As the old adage goes, “the best things in life are free,” and certainly this applies to the Metropolitan Opera’s live radio broadcasts of Saturday matinee performances.
Since Christmas Day, 1931, the Met has continued to present broadcasts directly from the stage into homes worldwide. The broadcasts have played host to countless memorable performances, and some legendary debuts aired while millions tuned in from their living rooms.
With this year’s broadcast season beginning on Saturday, Margaret Juntwait, host of each matinée broadcast, said that these transmissions are a great asset to students. In an interview, Juntwait commented on young adolescence, saying, “These are the ages in which some of us develop our first interests in classical music.” She added, “The Saturday Matinee Broadcasts [are] something that helps that come alive for you.”
William Berger—writer, commentator, and producer for the Met broadcasts—said he would urge students to consider opera if they “are looking for deeper meanings, and meatier, more interesting [content],” even if it feels outside their comfort zone.
“Opera is not a form of music, it’s a form of drama ... [and] everybody needs drama,” he said. This drama is heightened by the intimate human connection that takes place during a performance, Berger said. “[Opera is] a sensual experience … It is somebody’s organ vibrating one of your organs … that’s how vital it is.”
Berger also sees a special connection between Columbia students and the opera. He explained that opera “is elite, but not in the way people have portrayed it. It’s elite in that it demands a lot of the listener, the same way people will say Columbia is elite … it demands the best.”
And the opportunity to listen on the radio comes with its own special benefits. Because of the distance from the listener and the performance “you have the opportunity, the possibility to take this art form into every other aspect of your life,” Berger said. The chance to hear the music without any visual component allows for “mental theater,” Berger added. Whether it’s cleaning your room, doing exercise, or studying for finals, the Met broadcast allows opera to be the soundtrack to your life, and this allows each listener to adopt a personal connection to this art.
But the Saturday Matinee Broadcasts offer more than just the music—during intermissions, listeners are treated to commentary, interviews, quizzes, and informative features, all of which aim to put the drama into context. When describing her role as host, Juntwait stressed that she always tries to listen to what she’s presenting as is if she were a listener, for “when you listen like the listener, then you realize what the listener is hoping to hear about next.” This, she says, allows the content to be more engaging and exciting for her audience.
Both Juntwait and Berger agree that another exciting aspect of each broadcast is the fact that it is recorded live. Juntwait said, “To hear something live is to hear a human experience on the stage. Nothing is going to be perfected—it is going to be as it happens.” And Berger added, “It can be a little dangerous and it can go very, very wrong.” But he also noted that this spontaneity is an essential part of what makes live performance so exciting.
“Jump on the train now because your experience will change,” he said. “It [opera] will mean one thing to you at 18, and a completely different, more profound, but separate thing at 40, 60, 80.”
The 82nd season of free, live broadcasts from the Met’s stage begins on Dec. 8 at 1 p.m. with Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and continues every Saturday afternoon through May 11. Columbia students can access these transmissions on WNYC 93.9 FM or WQXR 105.9 FM.