I don't know the exact percentage but I have a feeling many people have a limited knowledge of who Leopold Stokowski is. At least, I hope many people have a limited knowledge of Leopold Stokowski because my knowledge is solely based on Bugs Bunny's impression of him in the 1949 short, The Long-Haired Hare. Aside from that and Dario Argento's 1987 giallo Opera, my knowledge of opera is cursory at best. I know the names and faces of Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and a couple others but that's pretty much it.
- Celebrated soprano Leontyne Price is a featured personality in Susan Froemke’s documentary
Armed with that paltry information and a little intimidation I watched Susan Froemke's documentary The Opera House. Her film mostly chronicles the birth of the Metropolitan Opera located in Lincoln Center at Lincoln Square in the Upper West Side and many of the personalities who orbited it. The original location, built in 1883, was a cramped facility that the opera quickly outgrew leading to the beautiful, awe-inspiring location we now have today. While the stories about the physical location itself are fascinating, it's those aforementioned personalities — and there are many we're introduced to — that make the film memorable.
At the film's epicenter is celebrated soprano Leontyne Price who performed there opening night and many times since. Through archival footage, we are treated to scenes of her jaw-dropping performances. During one scene, she held a note for an exorbitant amount of time. Long enough that I thought, "She's gonna fall over and pass out if she doesn't reel it back in." Her interview segments are equally engaging such as when she details her first time performing at The Met or the time she found herself trapped inside a constructed pyramid for the somewhat disastrous stage production of Antony and Cleopatra.
A couple of the film's larger than life personas give The Opera House madness and villainy. Sir Rudolf Bing, who served as the general manager of The Met from 1950 to 1972 was mostly known for moving the building from its low key home — an auditorium hidden on 39th street and Broadway — to its current residence in 1966. He also was behind the push for expensive productions that tested the physical and mental endurance of The Met's cast and crew. While Bing seems to serve almost as a flawed fearless leader-hero type in the film, it would likely be Robert Moses who serves as the complicated villain. The Met, and New York City, would be nowhere if it weren't for the urban planner's assholery, namely bulldozing an entire neighborhood, which displaced thousands of people to make room for Lincoln Center alone. You walk away from his segment in the film conflicted by this early day Montgomery Burns' efforts as a self-described "master builder" who held several appointive offices that exclusively benefitted his vision. Moses' efforts of urban renewal did ultimately lead to great art centers like The Met but, as the film itself recognizes, at an expense that is questionable at the very least.
Personally, my favorite person in the film was one of the Met's less popular workhorses who served more as the film's fly-on-the-wall. Near the beginning of the film one of The Met's former employees recounts the moment he discovered, and ultimately fell in love with, opera as a teen. Resplendent in a suit and bow tie, Alfred Hubay, former house/box office manager for The Met, recounts leaving a screening of the romantic drama Farewell To Arms in tears. But what was moving the 18 year old had less to do with the death of one of the film's characters and more to do with the swelling orchestration of music from the opera Tristan und Isolde. That created the spark. So consumed by the haunting majesty of the music, Hubay quit his mailroom job to become an usher for the Metropolitan Opera simply so he could hear the music that haunted him. As he speaks, he exalts music while seemingly disparaging the upper class stereotypes that opera had initially attracted and become saddled with. Almost like someone who loved the music but disliked the scene.
It's hard to remember that there was a time when documentaries were strictly information that you consumed then walked away from with your own opinion based on just the facts. That was something that consistently came to mind while watching The Opera House. While not as melodramatic or contemporarily slick as what we've grown accustomed to, Susan Froemke's entertaining film informed me nonetheless.
'The Opera House' — Jan. 13 at 12:55 p.m. Jan. 17 at 12:55 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Regal Charles Towne Square Stadium 18, 2401 Mall Dr., North Charleston and Regal Azalea Square Stadium 18, 215 Azalea Square Blvd., Summerville. Info at FathomEvents.com.