A New Documentary Charts a Momentous Period of Change for the Met and New York City in the ’50s and’60s
The Opera House A film by Susan Froemke
In select North American cinemas this January, check local listings for dates and times
Running time:1 hour 48 minutes
A new film by multiple Emmy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Susan Froemke, surveys a remarkable period of the Metropolitan Opera’s rich history and a time of great change for New York. Featuring rarely seen archival footage, stills, recent interviews, and a soundtrack of extraordinary Met performances, The Opera House chronicles the creation of the Met’s storied home of the last 50 years, against the backdrop of the artists, architects, and politicians who shaped the cultural life of New York City in the ’50s and ’60s.
Among the notable figures in this film are soprano Leontyne Price, who opened the new Met in 1966 in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra; Rudolf Bing, the Met’s imperious General Manager, who engineered the move from the old house to the new one; Robert Moses, the unstoppable city planner who bulldozed an entire neighborhood to make room for Lincoln Center; and Wallace Harrison, whose quest for architectural glory was never fully realized.
BACKGROUND TO THE FILM
On September 16, 1966, the Metropolitan Opera opened the doors to its new home at Lincoln Center. Met General Manager Rudolf Bing presided over the most anticipated date on the New York cultural calendar, with the Met’s world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Leontyne Price commanded the stage, and the city’s luminaries and powerbrokers mingled beneath multi-story murals painted for the new house by Marc Chagall. John D. Rockefeller III welcomed an illustrious audience that included former First Lady of the United States Lady Bird Johnson and her guests Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, as well as leading men of industry: Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and Astors. As the headline of the New York Times read the next morning, “New Metropolitan Opera House Opens in a Crescendo of Splendor.”
As early as 1908, the Metropolitan Opera began planning for a new home that would provide the company with a cutting-edge modern theater to complement the golden era of singers appearing on its stage. The momentous opening of the Met at Lincoln Center nearly half a century later owed its success to a perfect storm of cultural and political forces. Robert Moses, the most powerful figure shaping the landscape of 20th-century New York City, wanted the slums of the Upper West Side cleared as part of Title I urban renewal. Rockefeller envisioned the first modern American cultural campus and had the money to fund it. All that was needed was a lead institution to anchor the development and secure its success. Star architect Wallace K. Harrison, who had recently overseen the design the design of the United Nations Headquarters, was tapped for the project. The Metropolitan Opera would finally have a new home.
The film draws on the rich archival resources of the City of New York, Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Opera, news organizations, and private libraries for footage of the planning and construction of the new Met. The film also looks to cultural programming of the day, such as the Bell Telephone Hour network special “Countdown to Curtain,” which documented the planning and production of the Met’s historic opening night.
ABOUT THE DIRECTOR
Susan Froemke is a non-fiction filmmaker with more than thirty documentaries to her credit, from the classic Grey Gardens (1976) to Lalee’s Kin (2001), an HBO film on poverty nominated for an Academy Award, and Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman (2017), which premiered at Sundance Film Festival. She was the principal filmmaker at legendary Maysles Films in New York for more than two decades.
In 2013, Froemke co-directed, with Matthew Heineman, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, which premiered at Sundance in 2013. For HBO, Froemke co-produced two special-event series: Momentum in Science: The Alzheimer’s Project (2009) and Addiction (2007), an unprecedented 14-part documentary series about drug and alcohol addiction, which won the Television Academy’s 2007 Governors Award for Special Programming.
Before starting her own production company in 2003, Froemke ran Maysles Films in New York after the death of David Maysles. She has long been a disciple of direct cinema, a style of filmmaking pioneered in the 1960s by the Maysles Brothers. Like cinema verité in France, direct cinema presents the drama of real life as it unfolds before the camera with minimal intervention.
Froemke produced and co-directed, among many other films, Christo in Paris (1990), an updated version of The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (1991), Conversations with the Rolling Stones (1994) and—for the J. Paul Getty Trust—Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center (1997), about the enormous Los Angeles arts complex designed by renowned architect Richard Meier.
Previously, for HBO, Froemke directed Abortion: Desperate Choices(1992), which earned her an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and a duPont-Columbia Award, and Letting Go: A Hospice Journey (1996). For Lifetime Television, Froemke directed 100 Years of Women (1999) and Fear No More: Stop Violence Against Women (2001).
Froemke produced The Opera House with Peter Gelb, the current General Manager of the Met. Froemke and Gelb have been collaborating on music documentary films since 1985, beginning with Ozawa, a look at the life of conductor Seiji Ozawa. Since then, their films together have included Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic (1985), Horowitz Plays Mozart (1987), Karajan in Salzburg (1988), The Met in Japan (1989), Jessye Norman Sings Carmen (1989), Soldiers of Music: Rostropovich Returns to Russia (1991), Abbado in Berlin: The First Year (1991), Baroque Duet (1992) with Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis, Accent on the Offbeat (1994) with Peter Martins and Wynton Marsalis, and the Grammy Award–winning Recording The Producers: A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks (2001). At the Met, they have worked together on The Audition (2009), about aspiring young opera singers, James Levine: America’s Maestro (2011), an American Masters presentation on PBS, and Wagner’s Dream (2012), about the making of the Met’s Ring cycle.
“The Opera House is a feast for opera lovers and anyone interested in urban planning.” —Hollywood Reporter
“Packed with fascinating archival footage and striking just the right mix of information and emotion, The Opera House should prove a cinematic staple for opera buffs.” —Hollywood Reporter