Opening Night, November 8, 1954
Account on the Front Page of The New York Times by Howard Taubman
Nation Shares 'Met' Opening in Gala Theater-TV Parties
The Metropolitan Opera last night opened its new season not only in its own seventy-one year-old theatre but in thirty-two other houses in more than twenty-five cities from coast to coast.
Thanks to closed-circuit television, the largest paying audience in the opera's history paid its way in to take part in an opening night. What has been a gala evening for seven decades in the venerable opera house on Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street became a festive occasion also in such widely separated communities as Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
This was not the first time that a Metropolitan Opera performance was telecast on a closed circuit. Two seasons ago Carmen was presented in this way. Because the arrangements for the telecast were made at short notice and because the performance took place a few weeks before Christmas, the venture was not profitable. The hook-up this year had almost ten months preparation and since it involved an opening night it attracted much wider interest.
The opening night has been televised for home screens several times in the past, but these telecasts were virtually on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Last night's closed circuit transmission was the first for which the technicians had ample time and facilities to prepare.
The source from which all the excitement flowed, the Metropolitan Opera House, glowed with its customary opening-night glamour. An audience of 3,800 paid a total of $62,438, with seats on the orchestra floor, bringing $30 each. It was an audience drawn from the cream of business, finance, the arts and society, and it put on a glittering fashion display.
But this time it was not an exclusively New York show. In some other cities, where the opera performance was projected on a large screen, the opening was also turned into an occasion. As in New York, there were dinner parties before the opera, and audiences, representing leaders of their communities, turned out in their finery, although many people went in everyday clothes as they might to a neighborhood movie.
It was impossible last night to calculate exactly how many people had shared in this nation-wide opera opening, but the capacity of all the theatres on the hook-up was close to 80,000, and it was estimated that 70,000 persons had purchased tickets. In each town chapters of the Metropolitan Opera Guild or some charity helped to arrange the event and tickets were as high as $7 in some places.
There ware theatres in the Bronx and Brooklyn as well as in such cities as Albany, Buffalo, Camden, Baltimore, Richmond, Pittsburg, Erie, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Dallas, Houston, Tulsa and Salt Lake City that carried the Metropolitan opening night. Efforts to obtain from the Metropolitan Opera Company or from Theatre Television Network a complete list of cities showing the telecast were unsuccessful.
The atmosphere in the Opera House here was conditioned by the fact that the opening was on closed-circuit television. Cameras and their crews occupied two of the boxes in the Golden Horseshoe, and there were cameras in the orchestra pit sharing space with the conductor and the members of the orchestra. Lighting and staging had been changed for the telecast.
The opera house was brighter than it has ever been during a performance. There were banks of spots along the sides of the proscenium and brilliant lights played from the directors' and artists' boxes on the grand tier floor, near the stage.
In a large room off the dress circle was the television crew with its monitors, cables and headphones. There was a large screen on the wall and Kirk Browning, director, and Robert W. Davis, in charge of lighting, kept the images moving according to the needs of the story.
From all over the country there were reports of good sound and improved visual projection. For most of the viewers in other theatres than the Metropolitan, the action on the stage was brought up close. It was as though each spectator had a front-row seat. There was the intimacy that one gets with television in the home and the size and clarity that one gets in the films.
The televising equipment scattered through the opera house played a part in setting the opening night mood. It gave the audience a sense of being a vital participant in an unusual event. The atmosphere was gay, but not obtrusive. The few exhibitionists who seem to be standard on opera first nights seemed to be subdued.
Even the performance on the stage was affected in part by the television partnership. For the first time in its history the Metropolitan opened a season with parts of four operas instead of a complete work. It was the thought of T. N. T. (Theatre Network Television, Inc.), the company that set up the theatre circuit for the evening, that a show with a generous allotment of stars was preferable.
There was another factor not connected with television, but with another theatre art, the cinema, that influenced the choice of the opening night potpourri. An Italian-made color film of Aida is opening in New York later this week, and its imminence was believed to have caused the Metropolitan to give up the idea of using Aida for this year's opening.
But some of Aida was not absent from the Metropolitan stage. The performance last night wound up with three scenes from this Verdi work, which has been the first-night show many times in opera houses all over the world. The Pagliacci Prologue, the first act of Bohème and the second of The Barber of Seville preceded the Aida excerpts.
Big Assemblage of Stars
With so many leading parts to fill Rudolf Bing, general manager, was able to start his fifth season at the Metropolitan with an assemblage of stars worthy of the theatre's ranking position in the operatic world: Leonard Warren, Victoria de los Angeles, Richard Tucker, Frank Guarrera, Roberta Peters, Robert Merrill, Cesare Valletti, Jerome Hines, Fernando Corena, Zinka Milanov, Blanche Thebom, Mario Del Monaco and Luben Vichey.
