Site-specific screenings hardly get more appropriate than the world premiere of Susan Froemke’s new documentary at the Metropolitan Opera House. Chronicling the history of the storied institution from its beginnings at a long-demolished home on 39th St. and Broadway to its transfer to the specially built, lavish theater in Lincoln Center, The Opera House is a feast for opera lovers and anyone interested in urban planning. The doc, receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, should prove a natural fit for home video formats and public television.
Legendary singer Leontyne Price, who performed at the opening night of the Lincoln Center venue and many times thereafter, lends a personal touch to the proceedings. “It’s the temple of opera,” she declares about the theater.
The original opera house, built in 1883, quickly became inadequate to the company’s needs. The backstage area was impossibly cramped, forcing performers to walk across a narrow passageway, and there was no storage space. When the autocratic Rudolf Bing was hired as the company’s general manager (he’s breathlessly described as “the highest paid music executive in the world” in an archival clip), he made it his mission to create a modern, state-of-the art facility.
Enter Robert Moses, the New York City public official who became known as the “master builder” thanks to his grandiose reshaping of the city’s urban landscape. Targeting an area on the West Side that was filled with old, rundown buildings — or as he referred to it, a “slum” — he seized the land and evicted its thousands of working-class residents to create the artistic hub that would become Lincoln Center. The documentary includes moving interviews with several of the area’s former residents who describe what it felt like to lose their homes.
Famed architect Wallace Harrison created a grandiose design for the new Met that immediately proved unfeasible, especially since other companies such as the New York City Opera and the New York Philharmonic were also vying for space. “That wasn’t going to fly,” says critic Paul Goldberger. “The opera had to be willing to play well with others.”
After a period of intense infighting over architectural plans and geography, a plan for the new opera house was ultimately approved. The film generates considerable suspense as it chronicles the build-up to the new Met’s 1966 gala opening night with the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Price. Three weeks before the event, neither the theater nor the opera was yet finished. “I don’t think any of us realized the hell it would be,” Bing comments in a vintage news clip.
But finish it all they did, and both the venue and the opera proved triumphant on opening night, despite such possible calamities as the orchestra deciding during the intermission whether or not to strike (they voted no). Price tears up remembering the evening, which included her parents sitting with Lady Bird Johnson in her private box and receiving applause from the audience.
Packed with fascinating archival footage (especially of Bing, who’s worthy of a documentary devoted exclusively to him) and striking just the right mix of information and emotion, The Opera House should prove a cinematic staple for opera buffs. Look for it to enjoy particularly brisk sales at the Met gift shop.
Director: Susan Froemke
Producers: Susan Froemke, Peter Gelb
Executive producers: Mia Bongiovanni, Alexadra Eastman
Directors of photography: Gregory Andracke, Richard Chisolm, Edward Marritz, Bob Richman, Buddy Squires, Thorsten Thielow
Editor/co-director: Peter R. Livingston Jr.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Special Events)