The Nettlesome Messiah


For Christmas 1881 the Cincinnati Music Festival Association wanted to top its lackluster performance of the previous year and at the same time to upstage the festival of a rival opera company in the same city. So conductor Theodore Thomas hired the most famous prima donna of the day–Madame Adelina Patti.

Although Patti had built her career as a singer not of English oratorios, but of Italian operas, her voice had never been better. Patti was aware of the competition for her services and raised her fee to a stunning $6,000 at a time when $10,000 was a handsome annual salary for a major conductor. The other Messiah soloists were to receive from $200 to $500.

Despite the outlay and star power, the Cincinnati Messiah was less than stellar. Patti took offense when Thomas neglected to accompany her to her seat on the platform at the beginning of the oratorio. Once she got up there, she found the $500 soloist sitting in the chair next to the conductor. On top of that, she had her own ideas about how her part was to be sung–and stuck to them regardless of Thomas’ conducting. After the performance she told the press that Thomas was full of “vanity and conceit” and that his tempi would destroy the efforts of any soloist because he took everything too fast. As a parting shot she added, “Last night he was drinking brandy and had the audacity to offer a brandy bottle to me,” which prompted the newspaper headline “After the Messiah Comes the Day of Wrath.”

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Despite the friction, the box office take was good enough to recoup the association’s losses from the two previous concerts. Theodore Thomas’ competitor went ahead and signed Patti for its 1882 festival, but she pleaded a sore throat and refrained from singing until the festival’s closing night, at a cost of $14,000.

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