The Metropolitan Opera on Television
By Peter Clark
Although the Metropolitan Opera experimented with television broadcasting from the early days of the technology, it was not until 1977 that the company established a regularly televised program of performances.
In 1940, the Met collaborated with the National Broadcasting Company, its regular radio broadcaster since 1931, to transmit a program of operatic excerpts to the some two thousand sets then capable of receiving the NBC television signal. Met General Manager Edward Johnson served as the MC for a bill that included four arias, the Rigoletto quartet, and excerpts from Act I of Pagliacci (pictured above). Frank St. Leger of the Met’s music staff conducted a group of 32 members of the NBC Orchestra, and the singers included Licia Albanese, Bruna Castagna, Frederick Jagel, and Leonard Warren. The endeavor doubled as a fundraising appeal for the Met, then seeking contributions for a major campaign to buy the opera house from its boxholder owners.
This first foray into television was not followed up immediately, but in 1948 a more ambitious project was launched: the live transmission of the Met’s season-opening performance of Verdi’s Otello (broadcast advertisement pictured above). By then, the technology and number of potential viewers had expanded considerably, but the challenges of shooting a live opera performance were substantial. According to contemporary news accounts, the inability to place cameras in the auditorium itself meant putting them in the orchestra pit, which resulted in distorted angles of the stage. Singers unused to close-ups views also came in for some scathing comments. “There is no doubt but that the Metropolitan’s great roster contains some of the worst actors and actresses on earth. Also by Hollywood standards the Met’s ladies are not likely to drive Betty Grable out of the pin-up business,” wrote the television critic of the New York Herald-Tribune. Nevertheless, considering all the difficulties, this first telecast of a complete Met performance was deemed an overall success. The network in this case was ABC, and Otello was led by Fritz Busch, with Licia Albanese, Ramón Vinay, and Leonard Warren in the leading roles.
The following two seasons’ opening nights were again telecast. In 1949, Fritz Reiner conducted Der Rosenkavalier (pictured above left) with an eminent cast of singers that included Risë Stevens, Eleanor Steber, Erna Berger, and Emanuel List in the principal roles and the young Giuseppe di Stefano as the Italian Singer. Then, in 1950, the inauguration of Rudolf Bing’s management of the Met opened with a televised performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo (pictured above right) under the baton of Fritz Stiedry, with Delia Rigal, Fedora Barbieri, Jussi Björling, Robert Merrill, and Cesare Siepi in the lead roles. Though these three opening night telecasts may have been filmed (according to at least one newspaper account), sadly no copies exist in the Met archives.
Under General Manager Bing (pictured at the top of this page), new experiments in televising opera were initiated, though none achieved long-term success. The first was a closed-circuit relay to 31 movie theaters around the country of Carmen with Risë Stevens, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill, conducted by Reiner. (One participating theater is pictured above.) An estimated audience of 70,000 people in 27 cities was able to witness the performance. A second transmission to cinemas took place two years later on opening night of the 1954 season, with a program of excerpts that allowed for more stars to be included. Sales were good, but the lack of sufficient land-line connections for theaters proved problematic, and the movie theater transmission project was not renewed. These can now be seen, however, as an early harbinger of the Met’s groundbreaking and highly successful Live in HD transmissions into movie theaters instituted in 2006 by General Manager Peter Gelb, which continue to the present.
The inevitable problems of televising live performances from the Met stage now induced management to revert to the idea of staging opera in television studios. A new project called the Omnibus Series brought the Met together with the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1953 to adapt productions from the stage for telecast direct from the network’s studios. Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (pictured above) and Puccini’s La Bohème were performed in English for a national audience. One more attempt, this time with NBC, was made in 1958, with a studio transmission of Offenbach’s La Périchole before the Omnibus Series ended.
In the meantime, variety entertainment shows based in New York, notably CBS’s popular primetime Ed Sullivan Show produced segments featuring scenes from Met productions with major stars on several occasions. In 1953, Sullivan presented “A Toast to the Met,” filmed at the opera house with scenes from Carmen, Boris Godunov, and Rigoletto, as well as “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, sung by Robert Merrill, and a comic turn by television personality Victor Borge. Risë Stevens, Richard Tucker, Cesare Siepi, and Roberta Peters also took part. The Sullivan Show regularly invited Met stars as part of its entertainment mix, and on several occasions presented longer segments of scenes. The most notable example occurred several months after the heralded Met debut of Maria Callas in 1956. Part of the second act of Tosca, sets and costumes included, was aired with the Greek-American soprano in the title role and George London as Scarpia (pictured above). This would prove to be a unique document of the great diva, professionally filmed in an opera scene during her prime singing years. Other network variety programs, such as The Bell Telephone Hour also regularly scheduled Met artists to appear. While the Met perceived little or no direct financial benefit from these commercial television shows, the publicity exposure was invaluable, as the company would discover in later decades when such opportunities dried up.
But the Met continued to hope for a significant new revenue source from television. Bing made one final attempt in 1968, when the Japanese network NHK was allowed to videotape a performance and dress rehearsal of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (pictured above) with Teresa Berganza, Luigi Alva, Mario Sereni, Fernando Corena, and Giorgio Tozzi, conducted by Richard Bonynge. The performance was shown in Japan, but subsequent sales that the Met had counted on to make the project lucrative did not materialize. Highlights of the gala farewell concert honoring Bing in his final season were televised in 1972 on CBS, and a few years later the same network aired one of the Met’s Look-in programs, designed as an educational project for students by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.
Finally, in 1977, the Met found the formula for success on television when it began a series that continues to this day on the non-profit Public Broadcasting System. Initially entitled Live from the Met, the series has been renamed to reflect changes in its programming modes, first to The Metropolitan Opera Presents, and more recently to Great Performances at the Met. The 1977 series inauguration presented Puccini’s La Bohème with Renata Scotto and Luciano Pavarotti (pictured above) as the ill-fated romantic duo, conducted by James Levine. The lead couple exemplified Italian style, balancing passion and intense musicality, and together with their colleagues and the Met’s superlative orchestra and chorus, they delivered a captivating performance. The telecast was an astounding success, drawing millions of viewers and proving that there was indeed a substantial audience for opera on TV. The Met and PBS teamed up for three more telecasts that season, and the partnership has continued unabated, presenting multiple Met performances (224 total as of this writing) on TV each season for 43 years.
Since 2006, the Met on PBS series has expanded due to the success of The Met: Live in HD transmissions into movie theaters. Those live transmissions, approximately ten per season, provide a large trove of taped performances that are later broadcast on PBS.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives