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A century of opera with the Met; The legacy of fine voices ranges from Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti, Christine Nilsson to Leontyne Price

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As of tomorrow night, the Metropolitan Opera will have been at the center of America's operatic life for 100 years. From the first night on Oct. 22, 1883, with the esteemed Christine Nilsson as Marguerite in Gounod's ''Faust,'' the company inhabiting the Metropolitan Opera House has presented the standard repertoire (as well as a few exceptions) with as many of the best names of the day as possible.

The fame started early. Even by the time Enrico Caruso debuted in 1903 at the house on 39th Street - in its second incarnation, having been gutted by fire in 1892 - the reclame of the house was worldwide. Two Puccini operas were given their world premieres on the old stage - the underappreciated ''La Fanciulla del West'' and ''Trittico.''

By that time, anyone considered important would be asked to sing - and would agree to sing - at the Met. Over the years, most of the legends of operadom have trod its boards: Jussi Bjorling, Rosa Ponselle, Leontyne Price, Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Ezio Pinza, Joan Sutherland. The list of pivotal names introduced in the new house to date includes Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and just this season, Jessye Norman. The conductors include most of the greats - Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, to mention but the showiest names.

In its early days, artists of this stature arrived for several-month stays, or even for the entire season, which typically was two months shorter than today's late-September-to-mid-April stretch. Nor did they all have starring roles: Important artists often performed in roles that are nowadays relegated to second-string singers.

Throughout the years, however, the company's financial status has been tumultuous. It barely survived the depression years. And during the intensely nationalistic periods of the two world wars, many of its most important overseas artists were barred from its stage. Gone, too, were the days when a handful of the wealthiest patrons could meet the annual budget by writing a check: With the costs of opera escalating and the season expanding, the 39th Street house became increasingly problematical.


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