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Centennial of historic live radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera

Met Opera House“Radio pioneer Lee De Forest was an opera lover. The May 1907 prospectus of
his Radio Telephone Company said, “It will soon be possible to distribute
grand opera music from transmitters placed on the stage of the Metropolitan
Opera House by a Radio Telephone station on the roof to almost any dwelling
in Greater New York and vicinity.” He hired opera singers to sing into his
microphones and also transmitted opera-music records, even from the Eiffel
Tower.

He couldn’t get Met general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza to agree to allow a
live radio broadcast, however, until De Forest pointed out that a stage
microphone would also allow Gatti-Casazza to hear from his office what was
happening on stage. Finally, an experimental broadcast was authorized.

On January 12, 1910, Acts II & III of *Tosca* were sent by a transmitter at
the Met, via an antenna strung between two masts on the roof, to a handful
of receiving stations in the New York area. *The New York Times* accurately
reported, “This will only be an experiment and perfect results are not
expected immediately.” Those singing or talking into a microphone offstage
were heard much better than those singing on the stage. Memory and
imagination probably helped listeners.

Still, the world’s first live opera broadcast went fairly well. But, as is
so often the case immediately after a reasonably successful experiment, the
idea was exploited. Reporters were invited by the Dictograph Company, which
provided the microphones, to hear two operas broadcast the next day,
*Cavalleria
Rusticana* and *I Pagliacci,* with superstars Emmy Destinn and Enrico
Caruso.

The press invitation said the beautiful voices would be* *”trapped and
magnified by the dictograph directly from the stage of the Metropolitan
Opera House, and borne by wireless Hertzian waves over the turbulent waters
of the sea to transcontinental and coastwise ships, and over the mountainous
peaks and undulating valleys of the country.” In fact, on the 12th, there *
was* shipboard reception, on a vessel docked at a Manhattan pier. As for
the peaks and valleys, *The Times* had estimated a radius of perhaps 50
miles, given the low height of the opera-house roof.

On the 12th, others respectfully refrained from interfering with the
broadcast. On the 13th, a report in *Telephony *said*, *”deliberate and
studied interference from the operator of the Manhattan Beach station of the
United Wireless Company” caused “some interruption.” “But,” according to *The
Times,* “the reporters could hear only a ticking which the operator finally
translated as follows, the person quoted being the interrupting operator: ‘I
took a beer just now, and now I take my seat.’”

Oscar Hammerstein, whose Manhattan Opera House competed with the Met,
installed a wireless station in his new London Opera House the next year. But
it wasn’t for broadcasting; it was for selling tickets to “passengers in the
great liners 500 miles out at sea,” according to *The Times.*

*Before the First Live Opera Radio Broadcast*

- In 1876 (55 years after opera broadcasts were predicted in *The* *Repository
of Arts*), Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone (whether Antonio
Meucci, a former stagehand at Florence’s Teatro della Pergola opera house,
actually beat Bell to the punch in 1849 experiments as technical director at
Havana’s Teatro Tacon opera house is a different issue). On March 22, *The
New York Times *noted that “By means of this remarkable instrument, a man
can have the Italian opera, the Federal Congress, and his favorite preacher
laid on his own house.” In fact, they raised the box-office concern that
“No man who can sit in his own study with his telephone by his side, and
thus listen to the performance of an opera at the Academy, will care to go
to Fourteenth street and to spend the evening in a hot anti crowded
building. The following year, George du Maurier published a cartoon in which
a household selected among opera offerings delivered by wire.

- In 1881, Clément Ader demonstrated the world’s first stereo transmission
from the stage of the Paris Opéra. An 1882 book had a chapter on opera on
TV Of opera without visuals, a critic reported, “The telephone is a harsh
judge.” But commercial Théâtrophone service followed, delivering operas in
stereo to homes beginning in 1890, the world’s first electronic
entertainment service for homes. The idea soon spread across much of the
world, and, in 1891, the opening of the opera *Le Mage* in Paris was heard
live in London.

- The Théâtrophone used a coin-operated business plan. Ader’s Hungarian
associate, Tivadar Puskás, chose a monthly-subscription model for his
version, which began in 1893. That meant that the lines were available when
operas weren’t being transmitted, so the newscast was invented to give
subscribers something to listen to before operas (and during intermissions).
In 1930, the Hungarian service, Telefon Hírmondó, had 91,079 subscribers in
Budapest alone who got the opera each night, with news reports during the
intermission.