The show, of course, was not confined to what went on behind the footlights. In the Opera House there was, as always, an equal spotlight on the audience, from world-famous figures to the 180 who paid their way in to stand. Among the latter were several who had taken positions outside the box office seventy-two hours before curtain time.
Mr. Bing followed his habit of serving coffee to those who only wait to stand. He appeared outside the theatre yesterday afternoon, followed by uniformed servitors from Louis Sherry's, who handed out the hot drinks to those on line. Thus even Louis Sherry's, which served a pre-opera dinner to a select clientele of 420 first nighters at $8.50 a meal and which sold no end of champagne before the show and during the intermissions, was taking part in this year's democratic trend in opera.
If those in the Opera House could watch the strikingly dressed notables in the foyers and in the auditorium, the thousands watching the show via television had an opportunity to see special intermission spectacles.
In the first intermission Edward Johnson, who was Metropolitan Opera general manager for fifteen years until 1950, introduced a number of famous men and women after brief talks by Mr. Bing and George A. Sloan, chairman of the Metropolitan Opera board.
In the second intermission the theatre screens were left bare, to give the local people a chance to visit among themselves. In the third intermission there was a fashion show from the Metrpolitan with Patrice Munsel, one of the leading singers of the company, doing the honors as hostess.
The season began with prospects bright for a good year financially. The advance subscription was $5,000 ahead of last-season's record-breaking figure. According to Francis Robinson, assistant general manager, subscribers had paid $1,535,496 before the first night this year. If single seat sales match those of last year, more than $1,000,000 will be taken in at the box office during the season and close to another $1,000,000 in the post-season tour.
What with receipts from last night's nation-wide showing and other income from such things as broadcasting, the Metropolitan would be fairly big business again this year. Unlike most businesses of this size, it was almost certain to end up with a deficit, for such are the costs of grand opera on a grand scale.
Because of these ever-present deficits, Mr. Bing had to cut down the number of his new productions this year. But he was able to arrange for two completely new presentations-one of Giordano's Andrea Chenier, which will be along next week, and another of Strauss' Arabella in English, which will be presented in February. There will also be a big new ballet, Vittorio, based on Verdi [sic] music and choreographed by Zachary Solov. In addition, a number of operas will be revived with old sets, and a group of new singers will join the company.
Whatever the season will bring forth, no event will be as important as last night's opening. The television hook-up was the result of a three-year contract. If thirty-two theaters were in this year's network, the chances are that the size of the hook-up and the total audience will grow in succeeding years.
Even this year there were at least eleven other cities that wanted to show, but the long lines to carry it were not available. With closed-circuit television of the opening night evidently a success clearance of lines should be easier to obtain in the years to come.
If this thing becomes a growing tradition, and the unions continued to cooperate as they did this year, it could be that the solvency of the institution might be assured.
Account of Irving Kolodin in the Saturday Review
Rudolf Bing’s purposeful housewarming that opened the Metropolitan Opera season with an audience of sensation seekers near at hand and onlookers at all the antics, it was hoped, in thirty-odd theatres around the country watching a closed circuit telecast, reminded one of a preseason exhibition game in the baseball realm. The stars were paraded, pitched briefly, and retired to the clubhouse, leaving all in good trim for the real business to start later on.
The only difference was that the “live” audience paid World Series prices, to a total of $62,000 plus. Assuming that the same ones—or as many others—who paid a top price of $30 per seat for the privilege of being present come back again in the future, this is as good a formula as any for cashing this annual orgy of exhibitionism, while sacrificing as little as possible of artistic energy. Crassly speaking—and the opening of the Met has long been something to be crass about, though only Bing has been artistically-minded enough to recognize it—artistic accomplishment under such circumstances has always been an uphill battle, and it might as well be along a road cushioned softly by a deep carpet of greenbacks.
In its present state of financial uncertainty the Metropolitan must utilize all its resources as productively as possible, and if that consists of turning to a profit the madly scrambled by-products of the opening it is obviously a managerial obligation. The question remains, however, is a closed-circuit theatre TV showing the wisest financial procedure and the most becoming artistic one? The argument goes that only a proper movie screen can accommodate the action planned to fill one of the world’s largest stages. Well, I saw The Barber of Seville portion on the representative (though not enormous) film screen of the Guild Theatre in Radio City, and it was still a spotty slice of the action, with the deep figures never in focus when a full stage shot was attempted, and much of the relevant by-play omitted from what the audience saw.
