Music: Barnstorming Opera

Music: Barnstorming Opera
The band played, floats lined the streets, a mob jammed the station and
cheered. South Bend, Ind. was out in force to greet the NBC Opera
Company as if it were a conquering football team. When the curtain
opened on Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in the new $2,500,000 arts
center of St. Mary's College, the house was packed; when it closed, the
audience was happily enthusiastic. It was a rousing send-off for a
costly experiment by NBC —to send its opera company barnstorming
across the country to bring first-rate opera to towns-that may never
have seen it before.Seven years ago, NBC had no opera company and wanted none. Sponsors
considered TV opera poison to listener ratings. Then in 1949 a
Czech-born conductor named Peter Herman Adler got together with NBC's
General Music Director Samual Chotzinoff. The reason the ordinary
listener did not appreciate opera, they argued, was that he could not
understand the words and the stilted acting made the whole thing seem
ridiculous. “If we don't understand the singer's words,” says Adler,
“we cannot know whether he acts or even sings in accordance with them.
And the moment we lose interest in this acting, we lose interest in the
character he portrays and eventually in the opera itself.”Vocal Sacrifice. Adler and Chotzinoff rounded up a group of young
singers, among them one Mario Lanza, schooled them in acting, had them
rehearse English versions of La Boheme and Figaro. As Adler tells it,
one night he “trapped” RCA Boss General Sarnoff at a dinner party, and
hustled out his little group to sing. When the music ended. Sarnoff
looked accusingly at Adler, then sighed: “O.K., put them on the air.”
Adler & Co. went on the air in 1949, have been on ever since.Stars were accustomed to sauntering in to sing their parts through, then
departing while the rest of the cast rehearsed. With Adler and
Chotzinoff they found they were expected to rehearse from 10 in the
morning until 6 at night with the whole company, and for days on end.
Adler insisted on good acting, unhesitatingly sacrificed some voice
quality for it. “We will not take someone who weighs 400 Ibs. simply
because she can sing well. We will instead take a voice that is not
quite so good, provided the singer looks the part and can act, act,
act.”Bumpy Exit. NBC's Opera Theater has been widely admired on television,
but sponsors are still wary. This year NBC decided that if more people
could hear their brand of intelligible and dramatic opera in person,
they would tune in television opera in droves.