Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts, 1931-1950

Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts, 1931-1950

Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts, 1931-1950

Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts, 1931-1950

Synopsis

For over sixty years the weekly broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York has been an important part of American cultural life. The broadcasts, whose continuity was ensured when Texaco assumed sponsorship in 1940, have played a significant role in introducing an audience of millions to the splendors of opera. Paul Jackson, whose own recollections of the broadcasts start in 1940, presents a rich and detailed history of the broadcasts from their inception in 1931, when the imperious Gatti-Casazza ruled, on through the troubled, yet often triumphant, regime of the more affable Edward Johnson. This was a time when the Wagner operas were performed with unparalleled grandeur, when the Mozart operas were introduced to a nationwide public, and the American singer came to the fore. Above all, it was an age of glorious voices and memorable characterizations - Pinza's Figaro, Melchior's Siegfried, Lehmann's Marschallin, Martinelli's Otello, Milanov's Gioconda, Bjoerling's Manrico, Albanese's Violetta. Beecham,,Walter, Reiner, and Szell contributed to the era of legendary conductors in the forties. Jackson, a musicologist with an uncommon ability to combine narrative history with musical analysis and criticism, brings to life the more than two hundred broadcasts of which recordings, pirated or archival, survive. They constitute a unique record in sound of one of the Metropolitan's great periods. The author explores the glory and decline of Tibbett's and Rethberg's careers, the probity of Ponselle's Carmen, the premiere of Hanson's Merry Mount, the debuts of Flagstad and Sayao. Nor are the blemishes on the Met record slighted in this candid critique. In addition to these primary sources oflive performances, Jackson utilizes unpublished documents and letters from the Metropolitan Opera Archives to tell the story of intricate maneuvers between the Met and the National Broadcasting System, and artistic intrigues

Excerpt

To most American opera lovers the story is a familiar one. On a snowy afternoon in a small town on Michigan's upper peninsula, a thirteen-year-old randomly twists the Philco dial. His ear, already tuned by a half-dozen years of piano lessons, is caught and held by a lively exchange between a high-flying soprano and a meaty bass: 'Rataplan' growls Salvatore Baccaloni, 'Rataplan' echoes Lily Pons in the drum duet from La Fille du Régiment. the year is 1940, the Texas Company's first season of broadcasts "direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City" on NBC's Blue Network. From that day to the present, except when traveling in Europe, Saturday afternoons were spent at the opera. I was a bit confounded on the next Saturday when Donizetti's sparkling comedy was succeeded by Tannhäuser, but Flagstad and Melchior, Thorborg and Janssen were convincing proponents. I stayed with it. Other afternoons of that first season brought Martinelli, Tibbett, Albanese, Warren, Moore, Pinza, Swarthout, Maison, Thomas, Bampton, Castagna -- they seemed as familiar as friends. I remember keeping a record in a special notebook of all their names and their roles and a brief outline of each plot.

The opera broadcasts have significance not only for individuals. in their variously preserved states they offer a unique aural history of the Metropolitan Opera from the early 1930s to the present day. So-called private pressings (the pejorative is "pirate," a term that Met Librarian Mapleson might not like), discs released in Europe, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at Lincoln Center, and lately the Metropolitan Opera's own series of Historic Broadcast recordings -- together these provide an overview of the company's character and quality. True, the visual aspects of operatic production are lacking: not only the sets and costumes but, even more important, the actor's stage action, his carriage, and his mien -- all of which should add immeasurably to (but have been known to detract moderately from) both the singer's conception of the role and his actual performance. But was not the radio audience, vast in numbers, of greater importance in the formulation of operatic taste, and in the evaluation of opera and artists, than the three or four thousand people who heard and saw the performance in the house? What has been preserved on the often primitive tapes and records of those broadcasts is fairly typical of what that large public heard; it represents the substance of our national opera, at least before the advent of regularly televised Met performances in . . .

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