The thought that occurs to me is that the increment in good will and popular interest that might accrue to the Metropolitan through a nation-wide homeviewing audience's participation in such an event is being sacrificed to take advantage of the most available alternative. To be sure, the price of distribution (plus a reasonable profit to the Met) is a heavy one, but some pay-as-you-go form of telecasting is inevitable, and if any reasonable portion of the Met's regular broadcast public of millions paid a dollar or so for this experience the total return would be vastly greater than any thousands or hundreds of thousands who could be lured to theatres.
Among those who pitched, and caught, and otherwise displayed good trial-run form were Leonard Warren in the only recent version of the Pagliacci prologue in tails; Victoria de los Angeles as Mimi and Richard Tucker as Rodolfo in a first act of Boheme which found both groping for the lost key on a brilliantly lit stage (again for TV); Roberta Peters, Cesare Valetti, Robert Merrill, and Jerome Hines in a second act of The Barber neatly pocketed by buffo Fernando Corena (despite Miss Peters's absurdly ornamented “Una Voce poca fa" with its top F); and two scenes from Aida with Zinka Milanov, Mario del Monaco, Blanche Thebom, and Leonard Warren. Under the circumstances any consecutive mood or binding purpose was beyond expectation. The only completely happy auditor to the whole thing, I imagine, was S. Hurok. He had a 100 per cent representation in the opening effort of Warren, and an unvarying identification with every segment thereafter. Too bad as much cannot be said for the average listener.
Account of Arthur Bronson in Variety
New York's show of shows of the year - a gala Metropolitan Opera opening night – became a national event for the first time on Monday night, when the mink-and-music jamboree was televised on a closed circuit into 32 theatres around the country.
The occasion not only put the Met into the electronics age, but it pointed the way out of an annual morass of red ink. It's too soon to estimate what the Met got as its share of the teeveed event because installations, line costs and theatre takes aren’t in, but with added theatre outlets each season the way is pointed in the future to offset the annual deficits (last season the Met went into the red for about $250,000). The problem that plagues symphony orchestras and ballet troupes as well opera companies - the need of subsidies to offset annual deficits - looks light it might be solved here.
As for the Met's N.Y. take, the gross (at a hiked $30 orchestra top with boxes bringing $450 each) reached a resounding $62,438, not too far below last year's all-time record of $65,576. The Met lost: six boxes and about 45 orchestra seats to tv this year for camera installations, to explain the difference. But with subscriptions this season running about $5,000 ahead of last year's record list and about $1,535,496 paid into Met coffers by subscribers before opening-night curtain, the Met looks set for another healthy b.o. year. Certainly it has become big business.
It was a night of nights at the Broadway tonsil emporium, and a night of “firsts.” The largest paying audience in opera history - estimated at 60,000 people in the 27 cities where the 32 theatres showed the event, plus the 3,800 in the N.Y. auditorium - watched the affair. It was the start of the Met’s 70th season (actually the Met is 71 years old, but was burned out by a fire). And by common agreement, the audience was the most brilliant – in celebrities, society, show business, and diplomatic toppers; in ermine, chinchilla, tiara and lavaliere – in the Met’s history since before World War I.
It was also the most novel in Met history. Defying tradition which dictates opening with a strong
And certainly a complete, full-evening opera, the Met for the first time offered up excerpts from four operas This was definitely in deference to TV and the b.o. – to make opera more palatable for TV audiences, and to show off as many Met stars as possible.
The accent was on TV instead of anything else. The house looked different, with cameras, lights and other TV equipment scattered about. Eight cameras were used, four inside the auditorium, others in Sherry's bar and in the lobbies. Traditional lighting and staging was altered for TV's sake. Makeup of singers was different, due to TV. Leonard Warren led off the proceedings with the Prologue from Pagliacci, dressed in evening tails - but the shirt and tie were blue instead of white, in deference to tele. Even the audience looked different with cameras and lights on during the evening.
An Admitted Stunt
Intermission features added to the glamour and circusy air of the proceedings, with celebs dawdling over drinks or food in Sherry's bar, with ex-manager Edward Johnson interviewing a gathering of names in the opera club room for tele, and soprano Patrice Munsel emceeing a fashion show of Met singers and pro models in gowns of leading couturiers.
The evening was admittedly a stunt by the Met for cash and publicity purposes. Yet it was surprising how well the artistic side stood up under these conditions, so that diehards among the purists who came to scoff remained to thaw out and enjoy the spectacle for its musical values.
