There’s a special pleasure in seeing a film or taped footage of an event my younger self may have experienced several decades ago. “The Opera House,” director Susan Froemke’s new documentary of the conception, construction and finally the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 fits that bill to a T. It’s a fascinating saga of artistic, financial and civic cooperation, and definitely one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently. A particularly refreshing aspect is its lack of villains; instead we see a cast of heroes, among whom are Met General Manager Rudolph Bing, Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, Lincoln Center Architect Wallace Harrison, Civic Planner Robert Moses, and, most memorably, Soprano Leontyne Price.
As the film rightly points out, the construction of New York’s Lincoln Center, and especially a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, was a national and indeed, an international event. It came at a time when opera claimed a more significant place in the American cultural consciousness than it does today. The exposure of the art form to the general public was then considerable: opera singers had frequently appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 40’s, and many had had their own radio programs. Later, when television entered the scene, opera singers were a staple on the numerous variety shows that aired; they regularly appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and Beverly Sills even filled in for host Johnny Carson when he was on vacation. The Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco for many years, were an institution. So even if you weren’t a fan, you were at least familiar with the name “Verdi,” and could probably hum the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”
I never attended a performance at the old Met at Broadway and 39th Street, but the footage of its auditorium, as Ms. Froemke shows, is breathtaking in its ornate red and gold. However, the house’s shortcomings as a theater were enormous: no room for modern stage equipment, the forced storage of scenery outdoors on Seventh Avenue due to lack of indoor space, few if any rehearsal areas (To further illustrate the point I would have liked Ms. Froemke to have contrasted the physical plant of the old Met by showing the state of the art facilities of a European opera house). As a result plans to build a new opera house were in the wind as early as 1908. A series of problems and crises, not to mention the Depression, intervened in the following decades, so it wasn’t until Robert Moses’ proposal of the cultural enclave that became Lincoln Center that a new opera house began to morph from dream to reality. However, Ms. Froemke doesn’t sugarcoat the human cost of this urban renewal; several former residents of the West Side neighborhood that was condemned and cleared for Lincoln Center express their opinions of their forced move.
A major highlight of “The Opera House” is footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center in May, 1959, where a very dapper Leonard Bernstein opens the proceedings by leading the New York Philharmonic in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The event was deemed of such import that President Eisenhower attended; as he does the honors by sinking that first shovel in the earth, we hear the Julliard Choir sing out with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.” Leading Met singers Risë Stevens and Leonard Warren also performed, and it’s shocking to remember that the latter would be gone in less than a year, dying of a massive heart attack on stage in the midst of a performance of “La Forza del Destino” at the old house.
Met General Manager Rudolph Bing is of course a major presence in “The Opera House.” At first he appears as almost impossibly imperious and formal, and stubbornly opposed to accommodating the “Save the Met” sentimentalists (Ms. Froemke should have provided some context for this controversy by referencing the public outcry at the significant loss of historic structures in New York City, especially Pennsylvania Station, during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and the fact that only a few years before, a public campaign had indeed saved Carnegie Hall from demolition). But in preparing to open the new house while still saying goodbye to the old, Bing emerges as a hero. What a difficult job this man had–mounting a new opera to inaugurate the Met’s new home (Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”), apprehensively eyeing Director Franco Zeffirelli’s creation of a massive extravaganza of a production that eventually broke the stage turntable and famously trapped Leontyne Price inside Cleopatra’s pyramid, overseeing nine new productions scheduled for that first season (four in the first week alone), and dealing with a looming strike by the orchestra musicians (though not mentioned in the film, Bing announced from the stage on Opening Night that a settlement had been reached). The tension as we see Bing deal with all of this is palpable, yet somehow he manages. Few could have handled all these crises as well.
But it’s Soprano Leontyne Price, whose career straddled the old and the new houses, who walks away with the film. At the age of 91 she’s sharply informative as well as a total hoot. I particularly enjoyed her account of what it was like to sing with Tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she made a joint debut at the Met (“We sang insane!!!,” as attested to by the recording of the “Il Trovatore” broadcast from that season), and her stories of the trials, tribulations and triumph of opening the new house as Cleopatra are terrific. As she proudly—and rightly—states, “Sometimes you sing so well you just want to kiss yourself, and I did that night.” When she breaks into the opening phrases of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (“It has become the time of evening/When people sit on their porches/Rocking gently and talking gently…”) while reminiscing about their friendship, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up as I did. As the possessor of the most beautiful soprano voice of my time, she remains a treasure.
“The Opera House’ will be screened once more as a Fathom event on January 17. Here’s hoping for a quick release of the DVD and a showing on PBS. It’s a marvelous film.