Spirit of Radio
For 90 years, millions of listeners have tuned in to the Met’s Saturday Matinee Radio Broadcasts. To date, the Met has presented more than 1,800 broadcasts, with opera lovers in more than 30 nations listening over the Toll Brothers–Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network. Below is a small selection of noteworthy events in the annals of the longest-running continuous classical music program in American broadcast history. By Christopher Browner
JANUARY 12–13, 1910 Lee de Forest, the self-proclaimed “Father of Radio,” uses a makeshift antenna on the Met roof to transmit Puccini’s Tosca, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci via telephone systems to listeners as far as Newark, New Jersey. This is the first time an audience outside the opera house hears a Met performance.
DECEMBER 25, 1931 The Met launches the first season of matinee radio broadcasts with Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel (pictured above). Milton Cross, who would go on to host 851 performances, is the announcer.
FEBRUARY 25, 1933 The Met launches its first radio fund drive. Donations from this and subsequent on-air appeals help the company survive the Great Depression.
FEBRUARY 2, 1935 Kirsten Flagstad causes a sensation with her U.S. debut, singing Sieglinde in a live broadcast of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Other major Met artists to debut during a radio broadcast include Renato Bruson, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jan Peerce, Hermann Prey, Bidú Sayão, Georg Solti, and Astrid Varnay.
DECEMBER 7, 1940 Texaco begins its sponsorship of the broadcasts, with a performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. This is also the first appearance of the Opera Question Forum, now known as the Metropolitan Opera Quiz.
1942–1945 The broadcasts are used to help the war effort—with intermissions renamed as “Victory Rallies” that feature important figures from Allied countries. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appears as a guest during a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, baritone Lawrence Tibbett, Met General Manager Edward Johnson, and Metropolitan Opera guild founder Eleanor Belmont
1950 The Metropolitan Opera, ABC Radio (which carried the broadcasts at the time), and Texaco receive the Peabody Award in Music for “public service in making the most brilliant opera company in the world a by-word in millions of homes.” The Met broadcasts will go on to win three more Peabody Awards over the next 40 years.
SEPTEMBER 16, 1966 The opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center is broadcast live. The performance is the world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, starring Leontyne Price and Justino Díaz.
1973–74 SEASON Stereo transmission is used for the first time to 12 east-coast stations.
A 1973 intermission roundtable discussion featuring baritone Robert Merrill, soprano Zinka Milanov, and tenor Richard Tucker
DECEMBER 28, 1974 Milton Cross hosts his final broadcast, dying six days later.
JANUARY 4, 1975 Peter Allen becomes the broadcasts’ second announcer, a position he holds until 2004.
1980–81 SEASON The broadcasts are transmitted via satellite for the first time, increasing stereo coverage and improving sound quality.
OCTOBER 22, 1983 In celebration of the Met’s centennial, the company’s day-long, two-part gala is telecast internationally and simulcast on radio.
JANUARY 23, 1988 During an intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth, an audience member leaps to his death in the auditorium. Host Peter Allen must improvise commentary for nearly an hour before the remainder of the performance is canceled.
DECEMBER 8, 1990 The Met begins broadcasting to Europe. Over the next decade, coverage continues to expand, eventually reaching listeners on six continents.
2003–2004 SEASON After Texaco decides to end its sponsorship, the Met launches the Broadcast Campaign Fund, spearheaded by soprano Beverly Sills, to keep the broadcasts on the air.
DECEMBER 11, 2004 Margaret Juntwait takes over as host. She holds the position until her death in 2015. Between Saturday-matinee and satellite-radio broadcasts, she holds the company record for hosting the most performances at 1,122.
Margaret Juntwait interviews soprano Beverly Sills
2005 Toll Brothers begins its support for the Saturday matinee broadcasts.
2006 Complementing the Saturday broadcasts, the Met launches its own station on Sirius Satellite Radio. Today, listeners can hear archival broadcasts and live performances 24 hours a day on Met Opera Radio on SiriusXM.
2015 After serving as Senior Radio Producer since 2006, Mary Jo Heath becomes the fourth host of the Met Saturday Matinee Broadcasts.
March 7, 2020 The afternoon’s performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte is the final live matinee broadcast before the Met’s closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the house is dark, the company continues to present opera on the air, including a full season of encore presentations during the period in which the 2020–21 radio season would have occurred.
2021 An accomplished concert pianist and radio presenter, Debra Lew Harder becomes the series’s fifth official host.
The Met’s current radio host, Debra Lew Harder
Christopher Browner is the Met’s Associate Editor.