The Met put its best tonsils forward as it stepped into the electronics era. Using a three-platoon system of stars for its three-and-a-half-ring circus (the solo appearance of Warren in Pagliacci accounting for the half) the Met offered some grade-A operatics that shone out above all the frou-frou.
After the Warren solo the Met presented the first act of La Boheme, with Victoria de los Angeles, Richard Tucker, Frank Guarrera, Norman Scott and others. Then came the second act of Barber of Seville, with Roberta Peters, Jean Madiera, Cesare Valetti, Robert Merrill, Fernando Corena, and Jerome Hines. This was followed by Act I, Scene I, and Act II of Aida with Zinka Milanov, Blanche Thebom, Mario del Monaco, Leonard Warren and Jerome Hines.
The singing throughout was first-rate, with Tucker and Miss de los Angeles’ work in Boheme and Peters and Corena’s stint in the Barber, and Miss Milanov and del Monaco’s work in Aida particularly standout. Well-chosen excerpts gave the opera highlights, eliminating some dull stretches, to point up their appeal. And the lavish victory scene that closed the Aida segments gave the evening the full-scale splash, the visually as well as tonally magnificent windup that the unique occasion warranted.
Account of Eugene Lewis in the Dallas (Texas) Times Herald
By remote control Monday night at the Tower Theater, Dallas - which has its own Met season in the spring – helped New York's Metropolitan Opera open its 70th season.
The televised program was an operatic variety show. The Met, which calls them "galas," has done this sort of thing before, but never for opening night.
The bill included two dependable warhorses, the Prologue to Pagliacci and Triumphal Scene from Aida. The darkly colored, Act I, Scene I of the latter opera, Act II of Rossini's gay Mozartean romp, The Barber of Seville, and the equally light-hearted but lusher Act I of La Boheme, lent varied moods.
Operatic purists raised some objection to this "pops" touch to an eminently serious event, but other institutions of late have been compounding sugared pills for the masses to take, so why not the Met?
The object is to derive a broader base of support for the ailing opera house. Frankly, the "Fabulous Invalid of Broadway" can use some cash transfusion from such healthy and wealthy provinces as, say, Texas.
Dallas opera-lovers paid $3.55 for the orchestra and $2.95 for the balcony to witness the program.
Tops at the Met is $30 a seat, Thanks to a choice spot provided the television camera and thanks to telescopic lens, the meanest seat in the Tower offered a view of the proceedings equal to that enjoyed at the Met with the best opera-glasses from the highest-priced seat.
Indeed, some intimate, intriguing glimpses of the conductor and orchestra were available to the televiewer which no one at the actual event could have enjoyed short of making a spectacle of himself.
These close-ups were often fascinating, as often disillusioning.
Being a child of the literal-minded 20th Century, we predict that this telescopic nosiness
of the TV lens, if allowed to continue, may render obsolete live operatic performance.
Hardly any singer is lovely while singing, particularly when viewed at close quarters. An exception to this is Roberta Peters, the Rosina of the Barber of Seville episode who was as fetching warbling her tricky coloratura as with her mouth shut. Some of the others, most notably Blanche Thebom, whose facial gymnastics actually drew laughter from the audience.
Hollywood realizes this fact, and solves it very neatly. By the simple process of dubbing, Edmund Purdom can sound like Mario Lanza. (So can Lanza, for that matter). Or, if you will have it the other way around, Lanza can look like Purdom.
To get around to an instance more to the point, Mr. Purdom, who looks good in Egyptian costuming, could have performed the visual chores of Radames in Aida for Mario del Monaco, who doesn't, but who possesses a full-throated and well-trained voice, if not subtle delivery.
With benefit of dubbing, Amneris could have looked like Gene Tierney or Bella Darvi and sounded like Thebom. Or, being an extremely handsome woman when not singing, she could even have looked like Thebom. All movie singers, even when employing their own voices, dub it in later, under ideal conditions.
Two greater voices and more sensitive interpretations of Mimi and Rodolfo than that of Victoria de los Angeles and Richard Tucker are difficult to imagine. The visual aspects, again, were another matter.
The Met's triumphal scene invites comparison with the one on view next door at Cinerama
that of La Scala. We found the singing in general more stirring even if there weren't as many
spear-carriers. The ballet sequences were inferior to the Italian product.
Neither of them, of course, could hope to equal the spectacle contemplated, but never brought off, for the world premiere of Aida in Cairo, on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal. They were going to use real elephants and real pyramids.
The intermission glimpses at Sherry's Restaurant of the elegant opera crowd were as fascinating as the operatic sequences. They proved, among other things, that operatic people aren't like other people; they're much more intense.
