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No. 2917:
The NBC Opera Theatre

by Andrew Boyd

Today, it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

With the number of television channels rapidly approaching infinity, it's hard to imagine that for decades viewers had their choice of only three: ABC, NBC, and CBS. Broadcast time was a precious resource. And for fifteen years, opera was part of the lineup.

black and white image of a family watching television
Family watching television. Evert F. Baumgardner, ca. 1958.
[National Archives and Records Administration]

The NBC Opera Theatre was formed in 1949 by then music director for the network, Samuel Chotzinoff. The task was complicated by the fact that some of the most well-known operas are spectacles. They don't easily fit in a television studio or the rigid time slots afforded by TV.

Florida Grand Opera
Turandot (Photo: Gaston de Cardenas), part of FGO's Opera Free for All project.
November, 9 2010, Florida Grand Opera. [Wikipedia/Knight Foundation]

But Chotzinoff and producers were determined to make the effort a success. Cuts. Adaptations. English translations. In some cases new operas were commissioned specifically for television. One such opera was Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, a story about a boy with a crippled leg and his widowed mother who receive a visit from the magi. Viewers so connected with it that for a brief time Amahl became an annual Christmas tradition airing in prime time.

[audio of Amahl and the Night Visitors]

Photo of Kurt Yaghijan in the title role of the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Martha Hall played the role of Amahl's mother. The opera was performed from 1951 to 1966 annually on NBC television as part of its Christmas programming. By 1963, the performance changed from being live to on tape. [Wikipedia/eBay]

In spite of the many constraints posed by the television format, most of the opera productions met with critical acclaim. Reviewers seemed willing to overlook limitations, thus allowing the art form to gain a foothold on television.

Unfortunately, only Amahl had a commercial sponsor — Hallmark Greeting Cards. When, after eleven years, NBC's Opera Theatre did locate a regular sponsor — a sponsor who wanted to interrupt performances with commercials — the critics were not happy. A critic from the New York Herald Tribune referred to a performance of Don Giovanni as "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." A critic from the New Yorker wrote that "... rather than listen to Don Giovanni on these terms, I would prefer not to hear it at all."

His words were prophetic. Chotzinoff died a few years later, and network opera along with him. That same year, 1964, a young group called the Beatles made their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Today, with the many new channels out there targeted at every niche audience imaginable, you might suspect one would be devoted to opera. However, my best efforts failed to uncover anything. Google seemed rather insistent about directing me to the Oprah Winfrey Network. But with the way programming is forever expanding, who knows what the future holds.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

The author had the good fortune of singing the role of Amahl in a community college production in 1969.

R. Burke (1965). "The NBC Opera Theater." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 10(3), 13-23.

This episode first aired on December 12, 2013.