters.

Daily News, November 21, 1943, p. 58

Membership and owning a box at the Metropolitan Opera soon became an indication of social success, and the company continues to present opera performances to this day.  The original 1883 opera house on Broadway at 39th Street closed in 1966 and was demolished the following year to make way for the current location at Lincoln Center, which is larger and acoustically superior.  It is only fitting that the actress who played Christina Nilsson on the show is also an opera singer who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera in the present day!

Sarah Joy Miller plays Christina Nilsson on HBO’s The Gilded Age, 2023, Courtesy of HBO

[1] Both opera houses had general admission tickets, but wealthy socially ambitious families would not want to sit with the masses.  Private box seats were coveted and the only socially acceptable way for leaders of society to attend the opera.

[2] HBO’s The Gilded Age did not stick with historical accuracy on this point and instead depicted the Academy of Music as empty.  On the show, Mrs. Fish described the Academy as a morgue, but historically the Academy performance on this date was well attended.

[3] “The Opening of the New Opera House – A Brilliant and Memorable Occasion,” The Sun, October 23, 1883, p.3.

[4] The Minneapolis Journal, February 13, 1882, p 2.

[5] Ruth & Ogden Mills also were listed as attendees of this ball in The New York Times, April 18, 1884, p.2


  1. A very good review of the actual story of the two opera houses in NYC in the 1880’s.
    The story line presented in the TV program “ The Gilded Age” is fascinating and enjoyable but I also like to know what the real history is behind the stories.
    Thanks Maria for your research and presenting the facts for where Ogden and Ruth Mills fits in the story.
    Happy New Year to all at the Mills Estate!

    1. Thank you! The show is a great starting point to look further into the history and learn more. Happy New Year!

  2. I always enjoy reading the historical news from the writers of Straatsburg! And then of course I love the shows and the loving way they present history with a twist! Keep up all of the great work! I cannot wait to be back on the property some time soon. Thank you for all you do!
    Dr. D.L. Mills

  3. I loved reading this. Thank you so much!