Susan Froemke on The Opera House
Filmmaker Susan Froemke reflects on the creation of her 2017 documentary profiling the construction of the “new Met” at Lincoln Center.
A couple of years ago, I was having dinner with Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, with whom I’ve made more than a dozen films. As we were catching up, he mentioned that the Met was preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Lincoln Center. Both Peter and I are familiar with a wonderful film called Countdown to Curtain, which was shot at the Met in the final weeks leading up to the opening of the new house in 1966. It was produced by Bob Drew, a pioneer in cinéma vérité in America and one of my idols. Peter and I started talking about some of the great characters in the film—Rudolf Bing, the Met’s General Manager at the time; Franco Zeffirelli, the director and co-creator of Antony and Cleopatra, the new opera that opened the house; and of course, Leontyne Price, who was one of the first African American superstar sopranos and who sang Cleopatra on Opening Night. We realized that there was a lot of great material to work with from Countdown to Curtain, so we started researching further and discovered that the story of how the Met and Lincoln Center came to be was also a history of post-war New York City. That’s how The Opera House began.
As a vérité filmmaker, I had never made an archival documentary, but what I found so interesting was that there were a lot of people still alive who had lived through the process of building the new house. They were in their 90s, and they were great storytellers, especially Leontyne Price. We felt right from the outset that we needed her in the new film, even though she hadn’t given interviews for many, many years. We wrote to her brother, George Price, who had been her manager toward the end of her career, with a few sample questions, and, lo and behold, she agreed to grant us an interview—mainly, I think, because she truly considered the Met her operatic home. She was one week shy of turning 90 when we met her in a hotel in Baltimore near where she lives, and from the moment she walked in the door, she was on. She’s extremely witty, and she really knows how to craft a story. It was one of those experiences you have only rarely as a filmmaker where an interview takes on a life force of its own. The moment the interview was over, I texted Peter and said, “Now we’ve got a film.”
Of course, Leontyne is just one of many remarkable figures in The Opera House, which also looks at Robert Moses, who was determined to remake the landscape of the city; John D. Rockefeller III, whose philanthropy made the creation of Lincoln Center possible; and Wallace K. Harrison, the lead architect on the project. The result, I’m happy to say, is more than just a film about the history of an institution, but a personal history. For example, when you see Harrison’s original designs for the new Metropolitan Opera House, which are so different from what ended up being built, you really get a sense of the breadth of his imagination. In the end, The Opera House is a film about the creative process. It shows how, in an artistic collaboration—whether it’s the making of a new opera or the making of a new opera house—you never end up with what you initially expect. And that’s part of what makes it great.