A History of Metropolitan Opera Music Directors

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


A blog dedicated to the history of the music directors of the Metropolitan Opera.

The Early Years

The Metropolitan Opera is one of the most renowned opera companies in the world. It was founded in 1880 by a group of wealthy New Yorkers who wanted to bring grand opera to the United States. The first music director was Gustav Mahler, who held the position from 1909 to 1911. Under his direction, the Metropolitan Opera became one of the most important opera companies in the world.

The First Music Director

The first music director of the Metropolitan Opera was Julius Eichberg, who was appointed in 1883. Eichberg served for just one season, during which time he oversaw the premiere of Verdi’s Otello. He was succeeded by Anton Seidl, who led the Met for four seasons until his untimely death in 1898.

The Second Music Director

In 1866, at the advice of Liszt, Anton Seidl was hired as second conductor. He served as music director from 1873 to 1878. During his tenure, the metronome was used for the first time during rehearsals. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen finally made it to the stage in 1876; it had been banned by Abraham because of its length and expense (and because Wagner would not allow any cuts).

The Third Music Director

The third music director of the Metropolitan Opera was Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, more commonly known as Giacomo Puccini. He was born on December 22, 1858, in Lucca, Italy.

Puccini’s father was Michele Puccini, a minor composer and church organist. His mother, Albina Magi, was a gifted amateur singer. From a young age, Puccini showed an interest in music and composed his first piece at the age of eight.

Puccini attended the Conservatory of Milan from 1876 to 1880, where he studied under Carlo Pedrotti and Amilcare Ponchielli. He also took private lessons from Franco Faccio. During his time at the conservatory, Puccini became good friends with fellow student Arturo Toscanini.

Puccini made his operatic debut in 1884 with his opera Le Villi. The opera was not successful and was soon forgotten. Undeterred, Puccini continued to compose and his next opera, Edgar, received its premiere at La Scala in 1889. The opera was once again not successful and closed after just five performances.

Puccini’s next opera, Manon Lescaut, premiered at La Scala in 1893 and was much more successful than his previous two operas. The opera is based on the novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost and tells the story of an irresponsible young woman who is torn between love and money.

The success of Manon Lescaut led to Puccini being appointed as the third music director of the Metropolitan Opera in 1900. He held this position until 1908 when he resigned due to disagreements with the management over money and artistic control.

During his time as music director of the Metropolitan Opera, Puccini oversaw the production of four of his own operas: Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), La Fanciulla del West (1910), and Turandot (1926). He also oversaw many other productions including Verdi’s Aida (1901) and Falstaff (1902), Wagner’s Parsifal (1903), and Rossini’s La Cenerentola (1905).

After resigning from his post as music director, Puccini returned to Italy where he continued to compose until his death on November 29, 1924. His final opera, Turandot, was left unfinished at his death but was completed by Franco Alfano and premiered posthumously at La Scala in 1926.

The Middle Years

After the death of Antonin Dvorak in 1904, Metropolitan Opera music directors were faced with the task of finding a replacement that could live up to the high standards set by their predecessor. They succeeded in this task with the hiring of Gustav Mahler in 1907. Mahler was a well-known conductor who had previously worked with some of the most famous orchestras in Europe.

The Fourth Music Director

In 1908, struggling to find a replacement for Gatti-Casazza, the board turned to Italian conductor Toscanini, then music director of La Scala. In an attempt to attract the great maestro, they not only doubled his proposed salary to $15,000, but also gave him a free hand in choosing his operas and singers. Toscanini’s first two years were rocky ones; his choices of repertoire and singers were often at odds with what the board and much of the audience wanted. But by the 1910-11 season he had begun to win over both, thanks in part to his staging of Verdi’s Don Carlos with an all-star cast that included Enrico Caruso, Emma Eames, and Titta Ruffo.

The Fifth Music Director

From 1884 until 1891, Anton Seidl was the Metropolitan Opera’s fifth music director. Of Hungarian birth, Seidl studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory and later worked as an assistant to Wagner at Bayreuth. He conducted the New York Philharmonic from 1891 until his death in 1898. At the Met, Seidl led over 300 performances of 44 different operas during his tenure, including 19 world premieres. Among the works he conducted were Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Parsifal, as well as Verdi’s Aida and Otello. Seidl was a champion of new American operas, and under his baton the Met gave the world premieres of Walter Damrosch’s The Scarlet Letter (1886) and Reginald De Koven’s Robin Hood (1890).

The Sixth Music Director

The sixth music director of the Metropolitan Opera was Giuseppe Verdi, an Italian composer. He was born in 1813 and died in 1901. In his 88 years, he composed over 30 operas, most of which are still performed today. He is best known for his operas “Rigoletto” and “La traviata.”

Verdi was appointed music director of the Metropolitan Opera in 1871, a position he held until his death in 1901. Under his leadership, the opera house saw many changes, including the introduction of electric lighting and the construction of a new stage. He also oversaw the transition from German to Italian as the primary language of the opera house.

During Verdi’s tenure as music director, the Metropolitan Opera became one of the most important opera houses in the world. He helped to establish its reputation as a leading center for Italian opera and attracted some of the biggest names in opera to perform at the Met, including Enrico Caruso and Adelina Patti.

