June 12, 2019

The life and death of "NBC Opera Theatre"


Viewed from today’s perspective, the marriage of classical music and television would seem to be an unlikely one. And yet, in the early days of TV, it was a natural match. The new medium needed inexpensive, reliable programming. It needed the prestige and credibility that well-done presentations could provide. Perhaps even more important, it needed viewers—especially upscale viewers that would attract the attention of advertisers needed to sponsor these programs.

NBC’s commitment to classical music programming dated back to the pre-TV days; founder David Sarnoff believed the network had an obligation to serve the public interest, and one way of doing that was through such programming. To that end, Sarnoff hired the great Arturo Toscanini to create and head up the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937.

It was inevitable that this partnership would continue on television as the new medium began to grow after World War II. as part of a more concentrated effort to bring high culture to the growing middle class. Time relates a story of how, in the late 1940s, Samuel Chotzinoff, who headed up NBC’s music programming, along with director Peter Herman Adler and accompanied by a small group of singers, cornered Sarnoff and presented a three-minute excerpt from Puccini’s La bohème right there in the hallway. Sarnoff, moved to tears (so the story goes), asked, “Could that be done on television?”

Moved to tears Sarnoff may well have been, but his interest in classical music wasn’t entirely altruistic, of course. For one thing, the FCC was said to be keeping a close eye on the broadcast content of the young medium, to make sure it reached its true educational potential. There were more practical, commercial considerations involved as well—selling television sets, for example, which was particularly important to NBC’s parent company, RCA. Few men understood this better than NBC’s head of programming, Pat Weaver.

Weaver, who was nothing less than a creative genius when it came to television, was the father of what he called “spectaculars,” a sort of “must-see TV” of the ‘50s. These live specials (often lavish, star-studded, and broadcast in color) were advertised to the hilt and designed to encourage people to purchase new sets—RCA color sets—in order to see them. “Prestige” television was a part of this overall strategy; Weaver calculated that the audience for such programs would be upscale, more likely to have disposable income, and less likely to be regular TV viewers. It was a fantastic carrot to dangle before prospective advertisers: sponsor this show and you’ll have access to an audience you wouldn’t otherwise reach. An audience with money, ready to spend it.

*He created the Today and Tonight shows, and was co-creator of the actress Sigourney Weaver, but that’s another story.

Whatever the reasons, opera was on its way to television, and NBC Television Opera Theatre, with Samuel Chotzinoff as producer and Peter Herman Adler as artistic and music director, made its debut on March 16, 1949, with Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief (which NBC Radio had commissioned; it was one of the first operas ever commissioned specifically to be broadcast on radio). From then through 1964, the company would perform nearly 50 operas, including several commissioned by the network, beginning with Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Not just for TV
Many of the operas were abridged in order to fit a 90-minute or two-hour timeslot, and all were performed in intelligent English versions to make them more accessible to viewers. And while most of the operas were broadcast on Sunday afternoons, there were exceptions, as the series garnered three Emmy nominations. Chotzinoff and Adler believed in the power of television to bring opera to a wider audience than ever before, and to that end NBC Opera Theatre developed a reputation for naturalistic acting, creative staging and camera angles, and handsome wardrobes and sets. It was, at times, more like musical theater than opera; director Kirk Browning described it as  "drama with music more than, you know, an opera on camera." It was a radical attempt to create a dynamic production for a "non-operatically experienced target audience."

NBC's efforts were warmly applauded by critics, and have long been cited as a cultural high point in television history, but it would be a mistake to assume that they were a smash hit on television. Amahl and the Night Visitors, which premiered on December 24, 1951 as the inaugural presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, was a sensation (the broadcast was reviewed the next day on the front page of The New York Times), but in general NBC Opera Theatre struggled to find a commercial sponsor. Most of the time it was a sustaining broadcast, supported by the network itself.

However, when FTD signed on to sponsor the April 10, 1960 broadcast of Mozart's Don Giovanni, it brought the issue to a head and suggested the inexorable, inevitable conclusion. The 2½ production featured two of opera's great stars: Cesare Siepi, the rare European star who was also fluent in English, in his signature role as the Don, and American Leontyne Price. who had first appeared on Opera Theatre in 1955* and was now on the verge of international stardom, as Donna Anna. A sizable audience was anticipated, and—much in the same way that Hallmark always seems to sponsor television shows just before holidays that prompt people to send greeting cards—FTD thought this would be the perfect program to sponsor, with Easter the following Sunday.** It was an ideal example of Weaver's theory linking "prestige" TV shows with potential sponsors. But there was a catch: unlike Hallmark's uninterrupted sponsorship of Amahl (with a running time of less than an hour, Hallmark put their commercials before and after the opera), FTD insisted on five commercial breaks during the broadcast, requiring the cuts of three arias as well as the epilogue (although it would have been edited anyway to fit in the timeslot).