Our guides were Edward Johnson, past general manager of the Met and an operatic great in his own right, and the lovely Patrice Munsel, who got a hand from her Dallas fans. Glimpsed also were celebrities like Margaret Truman, James C. Petrillo, U. N. Secretary General Hammarskjold, Salvatore Baccaloni, and Jarmila Novotna.
The reassuring and familiar voice of Milton Cross was omnipresent.
Analysis of Bosley Crowther, Movie Critic, in The New York Times of Sunday, November 14, 1954
OPERA ON THE SCREEN
Telecast of Metropolitan Opening and Film ‘Aida’ Are Shown Here
THAT perennially popping-up question of how to put opera on the screen—assuming that such an achievement is passionately to be desired—was given two positive answers in these purlieus last week, and there isn't much doubt as to which answer—which method—this viewer would choose.
One was the wire transmission into thirty-two theatres throughout the land of the telecast pictures of the opening of the Metropolitan Opera, here in New York, with portions and scenes of four operas piped onto the theatre screens. The other was the regular transmission of "Aida" by way of a film, in color and with full cinematic treatment, into the Little Carnegie.
This amazingly convenient opportunity to see and compare within three days the best that the present technical facilities of the two media of theatrical transmission can avail provoked some striking reminders of the basic nature of the art of cinema, to which it is reasonable to imagine that the producers of theatrical telecasts eventually aspire. And it also provided some insight into what is still clumsy and false, in the light of a naturalistic treatment, about the operatic form.
Now, let us agree, in this instance, that the telecasting of the opening of the ‘Met’ was calculated and presented as more of a big news event than as a straight and exclusive production of classical opera, and it was as much out of burning curiosity to witness this unique event as it was to see opera and hear music that people across the country paid up to $7 a head admission to those theatres that were showing it, we would guess. For piping pictorial journalism, there is nothing, to touch the telecast.
But eventually the carrying of opera into theatres by this device will depend on artistic satisfaction -- and here's where criticism comes in. So let's take-a look at the opera, and only that, as it was shown the other night in the telecast of the ‘Met’ opening, and then let's see how it compares with the fine Italian film of Aida, which came to the Little Carnegie.
At the outset, we'll grant the singing voices and the music in both the telecast and film were and are of superior magnificence and technical quality. There is nothing to which a film critic could dare take exception here - and, remember, the sound in each instance is conveyed mechanically. The voices of Zinka Milanov and Blanche Thebom, who appeared in the scenes from Aida that were coincidentally performed in the telecast, had nothing on those of Renata Tebaldi and Ebe Stignani, singing the same roles in the film. Except for some early technical troubles the telecast sound was superb.
We will also overlook the appearance of some other production “bugs" that showed up in the “Met" presentation - the frequently fuzzy focusing, the occasional missing of light cues, the voice of the prompter that could be heard. These were difficulties that might be corrected easily.
What were most glaringly apparent to the movie fan in the telecast were the unsightliness of many of the singers and the stiffness of the performance on a stage. Without meaning personal offense to any of the musical artists of the “Met," it must be remarked that some of them look incongruous to the romantic roles they are in, when observed in the inevitable close-up on the theatre screen. If theatre telecasts of “Met" operas are to become a fairly regular thing, they will have to recruit some better lookers, such as Roberta Peters, who can sing.
And the rigid restriction of the action to the limited area of the opera house stage forced the cameramen to use the medium-close shot for most of their telecast scenes. This was not only tedious to look at but it caused the veteran film viewer to feel a distinct sense of inhibition in the expression of lofty moods. It is hard to imagine any system - even wide screen - that will be able to overcome the feeling of confinement and monotony that is induced by the straight pickup of a production on a stage.
Sweep and Spectacle
How different and expansive the feeling that comes from the opera staged especially for cinematic movement and reproduced with mechanical and theatrical perfection on film! This Italian Aida, for instance, has the pictorial sweep and spectacle that we'll bet old Giuseppe Verdi visioned for it in his mind's eye. And the use of dubbed voices for the actors, which is a legitimate piece of movie wizardry, permits the combination of fine singing and handsome characters appearing on the screen.
With a camera that is mobile and selective, that can move around such a spectacle as the triumphal return of Radames to the city of Thebes, with its great areas of choral music and its big open-air ballet, even more has been done in this picture with this high spot of the opera than is done in the stiff reproduction of the same huge scene on the current Cinerama program. To be sure, there are yet improvements to be made in filmed opera, but the method is still superior to the opera telecast.