The opening of the Metropolitan, for all its importance in the world of music and drama, illustrated even more vividly than any formal dinner or fancy-dress ball society's irresistible impulse to make its amusements an occasion to flaunt its wealth. For true music-lovers of the 1880's the operas currently being given at the Academy of Music fully met all artistic standards. The sole difficulty was that while there was plenty of available room at these performances in orchestra and galleries, every box at the Academy was taken for the season. And society had made an opera box one of the hall-marks of social success. The Metropolitan was built not in response to a demand for music, but to meet this need for fashionable display.
It was financed by a group of social aspirants stung into action by the refusal of an offer of $30,000 for one of the boxes at the Academy of Music. They would have their own opera house. Naturally enough its predominant feature became its two ornate tiers of boxes. At the formal opening it was toward the Golden Horseshoe rather than the stage that all eyes turned. "The Goulds and the Vanderbilts and people of that ilk," the New York Dramatic Mirror reported with forthright candor on that memorable occasion, "perfumed the air with the odor of crisp greenbacks. The tiers of boxes looked like cages in a menagerie of monopolists."
This did not mean that the Metropolitan did not uphold the highest standards of operatic art. It did. Italian operas were staged during its first season, and musical history was made when German music and the Wagnerian operas were given the Metropolitan's formal approval in 1884. The company made an annual post-season tour, visiting Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington. . . . The world of society in these cities had its opportunity to emulate that of New York. Grand opera took its place, despite a sprinkling of more humble musiclovers in the upper galleries, as one of the most exclusive and fashionable of all diversions.