The cast of 'The Gilded Age' in promo for season 2.

‘The Gilded Age’s Exceedingly Extra Opera Wars Are Straight Out of History

HBO Max’s The Gilded Age is back for a second season. It’s time again to revel in the affairs of the ultra-rich, as “old money” and “new money” folks fight for dominance in New York society.

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Their opulence and over-the-top displays of wealth during this historic period are a marvel. No, most of us cannot relate, but it is still fun to watch. As we step back into the lives of these families with the season 2 premiere, we go right into a societal war of old money versus new money, and their chosen battleground is the opera houses of New York City.

Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) are the pillars of the old money side. Of course, they back the Academy of Music as the place where the elite have gathered to enjoy classic European music. To show their exclusivity, there is a committee that deems who is worthy to have a seat at the opera.

Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) leads the new money faction. Although she and her robber baron husband have loads of money, the old money parts of society look down on them. The Russells cannot seem to get a box at the Academy of Music. Without that seat, they will never be fully integrated members of society. However, with the opening of a new opera house, the Metropolitan Opera, it might be the answer to new money families.

The opera may seem like a ridiculous point of contention now, but that’s exactly how it played out in real life.

The Opera Wars

Like in the show, the Academy of Music opera was the crux of old money society. The box seats were limited, and you had to fit certain criteria to be admitted to a seat. Money didn’t open every door. People were weighed not just by their bank accounts, but by lineage and decorum. There were waitlists people waited ages on. It served more as a dangling carrot rather than a guarantee.

The Metropolitan Opera Company wanted to be an alternative to the Academy. New money families threw their money at the company beginning in 1883. Families like the Roosevelts and Vanderbilts subscribed to the new house, the latter of which has been cited as an inspiration for the Russell family. They demanded the Met eclipse the Academy in every way. This meant a more extravagant building and more seats to watch the opera. It was supposed to be a way to ensure the arts were available for all people in New York—well, all people who had loads of cash at their disposal.

Team New Money

In The Gilded Age’s season 2 opener, the Russells throw a party for people who enjoy the opera, only it’s a guise for Mrs. Russell to feel out her opera chances and see who else is backing the Met. A representative of the newly created opera company boasts the shows and singers they promise to have for their premiere season.

The old money, headed by Mrs. Astor, believes they cannot afford to get the likes of Christina Nilsson, a famous Swedish singer, only the guests filter out of the dining room to find Mrs. Russell had her entryway re-done to facilitate a private performance of Nilsson. Mrs. Russell is so exceedingly extra, and I love her for it. Imagine hiring Taylor Swift to sing in your living room just to prove a point to some acquaintances.

Nilsson, in real life, starred in Faust during the inaugural season of the Met Opera House. The new money faction had the last laugh on this one, as the new house was a tremendous success. After the opening of the new opera house, the Academy fell out of favor. It only took three years for the Academy to stop presenting opera. The building eventually was torn down. Although the original Met Opera building is gone, an active one remains in New York. I can’t wait to see Mrs. Russell celebrate the success of her investment. I’m sure it will be subtle and inexpensive.

(featured image: Max)

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D.R. Medlen
D.R. Medlen (she/her) is a pop culture staff writer at The Mary Sue. After finishing her BA in History, she finally pursued her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer in 2019. She expertly fangirls over Marvel, Star Wars, and historical fantasy novels (the spicier the better). When she's not writing or reading, she lives that hobbit-core life in California with her spouse, offspring, and animal familiars.