“The Opera House” Review – Metropolitan Opera’s Rich History

The Metropolitan Opera House (2017) Photo: Metropolitan Opera •
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Leontyne Price in a 2017 interview Photo: Roger Phenix / Metropolitan Opera

Fathom Events and the Metropolitan Opera bring The Opera House, a documentary film selection of the 2017 New York Film Festival that chronicles the Met’s odyssey for a new home in the 1950s and ‘60s, to movie theaters across the country on January 13 and 17, 2018. The two-day-only event is a special addition to The Met: Live in HD 2017-18 season.

The Opera House: Main Title Artwork Design: Molly Schwartz / Metropolitan Opera

The Opera House is a new film by award-winning filmmaker Susan Froemke, which surveys a remarkable period of the Metropolitan Opera’s rich history and a time of great change for New York. At the time, the entire country and the world were made aware of the dramatic events that took place as is demonstrated by the rarely seen archival footage, stills, recent interviews and a soundtrack of extraordinary Met performances.

Met General Manager Rudolf Bing in his office at the old Met Photo: Sedge LeBlang / Metropolitan Opera Archives

This story is so dramatic that it could almost be an opera, itself.   The ups and downs- the high hopes and powerful personalities, the visions, the realities and the final product are presented. The result is powerful and compelling. For individuals who lived through this time, it will be nostalgic and for the younger audience, it is a part of history lovingly presented.

Credit: Dan Weiner; 1958
Metropolitan Opera architect Wallace Harrison (with cigar) and fellow architects around working model of Lincoln Center, 1958

The creation of the Met’s home during the last 50 years is presented against the backdrop of the artists, architects and politicians who shaped the cultural life of New York City in the ’50s and ’60s. Some of the notable figures in the film are famed soprano Leontyne Price, who opened the new Met in 1966 in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra; Rudolf Bing, the Met’s imperious General Manager, who engineered the move from the old house to the new one; Robert Moses, the unstoppable city planner who bulldozed an entire neighborhood to make room for Lincoln Center; and Wallace Harrison, whose quest for architectural glory was never fully realized.

The new Met under construction in May 1964 Photo: Metropolitan Opera Archives

The scenes of the first opera house were presented so lovingly that I felt the attachment to it that some of the characters in the film expressed. The “Old” Metropolitan Opera House, which was located at 1411 Broadway in New York City opened in 1883 and demolished in 1967. However, as early as 1908, the need for a newer, more modern, larger opera house was expressed. But it took many years, and strong personalities to achieve that end.

Soprano Leontyne Price with composer Samuel Barber Photo: Metropolitan Opera Archives

Some of the special treats in this film include: Leontyne Price telling her story and bits of her performances interspersed, the range and variety of the operas and opera stars that were part of the story, the sensitivity in interviewing some of the people who had their lives disrupted to make way for this “grand dame” – the new performance space, and the historical perspective on urban renewal.

• Soprano Leontyne Price and director Franco Zeffirelli in rehearsal for Antony and Cleopatra (1966) Photo: Frank Dunand / Metropolitan Opera Archives

Remarkable scenes from the 1966 Gala at the Old Met, known as the Yellow Brewery on Broadway were another treat. And then the shift to the new site at Lincoln Center where there were five stages that could be changed with the push of a button. The All American program that opened the new opera house featured Leontyne Price singing Samuel Barber’s work. This movie with its special story enriches the The Met: Live in HD series and should not be missed.

All photos: Courtesy of Fathom Events and the Metropolitan Opera

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