I’ll start by admitting that I rarely tune in for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. When I do, it’s usually because I’m in the car and when I turn the ignition, the radio comes on, and it is almost always tuned to the station that employs me. So I’ll listen for as long as it takes to get where I’m going. It’s even rarer that I listen to an entire production from start to finish, and in those cases it’s usually when I’ve had to step in to run the board due to the regular board operator’s illness or vacation. So it’s safe to say, before I get any further, that I’m not a big fan of opera on the radio. There are plenty of people who are, and that’s great, but it isn’t for me. This has nothing to do with opera itself, which is often intensely beautiful and dramatic, but everything to do with the fact that without the visual elements of opera, it doesn’t hold up for me. I want to be able to see the reaction of characters on stage who aren’t actually singing. I want to marvel at the sets and the costumes. You get the point. It was especially frustrating this weekend, when twice I heard Ira Siff allude to the “magnificent visual” performances during the Met’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Thanks, Ira – I wish I could actually, you know, see it. Luckily, many actually did this weekend, given that Manon was one of a handful of the Met’s highly successful HD theater broadcasts this season.
I think we can all agree with the fact that opera on the radio is always going to be a struggle given the lack of visuals. It’s also a struggle due to the fact that the majority of radio listeners are like me – transient, background listeners who aren’t often in a situation where they can sit back, close their eyes, and allow themselves to be transported to New York. They’re doing other things – driving around, cleaning the house, and so on. So it’s a surprise to me that the broadcasts are designed to serve the tiny group of listeners who are completely nuts about opera, rather than attempting to create an interest among those who might actually make time for the broadcasts, but don’t due to lack of interest.
In my nearly eleven years in radio, I believe that the broadcasts have become better in many ways. The interviews with cast members right after they leave the stage are full of great stuff. As I sat in the studio all alone on Saturday, listening to Roberto Alagna out of breath after the conclusion of Act I of Manon was awesome. Mary Jo Heath, following in the footsteps of Margaret Juntwait, has definitely dialed back the pretentiousness of Met hosts of eras past. But one element of the broadcasts that lives on, and makes for the absolute worst possible radio, is the quiz. It goes against everything we should be doing as classical music broadcasters. Nothing makes a worse case for opera than having a panel of opera experts acting like a group of peacocks trying to see who has the biggest plumage. They hem and haw and use big words, all to the delight of a studio audience that oohs and ahhs at every correct answer like that person you really wish you hadn’t run into at the art museum. These quizzes are terrible ambassadors for opera, which has for decades (centuries, even?) been plagued with the perception that it is for the wealthy few and not for consumption by anyone else. What better way to to perpetuate that perception than by offering content that is appealing to those with vast amounts of knowledge but completely locks out everyone else? If it were a short segment in an otherwise engaging intermission, I would be on board, but these things take up twenty freaking minutes! That is an eternity in radio, and each minute spent on the quiz squanders the chance to engage new audiences with content that is actually welcoming and relevant.
None of these criticisms, I should stress, are meant to disparage the knowledge of the participants in the quizzes. I just think their time, knowledge, and creative energy would be better spent on engaging those who might be curious about opera but who haven’t yet taken the plunge. No one likes a show-off, after all. Let’s get creative!
An update: I had no idea this post would create such a shitstorm. But here we are. So I think I need to clarify a few things, especially for the benefit of WFIU’s local audience.
- This post was meant as a critique of one part of the Met broadcasts, not an indictment of the whole system. Nor is it an indictment of opera itself. Let’s all calm down.
- WFIU has no plans to move, drop, modify, or in any other way do ANYTHING to our opera programming. This includes the Met and the WFMT American Opera Series that starts when the Met season concludes in May. So let’s just put that to rest right now.