By the spring of 1935, the Metropolitan Opera had, in its fifty-year history, established itself as not only the nation's foremost opera company, but one of the leading opera companies of the world. But its existence was threatened by a funding shortfall caused by the effects of the Great Depression.
It was at that time that Met board member Eleanor Robson Belmont, an actress who, through her marriage to August Belmont, had become an important philanthropist, hit on the idea of reaching out to the general public for support. Her vision was to create a membership organization of opera-lovers nationwide, with the proceeds supporting the Met—as well as programs that developed the appreciation of opera. The Met's board quickly approved her plan, and the Metropolitan Opera Guild was born. “Democratization of the opera had begun!” Mrs. Belmont wrote in her memoirs, The Fabric of Memory.
Mrs. Belmont appealed to the public wherever she could, but especially over the airwaves, during intermissions of the popular Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee radio broadcasts. In its first year of operation, during the 1935-36 season, the Metropolitan Opera Guild signed up more than 2,000 members. Thanks to this outpouring of support, the Guild made its first donation to the Met, to cover the costs of a new cyclorama.
Guild membership rose steadily throughout the remainder of the 1930s. In the years that followed, the Guild raised the funds needed to underwrite a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, refurbish rehearsal and public areas of the old Metropolitan Opera House, and underwrite a third of the amount that the Metropolitan Opera Association needed to buy the house from the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company.
In the spring of 1936, the Guild hired Mary Ellis Peltz, a “gifted walking encyclopedia of opera” in Mrs. Belmont’s words, to edit a newsletter; after a trial issue, this newsletter became OPERA NEWS, which quickly established itself as the world’s foremost publication exclusively devoted to opera. Mrs. Peltz also led the Guild’s first backstage tours, inaugurated a lecture series, and initiated a book-publications program.
Education has always been central to the Guild’s mission. On March 19, 1937, the Guild presented its first student matinee at the Met: Verdi's Aida, with Elisabeth Rethberg in the title role. In the years that have followed, the Guild has brought hundreds of thousands of students to experience live opera at the Met.
Since the financial upheavals of the 1970s that left public schools without arts specialists on staff, the Guild has provided teacher training and in-school artists’ residencies. Currently, the Guild provides age-appropriate, research-based arts education to all grades, in ways that are connected to the school curriculum and the needs of teachers.
Today, the Guild continues to support the Met and cultivate a wider public interest in opera. As the activities described in the pages of this website attest, the Metropolitan Opera Guild is as dynamic as ever in reaching today’s opera lovers and developing an appreciation of the art form in tomorrow’s.