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Live from the Met: five decades of opera High - Octave Radio

NEW YORK — New York -- 1:29 p.m.: In the control booth, the countdown starts.

"Thirty seconds to go -- if anyone has to go," says operations director Bill King. The laughter has just subsided when the broadcast starts with words the oldest members of the radio audience have heard for 55 years:

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"Welcome to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. This is Peter Allen, on behalf of Texaco, proud sponsor of these broadcasts for over five decades."

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In 1940, when Texaco began to sponsor the Met's broadcasts, "The Lucky Strike Hit Parade," "Bell Telephone Hour," "A&P; Gypsies" and "The Voice of Firestone" were among the rulers of the airwaves -- as popular then as "Baywatch," "Home Improvement," "Melrose Place" and "Roseanne" are on television today. Resuscitating those programs would be as difficult as bringing a dinosaur back to life.

But such a dinosaur is alive in the form of the "Texaco-Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts," and the health of the program is almost as phenomenal as its longevity. The broadcasts, whose format has remained virtually unchanged since Dec. 7, 1940, sometimes reaches as many as 7 million listeners in the United States and Canada. And that doesn't include several million more in Europe.

"Opera fans are unbelievably loyal, and they know they can't find liveopera anywhere else on the radio dial," says Cary Smith, general manager of WBJC (91.5 FM), which carries the broadcasts locally.

The faithful are found everywhere. There is a couple who reposition their yacht in the U.S. Virgin Islands every Saturday so they can pick up the MetBroadcast from Puerto Rico. And there is a federal convict who wrote the Met that "Several of us here are regular listeners and we'd very much appreciate a copy of the broadcast guide."

Opera is now at a peak of popularity. In 1940, the United States had only 77 opera-producing organizations. A 1992 survey showed that 1,285 presenters gave 15,098 performances of 731 operas to audiences that totaled 4.3 million. Pollster Lou Harris says opera is the only performing art showing significant growth in attendance -- up almost 30 percent since 1980, when Texaco added telecasts.

The shows have had a tremendous influence in the popularity of opera in the U.S., an impact comparable to that of such stars as Enrico Caruso, Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti, says Michael Harrison, general manager of the Baltimore Opera Company.

At a time when even middle-sized cities have resident opera companies, it is hard to imagine the appeal the first opera broadcasts had. Unless you lived in New York, San Francisco or Chicago -- or in a city where the Met toured -- you almost never heard first-rate operatic performances.

The phonograph had been a fixture of American homes since about 1920, and recordings by such operatic stars as Caruso and John McCormack were best-sellers. But complete opera recordings were almost nonexistent because they were not commercially viable in the 78-rpm format. The Met broadcasts filled a void, introducing thousands to an art form that captured their interest and imagination while satisfying an already existing appetite for singing.

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"People heard their first operas in the strangest places -- from gasoline stations to convents," Harrison says. "What almost all of us who are involved in opera have in common is that we fell in love with it over the radio."

The Met is the world's largest, most lavishly appointed opera house. Its seating capacity of 3,800 makes it almost twice as large as Milan's La Scala, the Vienna State Opera or London's Covent Garden. Its huge chandeliers hang from a ceiling eight stories high. Its enormous stage -- 100 feet wide, 110 feet high and 146 feet deep -- provides jobs for an army of designers, set builders, costumers and stagehands.

1:39 p.m.:

In the broadcast booth -- three tiny, interconnected rooms at the back of the Grand Tier six stories above the main floor -- the production team of Michael Bronson, Jay David Saks and Bill King talks about this afternoon's opera, Verdi's "La Traviata." They exchange stories about singers who have portrayed Violetta -- Verdi's fragile, beautiful courtesan -- whose death from tuberculosis concludes the opera.

Bronson, who produces the broadcast's popular intermission features, asks if his colleagues remember a famous soprano whose consumptive death throes in the final scene became known as "the constipation scene."

Then there was an equally renowned soprano whose rehearsal of the death scene had to be interrupted because she was unable to see the conductor from her death bed. "She couldn't see over her stomach," says King, the program's operations director. "And since she couldn't lift herself off the bed, stagehands had to prop her head up with extra pillows."

