Live opera on radio -- not just the Met any more

There was a time when the Metropolitan Opera was the only company whose performances were broadcast live on US radio. But with the growing interest in opera, a larger and larger public wants to hear live opera.

Special broadcasts were arranged for such events, then suddenly, San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston Grand Opera were being carried nationwide, as well as various events from Europe. Several of these series are under the National Public Radio umbrella, and NPR also brought the US the Vienna State Opera, live from Washington, D.C.

Now the network has added the New York City Opera to its schedule, and the series is going on right now, with three more operas to be heard ("Anna Bolena," "Madame Butterfly," "The Makropoulos Affair"). Eight broadcasts originated from the spring season in Los Angeles -- KUSC-FM is coproducing the series -- and the five others come from New York.

The man behind the New York City Opera project and all the live classical projects for the PBS network is John Bos.He comes to the job with numerous good connections and ideas, having been the director of the performing arts division of the New York State Council for the Arts. "Obviously, that's a good way to get close to performance institutions and the people in them," he observes.

I spoke with Mr. Bos over a not-so-leisurely breakfast at the famed Algonquin Hotel -- arguably a suitable place to talk about the arts, though our conversation was hardly as literary or as competitively witty as those famous circles that institutionalized the hotel in the first place. Bos is tall and imposing with a gentle yet purposeful face. He talks earnestly, intently, with candor and affability.

He is a man with a mission -- music.And he is a man with a forum -- radio. The NPR network is a large one, with its strongest bastions out where one would least expect it -- the midlands of America, where commercial radio would never dare to tread. In fact, NPR is weakest in many big cities -- Cleveland has no affiliate at all, and New York splits it between WNYC and WNCN, both of which have independent programming well.

The City Opera project was a welcome one for NPR. The company had been broadcast in New York City for a while, with some exposure in other cities, but nothing so thorough and systematic as the NPR network could offer it. By taping several performances and selecting the best -- sometimes, though not often, using one act from one taping and a different taping for another act -- the network is broadcasting the best performance without undermining the immediacy and continuity of a live performance.

The biggest problem with live opera broadcasts is the variability of sound. The Met broadcasts have gotten such a negative reputation that a special engineer has been brought in to try to solve the serious problems. Mr. Bos points out that Chuck Thompson, NPR's classical engineer, "does most of the setups as technical director.

There are no acoustical boxes involved, Bos states emphatically, a reference to the current trend of electronic enhancement to give a semblance of acoustical space. (Just how awful that can be was shown when NBC- TV broadcast the New York Philharmonic "Live From Studio 8-H" and created such a processed, diffuse sound that it bore no resemblance, at times, to either the orchestra or the performers.

That whole project, now apparently -- and sadly -- defunct, was founded by electronically creating a reverberation in the notoriously dry hall that has been the ruin of most of the historic Toscanini recordings available on RCA Victrola. The new trend is toward "wiring" of concert halls to create, through electronics, what acousticians cannot manage by sheer design. But this is the subject of another story altogether!)

Mr. Bos noted that the whole charter of the network is "to provide alternative programming and to bring that which is not being done onto the airwaves." Such projects as NPR's "World of Opera" and the "American Opera Series" from Opera America -- staged piano run-throughs of new and not-so-new native operas -- are experiments though not the final idea or ideal.

"How do we keep programming varied?" is a question Mr. Bos posed several times in several ways. This gets into such problems as the giving america's lesser orchestras some exposure, since the major radio stations offer the big five or six and a few other important ones regularly in transcription concerts. Mr. Bos does not like the idea of a standard, predictable format for radio stations. He particularly dislikes the Sunday blanket approach to live material so often encountered in major cities.

Mr. Bos has found that coproductions with foreign networks are well received and aid both countries. The BBC was recently in Boston to tape concerts in the Early Music Festival there: "I'm starting to do business with foreign networks such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who are interested in some of the San Francisco Opera tapes, and possibly even New York City Opera's as well."

Oddly, Mr. Bos cited that in Europe "there is a craving for our new music and jazz.!" And that is something Mr. Boss hopes to incorporate more skillfully into the programming down the road a bit. Another idea being explored is the creation of some sort of sound stage for NPR, in a place like Town Hall in New York. The potential is endless -- a resident chamber group, a radio orchestra, a forum for a variety of musical and possibly even theatrical events.

Mr. Bos's ideas are endless. Since NPR's grant apparently will not run out for several years to come, some ideas may be put to the test. Before long, NPR will become the vital cultural voice of America, and that will, musically speaking, be John Bos's doing.

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