The Late Years

In the late years of the Metropolitan Opera, the music directors continued to add to the repertoire with contemporary operas. They also increased the number of American works in the repertoire. James Levine made his debut in 1971 with a production of Peter Grimes. He remained music director until his retirement in 2016.

The Seventh Music Director

The seventh music director of the Metropolitan Opera was the Frenchman Gabriel Dussurget, who held the title from 1896 to 1903. Born in Bordeaux in 1841, Dussurget was a protégé of Jacques Offenbach and began his career as an opera composer. His best-known work is probably the operetta La Carte du Tendre, which premiered at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1874.

Dussurget’s tenure at the Met was marked by some controversy. In 1898, he caused a stir by programming Richard Strauss’s Salome, which many felt was too scandalous for the Met audience. Nevertheless, Salome was a success, and Dussurget continued to programming cutting-edge works by Strauss, Claude Debussy, and other contemporary composers.

Dussurget resigned from the Met in 1903 amid rumors of disagreements with general manager Heinrich Conried. He returned to France and died in Nice in 1907.

The Eighth Music Director

In 1936, the great tenor Enrico Caruso died, and the following year his close friend Toscanini conducted a memorial concert at the Metropolitan Opera. Toscanini had been music director of La Scala in Milan and the New York Philharmonic, but he had never conducted at the Metropolitan Opera. At the memorial concert, Toscanini was so moved by the outpouring of affection from the Met audience that he decided to conduct there regularly. He made his Met debut in November 1937, leading a performance of Verdi’s Aida.

Toscanini became the eighth music director of the Metropolitan Opera in February 1940, and he held the position until 1945. During his tenure, he led several dozen performances of Verdi operas, as well as works by Puccini, Wagner, and Richard Strauss. He also gave the world premiere of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff. In addition to his work at the Met, Toscanini continued to guest conduct at other opera houses and orchestras around the world.

Toscanini’s time as music director of the Metropolitan Opera was cut short by World War II. In 1945, he resigned from his position and returned to Italy. He died in 1957 at the age of 89.

The Ninth Music Director

The ninth music director of the Metropolitan Opera was Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who was born in Rovigo, Italy, in 1869. He began his musical training at the age of nine, and later studied at the Milan Conservatory. After receiving his diploma in 1887, he became a singer and made his debut at La Scala in 1888. He also sang at major opera houses in Germany and Russia before becoming the artistic director of the Teatro Lirico in Milan in 1898.

Gatti-Casazza remained at Teatro Lirico for 19 years, during which time he helped to make it one of the leading opera houses in Europe. In 1908, he was offered the position of music director at the Metropolitan Opera, but he declined it because he did not want to leave Milan. However, he eventually accepted the position, and he served as music director from 1908 to 1915.

During his tenure at the Metropolitan Opera, Gatti-Casazza oversaw some major changes. He increased the number of performances from 60 to 148 per season, and he expanded the repertoire to include more works by Verdi and Wagner. He also engaged some of the most famous singers of his day, including Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar.

Gatti-Casazza resigned from his position at the Metropolitan Opera in 1915, due to disagreements with management over financial matters. He returned to Italy, where he became the artistic director of La Scala from 1916 to 1929. He died in 1940 at the age of 71.

The Present

Since its founding in 1883, the Metropolitan Opera has undergone significant changes in both size and scope. In the early years, the company produced Italian opera exclusively, but by the mid-20th century, it had become a magnet for the world’s greatest singers and a repository for the finest talent in opera. The present music director is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was appointed in 2020.

The Tenth Music Director

In September 1883, Leopold Damrosch began his tenure as the tenth music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Damrosch, who was just thirty-four years old at the time, was the youngest person to ever be appointed to the position. He remained in his post for only three seasons, but during that time he made a significant impact on the company.

Damrosch was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland) into a musical family. His father was a well-known conductor and his grandfather had been a composer. When he was just eighteen years old, Damrosch came to America with his father to help him launch the New York Symphony Society. He later joined his father on the conducting staff of the Metropolitan Opera.

Under Leopold Damrosch’s leadership, the Metropolitan Opera became known for its innovative productions and strong commitment to new works. In 1884, Damrosch staged a highly successful production of Verdi’s Aida that featured elaborate sets and costumes designed by Giuseppe de Angelis. The following year, he oversaw the American premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal. He also championed other contemporary composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Anton Bruckner.

Sadly, Leopold Damrosch died suddenly of pneumonia in 1885 at the age of just thirty-six. His widow Helen later married another famous conductor, Walter Damrosch, who served as music director of the Metropolitan Opera from 1903 to 1908.

The Eleventh Music Director

On October 2, 1908, the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Toscanini was an immediate success, and he remained one of the company’s most popular conductors for the next 50 years. During his long tenure at the Met, Toscanini led some of the most famous opera singers of all time, including Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, and Maria Callas. He also helped to launch the careers of many young singers, including Licia Albanese, Jussi Björling, Lauritz Melchior, and Franco Corelli.

In addition to his work at the Met, Toscanini was also a committed educator. He frequently gave lectures and master classes on opera and music history, and he even published a book on conducting. He also served as music director of both the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

After a long and illustrious career, Toscanini retired from the Met in April 1966. He died two years later at the age of 89.

The Twelfth Music Director

The twelfth music director of the Metropolitan Opera was Julius Rudel. He was born in Vienna, Austria, and died in New York City. He was music director from 1971 to 1979.

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