Live from the Met: five decades of opera High - Octave Radio

March 19, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

New York -- 1:29 p.m.: In the control booth, the countdown starts.

"Thirty seconds to go -- if anyone has to go," says operations director Bill King. The laughter has just subsided when the broadcast starts with words the oldest members of the radio audience have heard for 55 years:

"Welcome to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. This is Peter Allen, on behalf of Texaco, proud sponsor of these broadcasts for over five decades."

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In 1940, when Texaco began to sponsor the Met's broadcasts, "The Lucky Strike Hit Parade," "Bell Telephone Hour," "A&P Gypsies" and "The Voice of Firestone" were among the rulers of the airwaves -- as popular then as "Baywatch," "Home Improvement," "Melrose Place" and "Roseanne" are on television today. Resuscitating those programs would be as difficult as bringing a dinosaur back to life.

But such a dinosaur is alive in the form of the "Texaco-Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts," and the health of the program is almost as phenomenal as its longevity. The broadcasts, whose format has remained virtually unchanged since Dec. 7, 1940, sometimes reaches as many as 7 million listeners in the United States and Canada. And that doesn't include several million more in Europe.

"Opera fans are unbelievably loyal, and they know they can't find liveopera anywhere else on the radio dial," says Cary Smith, general manager of WBJC (91.5 FM), which carries the broadcasts locally.

The faithful are found everywhere. There is a couple who reposition their yacht in the U.S. Virgin Islands every Saturday so they can pick up the MetBroadcast from Puerto Rico. And there is a federal convict who wrote the Met that "Several of us here are regular listeners and we'd very much appreciate a copy of the broadcast guide."

Opera is now at a peak of popularity. In 1940, the United States had only 77 opera-producing organizations. A 1992 survey showed that 1,285 presenters gave 15,098 performances of 731 operas to audiences that totaled 4.3 million. Pollster Lou Harris says opera is the only performing art showing significant growth in attendance -- up almost 30 percent since 1980, when Texaco added telecasts.

The shows have had a tremendous influence in the popularity of opera in the U.S., an impact comparable to that of such stars as Enrico Caruso, Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti, says Michael Harrison, general manager of the Baltimore Opera Company.

At a time when even middle-sized cities have resident opera companies, it is hard to imagine the appeal the first opera broadcasts had. Unless you lived in New York, San Francisco or Chicago -- or in a city where the Met toured -- you almost never heard first-rate operatic performances.

The phonograph had been a fixture of American homes since about 1920, and recordings by such operatic stars as Caruso and John McCormack were best-sellers. But complete opera recordings were almost nonexistent because they were not commercially viable in the 78-rpm format. The Met broadcasts filled a void, introducing thousands to an art form that captured their interest and imagination while satisfying an already existing appetite for singing.

"People heard their first operas in the strangest places -- from gasoline stations to convents," Harrison says. "What almost all of us who are involved in opera have in common is that we fell in love with it over the radio."

The Met is the world's largest, most lavishly appointed opera house. Its seating capacity of 3,800 makes it almost twice as large as Milan's La Scala, the Vienna State Opera or London's Covent Garden. Its huge chandeliers hang from a ceiling eight stories high. Its enormous stage -- 100 feet wide, 110 feet high and 146 feet deep -- provides jobs for an army of designers, set builders, costumers and stagehands.

1:39 p.m.:

In the broadcast booth -- three tiny, interconnected rooms at the back of the Grand Tier six stories above the main floor -- the production team of Michael Bronson, Jay David Saks and Bill King talks about this afternoon's opera, Verdi's "La Traviata." They exchange stories about singers who have portrayed Violetta -- Verdi's fragile, beautiful courtesan -- whose death from tuberculosis concludes the opera.

Bronson, who produces the broadcast's popular intermission features, asks if his colleagues remember a famous soprano whose consumptive death throes in the final scene became known as "the constipation scene."

Then there was an equally renowned soprano whose rehearsal of the death scene had to be interrupted because she was unable to see the conductor from her death bed. "She couldn't see over her stomach," says King, the program's operations director. "And since she couldn't lift herself off the bed, stagehands had to prop her head up with extra pillows."

On another occasion a "Traviata" was delayed when another diva became stuck in the bucket seats of the car that had brought her to the Met. "She had to be wedged out," says Saks, the program's audio director.

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