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On another occasion a "Traviata" was delayed when another diva became stuck in the bucket seats of the car that had brought her to the Met. "She had to be wedged out," says Saks, the program's audio director.

Saks, Bronson and King are much impressed with the afternoon's Violetta, the slim and attractive Veronica Villarroel.

Radio listeners are never concerned about Violetta's appearance. That the most visually spectacular of the musical genres, opera, can be heard but not seen may have paradoxically contributed to the enduring appeal of the broadcasts.

"Everything had to be created in the listener's mind," says Bill Jiorda, director of the center for telecommunication services at the University of Texas and the general manager of KUT-FM, the university's public radio service.

"All you had were some indications from the music of what a singer was like. You took those hints, and in your mind's eye you could make Birgit Nilsson look like Sophia Loren or Ava Gardner. Even if you knew what Nilsson really looked like, your mind insisted on what you wanted her to look like, and you had your own way."

2:04:

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Even before the first act ends, a few listeners begin to sneak out of their seats and rush up the aisles. Before the curtain falls, the trickle has become a raging river.

"I sometimes think I should send a cassette of the last two minutes to some of those folks," Saks says.

The stampede up the aisles is not to the bathrooms, but for places in 115-seat List Hall, where the Met's intermission activities -- commentary, round-table discussions and the famous opera quiz -- take place.

Bronson says letters indicate that listeners love the intermission features as much as, if not more than, the operas themselves. The quiz attracts a particularly loyal band. More than 10,000 letters arrive each season with questions for use on the program; only 125 are chosen. Questions range from the specific ("In which operas is murder kept in the family?") to the general ("What are your favorite incomprehensible operas and why?")

"The quiz will never change," Bronson says. "Our listeners would crazy; they would go berserk."

2:34:

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The first intermission finishes on schedule. But a delayed entrance by conductor John Fiore makes it necessary for announcer Peter Allen to "fill." He describes the set for the radio audience. Allen has a script, but he prepares several hours' worth of additional material for such pauses, which usually last a minute but might stretch longer. When the stage machinery in Wagner's "Parsifal" broke down in mid-act one afternoon, Allen filled 23 minutes.

The only time he had to struggle to fill was after a tragic incident that Met-Texaco staffers still refer to obliquely as the "1987 Macbeth." An elderly man committed suicide during a broadcast by jumping from the Met's highest balcony.

Allen didn't actually see it happen; operations director Bill King did.

"I was looking out the window [of the booth] and saw him going by," King says. "When he hit, the whole building shook. For more than a year, every time I heard something drop, my heart would stop."

Allen had to fill for two hours before New York police decided to suspend the performance.

"I used up absolutely everything I knew about the opera or play," he says.

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Through the years, the Texaco-Metropolitan Broadcasts have had only two hosts: Milton Cross, who announced them for 35 years, and Allen, who succeeded Cross after the latter's death in 1975.

Cross was a beloved figure whose avuncular style made him as well-known as some of the singers he described. Old-time listeners still talk about the euphemisms Cross used when the bodice of mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens, who was singing the title role in "Carmen," burst open, leaving nothing to the imagination.

2:42:

The only difference from Act I is that the performance's Alfredo -- Frank Lopardo, a tenor with a light, lyric voice -- is now singing more forcefully. He is one of too many young singers who abuse their voices by singing too loudly in roles they shouldn't have taken. In five years, Lopardo may have little or no voice left; in another five, he may not be singing at all.

Saks raises his right fist in mock triumph.

"Next week he does 'Siegfried,' " he cries.

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In order to alert himself to danger spots, Saks attends the cast's rehearsal and performance immediately preceding Saturday afternoon's. He operates his console -- 20 levers that control the mix of sound from the orchestra pit and the stage -- with the attention that playing the piano requires. But he also follows "Traviata" with the opera's full score, which is marked with the danger spots he noticed earlier in the week.

Still, the unexpected happens.

