Television opera - that is, opera commissioned for television - was one of the earliest attempts by television to bridge the distinction between high culture and popular culture. Between 1951 and 2002, in Britain and the United States, over fifty operas were commissioned for television.
The NBC Opera Theatre was an American opera company operated by the National Broadcasting Company from 1949 to 1964. The company was established specifically for the purpose of televising both established and new operas for television in English. Additionally, the company also gave live theatrical presentations of operas, sponsoring several touring productions in the United States and mounting works on Broadway. All of the performances were broadcast live from an NBC studio and were not pre-recorded or edited before airing. This was truly reality television.
During its 14-year history, the NBC Opera Theatre commissioned several composers to write operas specifically for television. The most famous and most successful of these works was the very first new opera staged by the company, Gian Carlo Menotti’s ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’, which premiered live on December 24, 1951 as the first installment of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. It was the first opera specifically composed for television in America. Other operas commissioned by the company included Bohuslav Martinu’s ‘The Marriage’ (1953), Lukas Foss’s ‘Griffelkin’ (1955), Leonard Kastle’s ‘The Swing’ (1957) and Menotti’s ‘Labyrinth’ (1963). Notables such as opera star Leontyne Price, musical theater star Rosemary Kuhlman, and actors Gene Barry and Robert Culp appeared during the run of the show.
Opera has also taken a comedic turn in television. Some sitcoms that have taken on opera are Seinfeld and The Simpsons. If you ever have the opportunity, you should see The Simpsons episode entitled ‘The Homer of Seville’, where, after an accident, Homer becomes a very gifted professional opera singer. No fame would be complete without obsessed fans, and Homer has a crazed fan stalking him. It’s a hilarious episode.
And, as you might expect, or dread, there is currently an opera reality series in the works. WE tv is currently filming ‘Love and Opera’, a ‘docu-series delving into the intense and competitive world of opera.’ Love and Opera follows a group of young, ambitious, opera singers all attempting to gain diva status….yawn….
So, there you have it, a glimpse into the world of opera in television, past and present…I have to run. I think I’ll check out if Love and Opera is still holding auditions.