Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Met on the Air: From 1910 to 1932

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We pick up the story of the Saturday Afternoon broadcasts where we left off in our May 3, 2020 post, “The Met: Looking Back in a Time of Pandemic."Since the middle of March, during these months of closure in response to the urgency of social distancing, the company has each day streamed, without charge to the audience, Met performances from its video archive. This initiative born of the current crisis can be counted a giant step in the long journey that began inauspiciously on January 12, 1910 when, alas, the first two transmissions from the old house on 39th Street and Broadway were doomed by an inadequate apparatus. Olive Fremstad’s Tosca, Emmy Destinn’s Santuzza, and Enrico Caruso’s Canio were barely audible to the handful of listeners who held telephone receivers to their ears. Two decades would elapse before exigent general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza would allow himself to be persuaded that microphones and amplifiers had met the fidelity demands of grand opera. Gatti’s resistance was no doubt abetted by worry that the broadcasts would compromise in-house receipts. In 1931 the Met began the project of inveigling itself into millions of homes across the country, advancing the elusive ambition of naturalizing the stubbornly European art form. The deal struck with NBC provided for the transmission of twenty-four partial performances from the 39th Street stage in 1931-32 and again 1932-33 at the then hefty fee of $120,000 per year. 

The first nation-wide broadcast, the Christmas Day Hänsel und Gretel, was carried by more than one hundred stations on both the Red and Blue (later ABC) NBC networks and by shortwave around the world. The composer and critic Deems Taylor narrated the action over the music, to the distress of many listeners. Almost from the start, announcer Milton Cross was the unmistakable voice of the Met. During his introduction and the intermissions, in orotund tones and purple prose, he told the story of the opera, described sets and costumes, and added his own enthusiastic observations to the applause. Cross’s more than four-decade unbroken streak ended with his death in 1975. 

The radio audience of the first broadcast season, 1931-32, heard only one complete opera, the inaugural Hänsel und Gretel. Each of the remaining transmissions was limited to an hour. Despite the time constraint, the offerings allowed for a sampling of the company’s core repertoire, the annual Bohèmes, Traviatas and Walküres, the belated Met premiere of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and occasional novelties such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko and Deems Taylor’s own Peter Ibbetson. On the roster were many of the world’s preeminent singers. Only scratchy fragments remain of the 1931-32 fare. We have therefore chosen to recall the first broadcast season through commercial recordings made by the very same artists in the very same roles they sang over the airways that year.

Georges Thill, the leading French tenor of the interwar period, sang with the New York company from Spring 1931 to Spring 1932. In his 1930 recording of Faust’s address to Marguerite’s dwelling, “Salut, demeure chaste et pure,” Thill deploys his signature sweet timbre, pellucid diction, and refined style. Thanks to a technique rare among his peers, he reaches the aria’s climax in a breathtaking high C taken in head voice.

Beniamino Gigli, on the other hand, was for most operaphiles the undisputed premier Italian tenor of the interwar period. Here, at the opening of Act IV of La Bohème, he is joined by the elegant baritone Giuseppe De Luca, a Met mainstay for two decades. In the jocular first section of the duet Rodolfo and Marcello exchange jabs about their lost lovers; in the lyrical second section, “O, Mimì, tu più non torni,” they bemoan their loss.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Lucrezia Bori owned the title role of Verdi’s La Traviata. For Met audiences, the soprano’s moving, very personal, sometimes eccentric reading of the role defined Violetta. We hear Bori in a 1928 recording of “Ah, fors’è lui” and “Sempre libera.”

The return of Bellini’s Norma to the Met repertoire in 1927 was hailed as a landmark in the performance history of the opera. [See our previous post Thunderous applause was showered on Rosa Ponselle. And to this day, she is considered by many (including Maria Callas, the Norma of her generation) the Druid priestess for the ages. Ponselle’s 1929 recording of “Casta diva” and its cabaletta, “Ah! bello a me ritorno,” is a lesson in both phrasing and agility.

In 1940, nine years after the first NBC transmission, Texaco took on the prestigious sponsorship of Met broadcasts. Texaco’s sixty-three-year run remains the longest span of corporate support in radio history. And for nearly ninety years, Met broadcasts have generated a pool of opera consumers readily and repeatedly tapped for often sorely needed revenue. Such was the case during the Depression through the “Save the Met” campaign (once again see our post of early May). And such we hope will be the case upon the Met’s reopening, announced recently for New Year’s Eve 2020, when a faithful and grateful public will no doubt recall the months and months of daily video streaming that helped it survive its personal and cultural isolation.