MOMENT IN MET BROADCAST HISTORY
A great debut makes an impression that remains in your memory for a lifetime. But how often do you hear two amazing debuts in one performance? That’s what happened more than forty years ago when Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli made simultaneous Met debuts in Il Trovatore before a delirious public. A week later, the February 4, 1961, Saturday matinee Trovatore was broadcast live on the Texaco-Metropolitan Opera radio network. New York had been hit by a major snowstorm, but the house was packed with an enthusiastic audience, alerted by the reviews to the sensational new singers.
Leontyne Price was already well-known in New York from appearances on Broadway, in concerts, and on television, but she had triumphed in opera houses in Vienna, Milan, London, Chicago and San Francisco before her Met debut. Her prior successes made for high expectations. Adding to the pressure, she was a major African-American singer making an important debut at a critical moment in the Civil Rights movement and every news report took note of it. In spite of all that, Price met every expectation and left critics searching for superlatives. "She has matured into a beautiful singer," wrote New York Times critic Harold Schoenberg. "Her voice, warm and luscious, has enough volume to fill the house with ease, and she has a good technique to back up the voice."
Advance publicity about Franco Corelli tended to center on his movie-star good looks, with one paper running a headline "Will Corelli’s Voice Match His Looks?" The audience reaction left little doubt. "It [his voice] has something of an exciting animal drive about it …There is something about his work that greatly excited the audience," observed the Times. And from the Herald-Tribune, "His throat bursts with the golden tenor tones, with the clarion thrust at the top which is so ravishing to the Italian ear…It was ravishing to all ears last night…."
Both Price and Corelli were in spectacular form for the broadcast. Price sailed through her arias with grand, arching phrases and astonishing beauty. Corelli’s brilliant, heroic timbre had exactly the "exciting animal drive" the critic noted, in spite of the tenor’s having sprained his ankle backstage after the first act. Veteran Fausto Cleva conducted, Irene Dalis was Azucena, Mario Sereni replaced Robert Merrill at the last minute as Di Luna, and the very young Teresa Stratas sang the comprimario role of Inez. Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli, of course, became legends. Price sang at the Met for another twenty-four years, and excepting Aida, the Trovatore Leonora was the role she sang most often. Corelli sang 365 performances at the Met before his retirement in 1975.