Peter Allen, voice of the Met, is an opera encyclopedia

December 07, 1990|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

HIGH ABOVE the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as though in the upper deck of dead center field at a ball park, Peter Allen takes to the mike again tomorrow to do the play-by-play of Giuseppe Verdi's great game of love, separation and love, "La Traviata."

Allen, a tall, friendly man, will be seated next to his wife, Sylvia, a small, friendly woman, in a tiny broadcast booth squeezed like a broom closet between the women's and men's bathrooms on an upper level of The Met. But for the padding, they might hear the toilets. Instead they hear the most beautiful music.

Millions of Americans, including Baltimoreans listening to WBJC (91.5 FM) at 1:30 p.m. will instantly recognize Allen's silver and honey voice as it tells how Alfredo falls for Violetta, how Violetta wants to be free, how Violetta returns Alfredo's love.

For America's opera fanatics, it's the dream season again -- Saturday afternoon live opera on radio.

After Allen stops, the "Traviata" prelude fills the hall, the curtains part to a Parisian ballroom scene and Act 1 ecstasies are played out in waltzes while the Allens peer through their tiny sky box window. Later Allen will tell how father Georgio Germont comes between Alfredo and Violetta and how Alfredo does a really dumb thing and how he finally comes to his senses and . . . well, let Allen tell it tomorrow.

Once in a great while, Sylvia may save Peter from a rare mistake. She reminded him it would be Leonard Bernstein, not James Levine, conducting the Met orchestra in Beethoven's "Leonore Overture No. 3" in the 1983 Met centennial gala.

"I hate to be inaccurate" said Allen, the former WQXR radio news reporter in New York who tomorrow begins the 51st season of the Texaco Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts of Saturday afternoon operas, the longest continuously sponsored broadcast program. It is the single most important influence in popularizing opera in America.

Allen has held the job since Jan. 3, 1975, when Milton Cross died. Cross was Mr. Met Radio since his "Hansel and Gretel" broadcast Christmas Day 1931. The death came on a Friday, and Allen, Cross' understudy for a year, was asked to fill in Saturday for Rossini's "The Italian Girl in Algiers" with Marilyn Horne.

For such an opera and music fan, it was a dream job that Allen had thought would go to some famous opera personality. "I love it," said Allen, who is paid by The Met.

Born in Toronto, he grew up in Cleveland, studied at Ohio State and was picked for a chamber music quartet there as the viola player. Problem was, "They never found the other players" and the possible music career died. Later came the WQXR job for many years and then The Met.

Allen treats his voice like a month-old baby. One trick he learned was washing his hands often, they transmit germs so easily. He's had some emergencies. One week a cold led to a very sore throat by Friday. A friend suggested Dr. Wilbur Gould, famous for helping singers. Gould said, "Just stop by before the broadcast." Hardly able to talk by Saturday, Allen went to Gould, who said, "This'll work for the broadcast but tonight, you can't speak." Gould put eye drops up Allen's nose and throat spray in his mouth. "I sailed through the broadcast, but I couldn't talk for the next two days."

Allen works hard at knowing the plot, libretto, music, costumes, set details and pronunciation of singers' names and styles in operas broadcast each Saturday this year through Mozart's "La Clemenza Di Tito" April 20. He can recite with ease opera's most convoluted plot -- Verdi's "Il Trovatore."

"For a new production I will go right on stage to check details. I'll see several rehearsals, including the piano dress, the orchestra dress and the full dress. In "Rinaldo," I can say how the dragon spouts steam, or in "Fledermaus," what the jailer Frosch will do.

Allen types up notes but wings it half the time from a head and lifetime crammed with opera. For emergencies he knows things like "Puccini loved Parsifal" and between composing Act II and III of "Siegfried," Wagner wrote the moneymakers "Meistersinger" and "Tristan und Isolde" because he thought the Ring would never be produced.

Allen, who happens to be a Shakespeare buff, said his worst experience came Jan. 23, 1988, when an elderly opera fan leaped to his death from the Family Circle balcony during an intermission of "Macbeth."

"I heard the thud but never knew exactly what happened. I filled for about two hours, one hour talking partly to reassure that there was no danger to people inside." The opera was cancelled. Allen defends his not reporting the apparent suicide because facts were hazy and reports conflicted. One rumor held that the man was pushed.

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