OPERA FANATICS are lemmings who generally behave and stay out of sight until live operas at the Lyric or Saturday radio opera beckon and send them over emotional cliffs of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini to sure death, transfiguration and ecstasy.
So it may seem sometimes to Jonathan Palevsky and Ken Meltzer, the cheerful WBJC radio opera duo who at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow play an early Verdi opera and temporarily wind up Operafest, their afternoon stint of explaining full-length operas to the faithful.
On Dec. 1, the Metropolitan Opera radio season resumes again until April (see box). For a few months, the Pal-Mel team won't be getting opera fans' kudos and critiques, like the woman who loved their work but told them to pronounce tenor Beniamino Gigli's name right. (Their pronunciation is usually fine).
In January, they begin a new weekly show offering new instrumental recordings of classical music and perhaps another program on historic recordings. They'll pick up Operafest again next summer.
Tomorrow's WBJC opera is right over any good lemming's escarpment -- Verdi's "I due Foscari" (1844). The libretto source was a Lord Byron poem. The setting is 15th century Venice.
Here's the plot: A nobleman named Jacopo Foscari is unjustly condemned to exile because he takes gifts from rich foreigners (sound familiar?) and then while in exile allegedly has his accuser murdered. Jacopo and wife Lucrezia plead his case before a council of 10 who say no dice. They include a bad Jacopo called Loredano. Good Jacopo's father, the Doge, is helpless and the son is led away. Another nobleman confesses but at the same moment, the good Jacopo dies. End of opera. You gotta love it. Opera fans do.
Actually, the music's quite good, if you savor early Verdi with soaring arias, duets and ensembles. The opera is only one hour, 43 minutes long and for most opera buffs, like Meltzer and Palevsky, it's the music and the artists that matter.
Meltzer, 34, a lawyer and WBJC's unpaid "opera consultant," and Palevsky, 30, WBJC's program director, began their show in July after the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Met Opera broadcasts. They complement and compliment each other. Palevsky says Meltzer knows opera better. Meltzer says Palevsky is the broadcast expert.
Operafest is a rapid-fire commentary that, in true opera form, and without the sotto voce bitchiness the genre is famous for, dips deeply into generous adjectives and lore. Sometimes, there's a gushing. Meltzer: "This is a splendid example of [Nicolai Gedda's] artistry -- it leaves me breathless." Palevsky quips: "Op till you drop" or "As much as people like complete operas they like chestnuts" (arias, duets).
They report news, such as the item that all Caruso's RCA recordings are coming out this week on a new RCA set of 12 CDs. They're working on their humor: Palevsky: "This is highly irregular, counselor, see me later." Meltzer: "Don't ever tell a Neapolitan the music is Sicilian."
How do they use Operafest?
"We try to encourage people to hear new singers and to hear old music differently," said Meltzer. For tomorrow's program, which includes leftover fund-raiser requests, he then played a request for Jan Kiepura, a Polish tenor, talented but not well-known here. Also, calls for Paul Robeson, Eileen Farrell, Fritz Wunderlich arias.
"We play things both obscure and well-known," said Palevsky. The framework was a month each of French, German and Italian operas this year. "I wanted a 'Carmen'," but they also played Rossini's rare "Zelmira."
They aim mainly at general fans, not just the hard cases, and understand opera is not for everyone. "I can sympathize with someone who says 'I don't like opera.' I don't like ballet." Palevsky and Meltzer, who met at a WBJC fund-raiser in 1986, grew up in music-aware families.
Baltimorean Meltzer was turned on to operas like "Faust" and "Carmen" by a Milford Mill High School teacher of French, Robert Rivkin, (now at Parkville High), who taught the subject in the context of French music, art and dance. Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland law school followed. Meltzer studies voice with Frederick C. Petrich, partly to understand singing better for the radio work. He teaches opera appreciation at Baltimore Hebrew University. His wife, Carolyn, is a radiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
A Montreal native, Palevski grew up with the Met Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts. "I began listening the week Milton Cross died and Peter Allen took over." He survived brother Murray's Wagner passion thrown like a net over the whole family ("Actually, I like Wagner"). Palevsky played guitar at home. After the University of Ottawa, he came here, received a master's degree in classical guitar from the Peabody Conservatory and began working at WBJC in 1986.
The two have backed local tenor Chris Merritt's Met debut in "Semiramide" Nov. 30 and his Beth El Congregation recital Dec. 9, Baltimore Opera performances and other live operatic events.
"Baltimore is a great opera center," Meltzer said. "Peabody, the Baltimore Opera, Annapolis Opera, Prince George's Opera . . ."
"What opera is really about," said radio man Palevsky, "is live opera."