Mercoledi Musicale

So this was all this to-do this past weekend about an opera singer – AN OPERA SINGER I tells ya! – performing the American National Anthem at a major sports event.   When they weren’t otherwise occupied with the uproar over a song about the United States being an all-inclusive country sung in foreign languages the waves were atwitter with silliness about how well/badly this opera singer – AN OPERA SINGER I tells ya! – did.

Sorry but I had to snicker behind my hand – well okay a few times I just outright guffawed – at the way both opera fans and the “common man” were treating this as an unusual, never before in the history of human existence occurrence.

Every Sunday night we tuned in
to Ed Sullivan’s “Really big show!”

Damn folks, let cast our minds back to a time, not that long ago, when an opera singer on television wasn’t such a big deal just part of normal programming.  In those days opera singers were regular guests on many of the variety and talk programmes – hell at one point NBC had its own opera company and its own orchestra (anyone every heard of a guy called Arturo Toscanini?).   And then there was this guy called Ed Sullivan.  He had a show on Sunday nights – the show where Elvis Presley, The Beatles, MARIA CALLAS, the Rolling Stones, The Supremes, JOAN SUTHERLAND,  Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, RICHARD TUCKER, the Jackson Five and a whole gang of other song birds strutted their stuff before the households of North America. 

From 1948 until 1971 The Ed Sullivan Show was the quintessential variety show and for that hour from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM America almost came to a standstill.  It featured everything from ballet to Broadway and often opera was up there with the best and the emerging best in entertainment.

Roberta Peters as Rosina in Il Barbiere – one of her
signature roles.  Her’s was a Rosina for the canary
fanciers – but what an extraordinary canary it was!

The record for appearances on Ed’s show is held by two Canadians – the witty and erudite Wayne and Schuster with 58 appearances, followed by comedians Jack Carter with 49 and Myron Cohen with 43.  And right behind them in #4 place: opera singer Roberta Peters with 41!  AN OPERA SINGER I tells ya!  Who would have thunk?

Peters was a real American success story, she made her unscheduled debut at the Met in November 1950 at the age of 19 having never sung on a stage in her life.  At the time Met General Manager Rudolph Bing observed: To be thrown on the stage at the Met for the first time like that is a shock few can survive.  Peters did!.  She not only survived but she went on to become an established star at the Met and sang over 520 performances with the company in New York and on tour.   She was a great favourite there and, it would seem, with the audiences across America on Sunday night too!

Perhaps these two clips will explain, a little, why she was a favourite in both the Big Bad Apple and the heartlands.

In a broadcast from 1955 Roberta Peters sings the Doll’s aria from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann.  I’m not sure but this looks like it could be from The Voice of Firestone, another classic classical television show.

At her audition for the Met Rudolph Bing had her sing the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria from Die Zauberflöte which contains four high Fs.  He had her sing it seven times!  That’s 28 high Fs for anyone who’s counting.  He was unsure if her voice would carry in a house the size of the old Met and listened from all parts of the auditorium.  It did and would both at the old Broadway house and at the new Lincoln Center Met for the next 35 years.

In 1964 she appeared at the Salzburg Festival as the Queen of the Night in Otto Schenk’s production of Die Zauberflöte under the baton of István Kertész.  She subsequently recorded the role with Karl Böhm.  Vocally she is completely in control but that costume and the need to be positioned on the trap seem to literally hobble her dramatic performance.

She was only one of a list of opera singers that included Beverly Sills, Robert Merrill, Franco Corelli, Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Anna Moffo, Lily Pons, Jan Peerce, Marilyn Horne, Dorothy Kirsten, George London Eileen Farrell and Eleanor Steber – all who appeared “right here on our stage”!

While looking up some information I came upon these opening and closing paragraphs from an entry on The Ed Sullivan Show:

The Ed Sullivan Show was the definitive and longest running variety series in television history (1948-71). Hosted by the eponymous awkward and fumbling former newspaperman, the show became a Sunday night institution on CBS. For twenty-three years the Sullivan show fulfilled the democratic mandate of the variety genre: to entertain all of the audience at least some of the time.


The Ed Sullivan Show reflected an era of network television when a mass audience and, even, a national consensus seemed possible. Sullivan became talent scout and cultural commissar for the entire country, introducing more than 10,000 performers throughout his career. His show implicitly recognized that America should have an electronic exposure to all forms of entertainment, from juggling to opera.

Ron Simon
Museum of Broadcast Communications
Encyclopedia of Television

An interesting observation.

February 5 –  62 CE: Earthquake in Pompeii, Italy.

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