June 5, 2019

When opera on TV was about more than just soap



One of the great pleasures I find in studying classic television is the era of staged drama—live and taped performances of plays, musicals, and opera. The nature of the television studio and its confined space, as opposed to the large-scale movie stage, requires innovative direction; the ability to create imaginative set design and utilize camera angles and close-ups allows a freedom not found in a theater or opera house. Of all these various forms of television drama, I find television opera to be the most interesting. It's a relatively brief period of time, covering less than two decades, but it illustrates a type of high culture that had once shown great promise, but has long since disappeared from television. 

I'm dedicating this month to a four-part look at the history of television opera: an overview of opera specifically designed for TV; a look at NBC's bold effort to provide opera on a regular basis; the story of the most famous of all TV operas, one that became television's first Christmas tradition; and the state of opera on television today. We'll begin with Jennifer Barnes's definitive study of opera commissioned for television.

Believe it or not, there was a time when it was thought that television could play an important part in the creation of a new and revolutionary art form. It was called the opera.

In 1952, NBC Opera Theatre prepared to present the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which had been written only the year before. Based on the novel by Herman Melville, one of the opera’s most famous scenes contains a twelve-minute aria by John Claggart, the villain of the piece, “in which the Master-at-Arms delineates his hatred of Budd and reveals his determination to destroy him.” For the broadcast, producer Samuel Chotzinoff elected to excise the entire aria—partly because of the need to compress the opera into a 90-minute timeslot, but also because he felt television presented an opportunity to completely change the way operas were written. Through the use of close-ups and shadows cast by lighting, Claggart’s malevolent intentions were expressed—proving, Chotzinoff said, that a broadcast could “[accomplish] in a few seconds what the aria took twelve minutes to tell us.” The implications were obvious, Chotzinoff felt, thinking it “probably that the composers of the future, writing especially for television, will find no necessity for explanatory and illuminating solo arias, once they realize the revealing potentialities of the television camera.”

Television Opera: The Fall of Opera Commissioned for Television, by Jennifer Barnes, Boydell Press, 138 pages, $29.95

Samuel Chotzinoff certainly understood the visual power inherent in television, but his confidence that it would change the course of modern opera was more than slightly misplaced. In Television Opera: The Fall of Opera Commissioned for Television, Jennifer Barnes shows how such early promise failed to pay off, leaving TV opera, like live drama, a dinosaur of television’s past.

Barnes focuses her book on three specific case studies, all of them operas commissioned for television: Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s landmark Christmas story that was the first ever written for TV; Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which he wrote for the BBC in 1970 after having seen several of his operas adapted for television; and Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, a 1994 production that was intended to explicitly take advantage of technology that only TV could provide.

While the three operas share a common birth, they differ in substantial ways. For example, Amahl was broadcast live on Christmas Eve in 1951, with Menotti working almost until the last minute to finish the composition. Owen Wingrave was shot on tape, duplicating the feel of a live broadcast while enabling special effects and editing to ensure the best performance possible. Beauty and Deceit was filmed, giving it the look of a movie, and allowing for a production radically different from one presented on the stage of a theater.

In the wake of the success of Amahl (including a rare front-page review in The New York Times), the future of television opera looked bright indeed. NBC Opera Theatre had been a regular presence on the network since 1949, and would continue presenting a handful of operas each season up through 1964. Menotti’s career flourished, as he won two Pulitzer Prizes and received several additional commissions from NBC. While Britten had not been particularly thrilled with the network’s adaptation of Billy Budd (which was edited so severely that he demanded the broadcast be entitled Scenes from “Billy Budd”), he was happier with BBC adaptations of some of his other works, including Peter Grimes, for which Britten conducted the orchestra. While Billy Budd was taped, rather than live, Britten insisted that the music and singing be performed live, rather than dubbed in after the fact (which would become standard in the future, including in The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit).

While many of these productions won great acclaim, however, ratings were something different. Due to its enduring popularity, Amahl never lacked for sponsorship, but most of the other broadcasts were subsidized by NBC. Gradually the number of productions diminished, as did the commissions, until televised opera of any kind—not just that written for the medium—had all but disappeared. Public broadcasting, thought to be the safeguard of such cultural programming, started out with promise, but as government funding dissipated, it too felt the pull of ratings (and donor dollars) and opted for more “popular” programming.

The arts remained active, if not vital, on British television, and The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit was part of a series of operas commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4—with the requirement that they be written in such a way as to make a live performance all but impossible. In other words, the operas were not only written for television, but were meant to be performed only on television. The fact that Barry’s opera went on to an eventual staged production is almost immaterial; several critics suggested that it was intrinsically unsuitable for live performances.

Barnes’ choice of these three operas for close examination does not neglect the overall genre; indeed, they were chosen specifically to illustrate the arc traveled by opera commissioned for television. And while each one is interesting in and of itself, they take on an added dimension when considered as part of the whole, showing how a form of programming which once held such promise never truly fulfilled its potential.

As one might suspect, this isn’t a book to be read casually (though I must say I enjoyed it immensely), but while an appreciation of opera certainly helps, it isn’t absolutely required. Our cast of characters ranges from merely proficient to fascinating to colorful, and Barnes takes a close look at the inside workings of television, spending ample time on the choice of camera angles, why close-ups are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and how in the early days of TV a director’s job was considerably more difficult that it might seem. In doing so she reprints excerpts from several shooting scripts, showing the various stage directions and framings, and provides a glimpse at the challenges inherent in adapting a work for television—especially when the composer of said work is both alive and opinionated!

It may not be for everyone, but anyone wanting to learn more about a niche of television history that in a handful of decades went from accepted fact to invisible memory will find Television Opera not only the definitive resource, but an engrossing story as well.

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Here's the complete broadcast of 1952's "Scenes from Billy Budd"; the title change was demanded by Britten, who felt that Chotzinoff's various cuts, including the excising of Claggart's aria, had so changed the nature of the production that it was no longer the same opera. The quality of the recording is rough, but considering the historical significance of the broadcast, I think we can handle it.

For reference, here's the Claggart aria that Chotzinoff cut from the production, which has come to be considered one of the most significant in the bass repertoire. The bass in question is the great James Morris in a Met performance from 1997.

NEXT WEEK: A look at NBC Opera Theatre TV  

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