Sunday, October 01, 2017


Susan Froemke’s documentary The Opera House is a loving tribute to the Metropolitan Opera, recounting the history of the institution from its beginnings on Broadway and 39th street, and focusing on the move to the Upper West Side and the creation of Lincoln Center. In a stroke of genius the Film Society premiered the film this evening at the MET. So, when the early renderings of those iconic Austrian chandeliers appear on the screen, all one has to do is look up and see the finished product.

The kernel of this film began as the MET celebrated fifty years of its move uptown. Half a century is a long time, and regrettably many of the figures associated with the move are no longer with us.  Thankfully, soprano Leontyne Price, now 90 years old sat for an extensive interview, and her lucid, funny and revealing stories are the glue that binds Ms. Froemke’s film together. Baritone Justino Díaz also provided commentary. Ms. Price and Mr. Díaz were the stars of Antony and Cleopatra, Samuel Barber’s commisioned opera which opened the new house in 1966. Their contribution is key to bringing those days to life once more.
The others who play key parts in the documentary are brought to life thanks to archival film and photographs. Robert Moses, who was responsible for clearing the so-called “slums” of the Upper West Side, is a major player without whom this story would have turned out differently.  The participation of two residents of those buildings condemned and razed by Moses offer bittersweet memories of the old Irish and Puerto Rican neighborhood.

The other figure who looms largest in this story is Rudolf Bing, who was general manager of the MET and spearheaded the move to the new house in the 1960s.  Bing was a tough-as-nails administrator.  With his derby hat and rolled up umbrella he was the very model of a British upper class gent, although he was born in Vienna.  Many remembered that Sir Rudolf always spoke his mind, and the newsreel footage proves this many times.

With Peter Gelb as producer, this film at times seems to be less a history of the MET and more a tribute to the present Metropolitan.  A high class infomercial, if you will.  There's even footage of Nina Stemme singing the Liebestod from last year's opening night of Tristan und Isolde. There's no mention of how the MET opened in the late 1883.  No mention of the fact that the nouveau riche of New York's Gilded Age, unable to obtain a box at the Academy of Music on 14th street, decided to open their own opera company on 39th street and Broadway, a harbinger of the uptown expansion of New York City. Also curiously missing are recordings and Ken Burns-effect photographs of Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle, Feodor Chaliapin, and other luminaries of the early years of the MET.

The Opera House is an informative journey detailing the construction of one of the most important artistic institution in this country. I learned that as far back as 1908, the MET had begun to look for another location. I also learned that the MET could have been located on what is now Rockefeller Center, in a Fascist architecture style monstrosity.  Albert Speer would have been proud.  Thankfully the Depression halted that project.

Don't miss this film if and when it comes to a theater near you.

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