- In 1900, at the Paris Exhibition, Horace Short (like Ader, better known as
an aircraft inventor) installed an “auxeto-gramophone,” a
compressed-air-amplified record player, near the top of the Eiffel Tower and
acoustically broadcast recordings of arias by stars of the Paris Opéra. The
sounds could be heard throughout Paris, with no listening apparatus
required.

- In 1904, Professor Otto Nussbaumer of the University of Graz in Austria
sang into a microphone and was heard wirelessly next door, possibly the
first vocal music carried by radio. The physics department head reportedly
told him, “Your box works, but your singing is awful.”

*Between the First Live Opera Broadcast and the Start of the Met
Saturday-Afternoon Series*

- In 1919, U.S. Navy transmitter NFF broadcast live from the New Brunswick
Opera House and was reportedly heard by a ship 2,000 miles at sea. In
Chicago, the Signal Corps aired opera records.

- A 1919 proposal called for opera movies to be shot & distributed and
projected to the singers, whose voices would be broadcast live to movie
theaters to run in sync with the pictures. The Met’s first live cinema
transmission (31 theaters in 27 cities) took place in 1952, with local TV
stations having to agree to drop their network feeds so the coaxial cable
could be used for the opera. Today, the Met’s *Live in HD *reaches more
than 1,000 cinemas in 42 countries via satellite.

- In 1920, Nellie Melba sang into a powerful transmitter at the Marconi
factory in Chelmsford, England and was heard throughout Europe and even
across the Atlantic. In fact, the transmission was so powerful that it
interfered with all others and was eventually shut down by the authorities.
The Melba transmission was recorded in Paris, possibly the first off-air
sound recording.

- The same year, four medical students in Buenos Aires had planned a single
radio transmission, but, not wanting to be outdone by Marconi & Melba,
changed it into an entire season of live operas broadcast from Teatro
Coliseo in Buenos Aires. The first, on August 27, was *Parsifal.*

* *

- In 1922, shortly before the Met broadcast a Veteran’s Day concert version
of *Aida* from an armory, the real-life son of the singer playing Mimi
stepped in as her lover Rodolfo in an amateur Salt Lake City *Bohème *broadcast
after the tenor “got out of line.” An “elocutionist” described the action.

- In a 1924 Boston broadcast of *Il Trovatore, *the manager announced that
the tenor couldn’t continue after the second act and a messenger would be
sent to get Gaetano Tommasini, to replace him. Having heard the
announcement in his hotel room, Tommasini arrived before the messenger left.

- AT&T’s WEAF (now WNBC) established a National Grand Opera Company in 1925,
when it began weekly condensed-opera broadcasts. There was also a WEAF
National Light Opera Company, both later taken over by NBC (which also ran a
television opera company for 16 years).

- The 1927 inaugural broadcast of what is now CBS included a condensed
version of Deems Taylor’s opera *The King’s* *Henchman.* A condensed
version of African-American composer Harry Freeman’s opera *Voodoo* was
broadcast in 1928 before being staged. And, in 1929, Cesare Sodero’s *Ombre
Russe* became the first full opera to have its world premiere on radio (NBC)
before opening in an opera house. But the first opera commissioned (by NBC)
for radio (Charles Cadman’s *The Willow Tree*) didn’t premiere until 1932,
and, in 1937, Louis Gruenberg’s *Green Mansions* was the first commissioned
(by CBS) as a “non-visual opera.”

- In 1930, NBC carried a live broadcast of part of *Fidelio* from the
Dresden State Opera House in Germany. The schedule noted it would be
carried “atmospheric conditions permitting.”

- In 1931, the Met began its live network opera broadcasts, which continue
to this day, said to be the longest-running series of live broadcasts (they
were sponsored by the same company, best known as Texaco, from 1940 through
2004, said to be the longest continuous sponsorship in broadcast
history).

During the first broadcast, commentator Deems Taylor described the action during
orchestral interludes, outraging opera purists, who called NBC, one woman
saying she couldn’t hear what was going on because “some idiot keeps
talking.” A telegram asked, “Is it possible to have Mr. Taylor punctuate
his speech with brilliant flashes of silence?” But Taylor told the audience
two weeks later, “We have received several thousand replies, of which fewer
than 100 were opposed to being told what was going on upon the stage.”

Nevertheless, the Met later restricted commentary to periods when the house lights were
on.

And the rest — live TV, cinema, subtitled, satellite, Internet, HD, andeven 3-D opera — is history.

Mark Schubin
(freelance) Engineer-in-Charge
Media Department
Metropolitan Opera”

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