February 7, 2018

Maria Callas does The Sullivan Show, 1956

Ed Sullivan was a man who liked to think he had his finger on the pulse of the American entertainment scene. “If he understood and liked an act,” biographer James Maguire wrote, “[the public] would; if he didn’t, his audience probably wouldn’t either.” That instinct didn’t often fail him, as the appearances by Elvis and The Beatles will attest.

He also realized that there was a great middlebrow audience out there, viewers who enjoyed seeing the latest Broadway plays and New York operas but didn’t have much of a chance to see them in person, and he was dedicated to giving them that opportunity through his show. Recreations of scenes from plays, musicals, and operas were common, with the singers and actors appearing in costume on a reproduced set. It wasn’t enough, thought Sullivan, to recreate the performance; he wanted to recreate the experience as well.

And that’s how, in November of 1956, the great Maria Callas came to be on The Ed Sullivan Show. Callas had made her Met debut on opening night of the 1956-57 season in Bellini’s Norma. On November 19, she would premiere perhaps her most famous role, that of Puccini’s Tosca. Sullivan knew the headlines that would be generated by Callas’ debut on American television, and booked Callas to appear on the show.

Maguire recounts some of the behind-the-scenes tension; Callas, a diva to the last, refused to do Tosca, preferring to save it for the paying customers at the Met. Sullivan, in turn, threatened to boot her off the show if she didn’t fulfill her half of the bargain. The result, of course, was this performance, from November 25, 1956. The first person you’ll see is Rudolf Bing, the general manager of the Metropolitan, followed by scenes from Act II of Tosca, featuring the Canadian bass-baritone George London as the villainous Count Scarpia. The orchestra is under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos.

In 1956, opera and theater were not uncommon on television. Aside from an occasional appearnce on PBS, where are the outlets for such programming today?   TV  

1 comment:

  1. NBC had an in-house opera company in the 1950's and 1960's that produced several operas on TV each year (I think the network did so an an excuse to showcase color television with vivid costumes and sets).

    I thought Texaco, the longtime sponsor of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, also sponsored the telecasts of the NBC Opera Company.


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