From 1949 to 1964, when it ceased television broadcasts, The NBC Opera Theatre produced 43 operas in English; they were performed live, usually in NBC’s New York Studio 8H on Sunday afternoons. Some were staples of the opera repertory, such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, but there were original commissions as well, including operas by Norman Dello Joio and Bohuslav Martinu and, most notably, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.
First broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1951, Menotti’s barely one-hour, one-act opera about a crippled boy visited by the Three Kings of the Epiphany on their way to honor the newly born Christ became a staple in the NBC Opera calendar, airing during both the Christmas and Easter seasons. Menotti said the genesis for his opera came from a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he encountered the 1475 Hieronymous Bosch painting Adoration of the Magi.
Amahl and the Night Visitors was my own introduction to the magical world of opera when, as a not-quite-yet teenager, I watched it on our round-screen, black-and-white Zenith television only a few years after that first telecast.
Several years later, a newly curious fan of this oddly sung theater, I began to listen to the Texaco-sponsored, Met Opera Saturday-matinee broadcasts on Los Angeles’ classical-music station KFAC, 1330 on the AM dial. In a stentorian, plummy voice, Milton Cross introduced each week’s opera with plot summaries and descriptions of the sets and costumes. At intermission, there was also the always arcane “Opera Quiz,” a kind of “Queen’s Throat” mano a mano for the cognoscenti trying to out-trivialize each other.
On Saturdays during the school year, I listened to each week’s opera while working in my dad’s small machine shop, helping produce engine parts for his aircraft contracts. Over the whine of his new Rockford lathe or his ancient, belt-driven, vertical Cincinnati Mill, the orchestra crescendos rose through the clouds of the machines’ oily smoke. I fantasized about being an adult who was there in the Metropolitan Opera House, dressed in suit and tie, seeing as well as hearing these great operas of the “Western Music Tradition” with New York’s cultural elite.
Cut to Dec. 30, 2006, when the Metropolitan Opera, under its then-director Peter Gelb, began live broadcasts of these same Saturday-matinee performances, this time in HD via satellite in movie theaters across the nation. The first transmitted opera was Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute — a production, like Amahl, aimed high on the children’s spectrum.
A complete list of The Met’s Live in HD offerings can be found on Wikipedia.
In recent years, many productions have been tailored more to the audience in the movie theater than to the in-house audience at the Met. The three productions directed by visual artist/animator/filmmaker William Kentridge have been especially ambitious, reflecting cinematic techniques best suited for the theatrical screen. Following his first Met Opera commission, Shostakovich’s The Nose in October 2013 …
… and his production of Alban Berg’s Lulu in November 2015 …
… the South African artist took on Wozzeck, Berg’s infamous, one-act opera from 1925. This dark drama was adapted from Georg Büchner’s notorious fragment play, unfinished at the time of his death in 1837, a work so dark and nihilistic that it was not performed until 75 years after Büchner died. Berg saw that first production by Max Reinhardt and proclaimed he would adapt it as an opera. But World War I intervened, and the premiere did not happen until 1925. Even now, almost a century later, Wozzeck is still one of the most demanding of all operas.
The Kentridge production at the Met screened in cinemas worldwide this month, on Jan. 11. Though Kentridge employed his signature black-and-white graphics and minimalist animations in his two previous Met Opera productions, his Wozzeck features large-scale and constant projections as sets and also uses smaller screens such as televisions. A minimal wood, ramped set is mostly a device to move the singers from one scene to the next. The projected materials create interior and exterior walls, text, graphics, documentary film, animated figures and objects.
This barebones set is revealed only at full-up stage lights during the singers’ curtain calls. You can see a bit of the projections’ scale in this brief clip:
Kentridge himself is the best explainer of his production techniques:
The beating heart of any production of Wozzeck is, of course, Berg’s score, considered by many to be not only the most important music drama of the century, but the most important music, period, of its time. A pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, Berg did not create many works, but they more than rival his teacher’s in the hierarchy of the modern musical canon. Introducing a Royal Opera production of Wozzeck in 2013, conductor Mark Elder offers insight into the work’s challenges for both performers and audience. He starts by discussing Büchner’s importance.
Elder then explains the not-quite singing style of much of the opera. Schoenberg called this “Sprechgesang,” or “speak-singing.”
It is this technique that still confounds many opera fans who cannot quite have their ears move beyond the dulcet, expansive arias of Verdi and the Italian bel canto repertory.
Back to Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, it is not difficult to hear the subtler influences of Berg and his Sprechstimme in this much beloved and tuneful children’s classic. It is doubtful, however, even in these very dark times, that Wozzeck will become anyone’s Christmas classic.