Lopardo, more suddenly than at Wednesday's performance, throws himself into a chair. The impact causes a high-pitched screech. Saks instantly lowers the volume control on his mixing console for Lopardo's part of the stage.

The sound heard in the control booth must travel 23,000 miles up to a broadcast satellite and then 23,000 miles down to satellite dishes -- a 46,000-mile voyage that takes a quarter of a second. That one-quarter-second delay might save the radio audience from the sound that those inside the Met heard.

Saks' move to de-emphasize the screech -- changing the blend of sound coming from the stage -- is part of what audio engineers call "mixing"; the other part is determining the dynamic range.

"We're always debating who's listening to us," Saks says. "Is it the guy at home listening on $10,000 equipment? Or is it the guy driving a '77 Chevette with the windows open? The man with the fancy equipment wants the widest dynamic range possible. But if the man in the car has to keep fiddling with volume control in order to hear soft passages, he may have an accident."

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Texaco doesn't want to lose any listeners -- especially those who drive cars. Texaco's generous support -- it has given the Met more than $100 million -- is simply good business. The audience for the broadcasts can reach 7 million, and Texaco's market analyses demonstrate that people aware of the broadcasts are 2 1/2 times more likely to purchase its products than competitive brands.

"Our audience is loyal to us and our products because of our long-standing commitment to the Met," says Texaco senior vice-president William Tell. If it were to give up that association, the company would also sacrifice the good will it has earned.

The Met broadcasts actually have a history that precedes Texaco's sponsorship. Regular broadcasts began Christmas Day 1931 with a performance of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel." At first, the broadcasts were unsponsored -- a prestigious, if expensive, adornment to NBC, which broadcast them.

In 1933, the broadcasts were sponsored by Lucky Strike, then in 1934 by Listerine. By 1936, the Depression forced RCA -- NBC's parent company -- to pay for the broadcasts. It seemed they would cease entirely when Texaco -- then the Texas Co. -- rescued them in 1940.

This rescue was as propitious for Texaco as it was for the Met. Within a year, the country was at war, and gasoline was rationed. Advertising what people couldn't easily buy was pointless, but the broadcasts kept Texaco's name before the public without pushing its product.

4:05:

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As "Traviata's" final act begins, one senses impatience in the control booth. Ellen Godfrey, who oversees the broadcasts as network producer, has to catch a plane to West Palm Beach to visit her parents, and Saks must fly to Milan to produce a recording at La Scala of Boito's "Mephistopheles."

4:30:

Violetta's death scene begins to reach its climax.

"Don't cry too hard," Godfrey says. "I hate tears on the air."

4:34:

Violetta goes into her final death throes.

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"At long last," Saks says. "In 72 seconds it is over."

In precisely that time, the audience bursts into applause. Allen begins the description, essentially unchanged for 55 years, of curtain calls, mentions next week's broadcast of Strauss' "Rosenkavalier," gives the credits for the contributions of Godfrey, Saks, King and Bronson, and closes in the traditional way.

"This is Peter Allen with best wishes to you from Texaco and the Met. . . ."

ON THE AIR

Here is the schedule for the remainder of the 1994-'95 Texaco-Metropolitan opera radio season:

* Saturday, March 25 -- Mozart's "Idomeneo," with James Levine conducting. Cast: Dawn Upshaw, Carol Vaness, Anne Sofie von Otter, Placido Domingo.

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* April 1 -- Puccini's "Tosca," with Daniel Oren conducting. Cast: Elizabeth Holleque, Luciano Pavarotti, Juan Pons, Francois Loup.

* April 8 -- Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande," with James Levine conducting. Cast: Frederica von Stade, Marilyn Horne, Dwayne Croft, Victor Braun, Robert Lloyd.

* April 15 -- Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versaille," with James Levine conducting. Cast: Teresa Stratas, Marilyn Horne, Allan Glassman, Gino Quilico, Hector Vasquez.

* April 22 -- Wagner's "Parsifal," with James Levine conducting. Cast: Gwyneth Jones, Placido Domingo, Wolfgang Brendel, Donald McIntyre, Robert Lloyd.


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