In her fascinating documentary The Opera House, writer and director Susan Froemke tells the story of the Met Opera and the people who built it and love it. In this unexpectedly personal account, we get charming insights into opera stars’, house managers’ and executives’, and architects’ experiences. Froemke has created a fascinating picture of how art and humanity survive across time and place. (AEL: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Amelie Lasker + Comments from Huttner in the Coach Corner
The project of building the new Metropolitan Opera House was conceived as early as 1911, but bringing it about was long and arduous, and the first show in the new building didn’t open until 1966. For many of its most loyal members, both backstage and in the audience, the move felt like a threat to the very essence of the Met Opera.
The new opera house was the centerpiece of the much larger Lincoln Center project, which came with a number of knotty political and economic problems. The head architect, Wallace Harrison, had been dreaming about designing an opera house for decades, but the design he was ultimately able to build was nothing like what he’d originally imagined. The opera houses of his sketches are extravagant and airy, full of glass and open space, and the one that was built, while undoubtedly a grand achievement, was disappointing for him.
There was also, of course, the problem of the neighborhoods that had to be torn down to create enough space for the ambitious Lincoln Center. In the documentary, a professor of urban studies suggests that areas designated slums were “unanimously” considered a disease that had to be destroyed, but she makes no mention of what urban renewal projects did to solve the problems of poverty that were the reason for the “unsightly” buildings in the first place.
The figure of Robert Moses is especially formidable, and sinister, since he was in charge of so many parts of local government that allowed the Lincoln Center project to come about. Some considered Moses a hero for championing the ambitious arts initiative and bringing forth “American” support of the arts in a Cold War international climate. Yet the way in which he erased the neighborhoods that were already there with no regard for them is sickening, and the documentary acknowledges this, although perhaps not deeply enough.
Some of the people who grew up in the tenements tell stories about the economically and racially diverse populations of the neighborhoods that were once there, and these stories pose an important question: was the updated arts center worth the cost? Another question is implicit, and is never answered: what happened to the people who lived there? And how many more people were affected as the surrounding neighborhoods were gentrified as a result?
Mostly the documentary celebrates the Met Opera: what it once was, and how it endures. The former house manager shares his first experiences with opera that inspired him to spend the rest of his life enjoying it, while an alumnus of the Children’s Chorus remembers the time he was a stowaway audience member at the very last performance in the old opera house.
My favorite person featured in the documentary–the person who drew by far the most laughter from the people in the movie theater–was Leontyne Price, former opera star, who opened the new Met Opera House in 1966 with her performance as Cleopatra. Her perspective on opera, her personal accounts of the exciting early years of her career, and footage of her performing in the 50s and 60s with her extraordinary voice, all unlock for us the wonder and appeal in the art form. When the people who love the Met Opera are worried about whether or not the beauty of the performances will hold up in a new theater space, it’s easy to empathize with them, because the documentary shows what there is to love and to lose in opera. And when the new Opera House turns out to be more than a success, we can feel the victory ourselves.
© Amelie E. Lasker (2/4/18) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Front fascade of the Met at night (photo by Jan Lisa Huttner).
Top Photo: Leontyne Price as Cleopatra.
Middle Photo: The iconic firework-like chandeliers inside the main lobby.
Bottom Photo: Opera stars Leontyne Price and Robert Merrill in a publicity photo for the Opera House’s opening.
End Photo: The Met from the back during the construction phase.
Photo Credits: Fathom Events and The Metropolitan Opera
Yes, in a sense!
Since we can imagine writer-director Susan Froemke as the person conducting interviews, whenever women speak in this documentary, those conversations are technically between two women.
She is blessed not only with a superb story but also a fantastic “leading lady.” Now in her 90s, Leontyne Price was the first Diva to grace the Met’s new stage when it opened on that fateful night in 1966. Accompanying First Lady Lady Bird Johnson on Opening Night? Price’s parents — flown straight to New York from Laurel, Mississippi (a tiny backwater midway between Jackson & Mobile). If your soul is crushed by current events, you will leave The Opera House refreshed and restored.
In my case, I was privileged to see The Opera House right next door at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center! So as soon as the film was over, I went straight into The Met’s gift shop, bought a bunch of stuff (including a red chandelier tie for hubby) & then took this magical photo. Brava, Susan Froemke!!!
© Jan Lisa Huttner (1/31/18) FF2 Media