*Price's debut, in the January 23, 1955 production of Tosca, marked the first time an African-American had appeared in a leading role on a television opera. As might be expected for the time, several NBC affiliates refused to carry the broadcast.

**Sample commercial line: "Clothes are important to us girls, particularly at Easter—almost as important as flowers." The commercials, shown every half-hour on the half-hour, featured opera star Rise Stevens in a faux floral store setting, chatting casually with a florist on the benefits of selling flowers by telegraph.

While critics were in general praiseworthy of the production, and the witty English translation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the commercials came in for a roasting. The New York Herald Tribune critic Paul Henry Lang called the result "barbarous," the result of having to watch "idiotic acts of commercials." "Morally and artistically," he said, "this atrocity is ... reprehensible," "criminally unworthy of a nation that pretends to have a culture," and concluded with this salvo: "All right, ‘Send flowers to your loved ones’ but not at the expense of a great work of art. They will wilt and stink. Nature’s most beautiful creations have been used to harm a most beautiful creation of the human mind.” Winthrop Sargeant, in an otherwise mostly favorable review in the New Yorker, wrote of the commercials that "... rather than listen to Don Giovanni on these terms, I would prefer not to hear it at all."

However, Paul Hume, writing in the Washington Post, provided perspective on the whole affair. He was no fan of the commercials himself (the title of his review was "Don Giovanni on TV; Sponsor Routs Mozart"), but pointed out that if NBC Opera Theatre continued to be sustaining, it was probably that many affiliates would cease carrying it (150 stations cleared Giovanni, probably the most people ever to see the opera). "Under our system of television," he wrote, "that is the way things have to be," and added that "between having commercials and not having "Don Giovanni" at all I think there is no question as to which is preferable." Take that, Winthrop Sargeant!

The audio of the Don Giovanni broadcast

By 1963, average viewership of NBC Opera Theatre had reached 15 million; by comparison, last season's highest rated program, NBC's Sunday Night Football, averaged a little over 18 million viewers a week, but times were different back then. The number of productions each year steadily declined, even as the costs of each production went up. Voice of Firestone and Omnibus, the other two great cultural icons of television, were both gone. And, in an unexpected way, the network was the victim of its own success: in trying to create a new art form, in attempting to humanize opera , bringing the drama home to the viewer and making it more realistic for the small screen, they perhaps did their job too well. As director Kirk Browning noted, "we reached the point where the audience was saying, ‘Why are they singing?’"

Samuel Chotzinoff died in 1964, the same year the Beatles premiered on Ed Sullivan's show. And while Sullivan had always been a champion of culture, presenting many opera stars and excerpts of productions, it was never enough to enable televised opera to break through the cultural barrier. Chotzinoff's death meant the death of NBC Opera Theatre, and while opera hung on for a few more years, making occasional appearances on commercial television, the handwriting was on the wall. Soon studio opera was gone altogether, and any opera that did appear on television would come from the great opera houses themselves, not a television studio in New York City. It was a short lifetime, but what a time it was.

I'm indebted to Daniela Smolov Levy's Democratizing Opera in America, 1895 to the Present for many of the details concerning NBC Opera Theatre's techniques and sponsorship challenges.

NEXT WEEK: The story behind the classic Amahl and the Night Visitors. TV  


  1. I thought Texaco had been the sponsor of NBC's opera telecasts back in the day.

    1. Jofus:

      I think you're thinking of Texaco's long-standing radio sponsorship of New York's Metropolitan Opera, which was announced by Milton Cross from the '30s through to his passing in 1975.
      I always found it amusing that in his later years, Milton Cross was a staff announcer at ABC radio and TV in New York City; hearing his high operatic tones doing promos for ABC's mainly youth oriented shows of the '60s and '70's made for an interesting contrast, to say the least.

  2. How can one find the other installments in this series? And are they all about the NBC Opera? Thanks. Please let me know at davidsperkins@gmail.com.

    1. For anyone else curious, the other
      three parts can be found here,
      and here.


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