Milton Cross: `Mr. Met' for more than 40 years

Way Back When

Radio announcer brought opera to the masses

December 27, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Opera buffs around the world were devastated when they learned earlier this year that ChevronTexaco will terminate its sponsorship of the weekly Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts at the end of the 2004 season. As of last week, the Met was still seeking a sponsor for its broadcasts, which cost $7 million annually.

The Met first took to the airwaves on Christmas Day in 1931, when listeners nationwide tuned to NBC to hear a performance of Hansel and Gretel.

Its narrator, working from a soundproof cage in Box 44 in the grand tier of the old Metropolitan Opera House was Deems Taylor, a critic and composer, who "whispered a running comment into the ears of millions of listeners on both sides of the Atlantic, telling them just what the wicked old witch and the two hungry children were doing and going to do next," reported The Evening Sun.

According to a Metropolitan Opera archivist, Taylor, whose commentaries were not very successful, was replaced in 1932 by announcer Milton J. Cross, the former voice of the Chicago Civic Opera.

For generations of radio listeners, Saturdays at 2 p.m. from December to April, meant hearing the mellifluous voice of Cross intone, "Texaco and Texaco Canada present ... the Metropolitan Opera."

And then with a dramatic flourish rising in his voice, Cross would say, "Mr. X, today's conductor, has just entered the pit ... and in a few moments the Metropolitan's great golden curtain will rise on the first act of ... "

Cross was known as "Mr. Met" or "Mr. Opera," and it has been said that his voice was as recognizable to listeners as that of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Charlie McCarthy.

So unique was Cross' delivery that poet Ogden Nash quipped that he was the only man who pronounced Rigoletto with two R's and three T's.

Cross brought not only the plot of an opera alive for listeners, but also its costumes and sets.

Born and raised in New York City, Cross was a 1923 graduate of the Damrosch Institute of Music, which later became a part of the Juilliard School of Music. In addition to his radio work, Cross, who was a tenor, performed in churches and synagogues and even held minor non-singing roles at the Met.

He began his radio career singing at WJZ in Newark, N.J., in 1921. Later, the station manager wondered if he were interested in becoming a staff announcer.

"The offer was made," said Cross in an interview some years ago, "due to the fact that I was familiar with foreign names and musical terms and had a natural respect for good diction."

From 1932 until his death in 1975, Cross, a burly man with dark, wavy hair and round, horned-rim spectacles, only missed two Met broadcasts - following the death of his wife.

Since 1940, the opera broadcasts had been sponsored by Texaco, now ChevronTexaco. The first opera was Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

Cross was preparing for a broadcast of Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers when he was stricken at home with a fatal heart attack on Friday, Jan. 3, 1975.

On Saturday, his understudy, Peter Allen, a former WQXR news reporter, stepped seamlessly into the role held for so long by his mentor.

In 72 years of Metropolitan broadcasts, there have been only two announcers: Milton Cross and Peter Allen.

Cross was also the author of Milton Cross' Complete Stories of the Opera, a handy guide for the opera buff or the first-time listener.

In writing about how to enjoy an opera, Cross unwittingly wrote the story of his own life: "The key to enjoyment of anything is understanding. ... When you have the knowledge and understanding properly to enjoy opera, it is for you to decide the way you enjoy it most."

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