Popular, Broadway and Other Crossover Recordings by Winners and Finalists of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air

Article excerpt

The winners and finalists of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air represented a unique group of singers. With only a few exceptions, they were American-born and raised, with English as their native language. All had received classical vocal training and aspired to sing opera. Only those contestants with the best voices and qualifications for opera were chosen to be heard over the air.

All winners and finalists had unavoidably been exposed to American popular music via radio, commercial recordings, Broadway shows and movie musicals. All would have heard, and likely been influenced by, famous entertainers of their times--such as Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, Frank Munn, Jessica Dragonette, Bing Crosby, Ruth Etting, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald. Some undoubtedly also were exposed to jazz vocalists such as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Therefore, crossover recordings by Auditions winners and finalists represent an opportunity to hear classically trained singers with fine voices, entrenched in the culture of popular American music, perform non-operatic and popular melodies.

The Auditions of the Air seem to have been largely ignored by music historians. To the author's knowledge, a detailed history of the Auditions and a list of its winners and finalists have not appeared in print. (1) The list of winners and finalists in the Appendix was compiled primarily from a year-by-year search of the The New York Times. Other sources, such as Opera News and books by Irving Kolodin and Thomas DeLong, (2) provided names of finalists and other contestants not mentioned in the Times.

Met Auditions of the Air

The Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air were a series of annual radio programs broadcast over network radio between 1935 and 1958. Their purpose was to audition singers for the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. Anyone--amateur or professional--could enter the Auditions of the Air; and between 700 to 900 aspiring singers did so every year. Contestants sang operatic, semi-classical and popular standards in thirty-minute programs that originated in New York City. They were aired over network radio to a national audience over a period of thirteen to twenty-six weeks. Winners of the individual programs were brought back to New York for the semi-finals and finals, broadcast in March or April of every year. (3)

In an announcement describing the upcoming Auditions of the Air, The New York Times enthusiastically explained that they would feature music "that everybody loves, favorite gems from favorite operas. In other words, the hit tunes of opera, brought down to the level of Mr. Average John Q. Public, sung by finely trained singers who are at the threshold of stardom." (4)

The event captured the interest of the American public, who gathered around their radios in the 1930s and '40s with the hope that a new Caruso or Melba might be discovered. In this respect, a comparison can be made to today's America's Got Talent, American Idol and other "live" talent competitions. Some of the winners and finalists--such as Eleanor Steber, Rise Stevens, Leonard Warren, Regina Resnik, Patrice Munsel, Robert Merrill, Martina Arroyo and Grace Bumbry--became headliners at the Met. Some went on to careers with other opera companies, as comprimarios and lesser-known Met performers, as performers in Broadway musicals (including a Tony Award nominee), recording artists of popular music, and even motion picture actors and actresses.

The first broadcast of the Auditions of the Air was heard on 22 December 1935 over New York station WEAF, an NBC affiliate. The winners, Anna Kaskas, mezzo-soprano, and Arthur Carron, tenor, were announced on 29 March 1936. (5) Both went on to successful careers with the Met, each singing for eleven seasons. (6) In 1938, station WJZ began airing the Auditions. In 1945, when WJZ and the Blue Network of NBC became the American Broadcasting Company, the program was heard over the ABC network. …