Singers' wavelength: The New York Met's legendary Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts are coming to Europe. Nick Kimberley reports

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The Independent Culture
In living rooms across the United States, the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the New York Metropolitan have for over 60 years transformed radio sets into opera houses. The broadcasts have become a part of folk culture. 'You get into a cab on a Saturday afternoon,' says David Patrick Stearns, the Independent's New York critic, 'and the cab-drivers have the broadcasts on' - which must be better than listening to a tirade about the England football team.

Now cabbies on this side of the Atlantic have an opportunity to top up their cultural capital. At 6.30pm (British time) next Saturday, the wistful prelude of Dvorak's Rusalka will echo, not only round the Met itself, not only across the United states, but throughout Europe as 20 countries, from Latvia to Slovenia, Spain to Sweden, and including Britain, receive the opera live by satellite, courtesy of the Texaco Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network.

It's not by chance that, of all America's great opera houses, the Met is the one chosen for these prestigious broadcasts. The Met has a reputation as the biggest and the best, the ritziest and the glitziest. It also has a reputation for resisting efforts to bring opera into the modern world. One wag christened the Met's latest Ring cycle a 19th Century Fox production, and an aura of outmoded grandeur clings to the house. As David Patrick Stearns says, 'The Met is a singers' house', a statement which implies a certain vision of opera. And that is part of what makes the Met ideal radio.

Clive Bennett, editor of opera at BBC Radio 3, was instrumental in brokering the deal with the European Broadcasting Union which brings the Met to Europe. 'The criticism of the Met,' he says, 'is that it's a house of decorative opera. The set designs for the season coming up could have been done at any time over the last 20 years. From a radio point of view, that is not a bad thing. It's much easier to mike singers if you haven't got them swinging around on a trapeze, if they pretty well come down to the footlights and sing. The Met's repertory system doesn't allow six weeks' rehearsal, and a Pavarotti or a Domingo wouldn't give up that amount of time anyway. What you get is a production they can walk into, usually with people they've sung the role with before, so that at its best you have a well-prepared, improvisatory style of music-making every bit as exciting as a performance where you've honed every single detail.'

John Steane, author of The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record (Duckworth), is not convinced that a 'singers' house' is a bad thing to be: 'One has to beware of regarding this as forwards and backwards, as though the reduction of singers' power is a gain for progress. It isn't necessarily, and if you get to the stage where there are no longer star singers, you'll very much reduce the popular appeal of opera. I'm sure there's more sense of the company opera at the Met now than there once was, but it's also true that in the 1920s and 1930s, Rosa Ponselle, Giovanni Martinelli, Lawrence Tibbett, Elisabeth Rethberg sang together so often that they in effect became a company.'

Opera's fraught relationship with its past is part of its appeal, and the Met is certainly gloriously cluttered with memories. Ira Siff's La Gran Scena Opera Company makes a speciality of poking affectionate fun at the Met's hallowed divas in a hilarious travesty cabaret. Siff remembers the great divas with affection: 'It's an image which the public, and the Met administration, and La Gran Scena all try to hold on to. It was a source of tremendous gratification as well as a few laughs, but that kind of performer is close to extinct. What people cling to is a performing style that is not bland, not manufactured for CDs and videos. There is nothing now like Callas walking her vocal tightrope, and it isn't just about grand divas in furs and limousines, it's about what they did when they got in front of the footlights.'

The diva is a mythic figure in gay culture. Wayne Koestenbaum, author of The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire (Gay Men's Press), suggests that 'Gay and non-gay alike owe a debt to gay culture for so lovingly perpetuating this figure of the diva. I think of gay fans as keepers of the flame. As long as the repertoire remains fossilised, opera insists on divas and the surrounding cult of the diva. In our imagination the diva does not die. She is ultimately a galvanic, electrifying figure.'

For Koestenbaum, the Met broadcasts provide a conduit for that electricity: 'Saturday afternoons are deepened for me, I feel connected to what's going on. If it's Tosca, say, I'll want to hear 'Vissi d'arte', just to hear how she's doing it. Radio is larger than TV because we don't see what's going on - and that's a blessing. The Met is a conservative house, everybody complains about that - but it's really glamorous, it's a little vulgar, the orchestra is sublime: it's still the Met. And there is a Met of the mind, a fantasmal simulacrum: that is what needs to be excavated and explored, the opera house that we carry in our heads.'

Yet the Met is already larger than life, as David Patrick Stearns observes: 'The size of the house is a defining factor in everything that goes on at the Met, which is huge. That's why Zeffirelli is so popular, because everything he does is oversized. The singer has to have a good, healthy voice, and when someone is singing really well, it's pandemonium, the whole house goes nuts. The audience is devoted and knowledgeable, it's vocal-orientated but it's not superficial by any means. It's not sheer vulgar sound that the Met people are after, there has to be literacy and style and musicality.'

David Pountney, until last June Director of Productions at English National Opera, made his directing debut at the Met last year, staging Philip Glass's The Voyage. If Zeffirelli could be said to define Met style, Pountney's more adversarial stage style might be expected to cause problems. Yet he has nothing but happy memories of his time there: 'It's a thoroughly modern house, exceptionally well run and very friendly. I have a sense that the people in the house are aware that the kind of thing which had been expected to provide automatic success in the past wasn't going to go on doing that, and that they were looking at possible policy changes. In a situation where all your money basically comes from private donors, and you are running such an enormous house where a sudden switch in box-office favours could be very damaging, you can't expect rapid change. Nevertheless I would love to go back.'

Of course, most people tuning in to the Met broadcasts in Europe won't care whether they are joining the audience at a thoroughly modern Met or a mere shadow of its former self. What matters most is what they will hear, and Clive Bennett is confident people will not switch off in disappointment: 'The Met sound is so good. The quality of the voices is as high as, and frequently higher than we get at Covent Garden, precisely because they've got more money.'

'Rusalka' 11 Dec, 'Fidelio' 18 Dec, 'Barbiere' 25 Dec: all 6.30pm Radio 3