Adapted from a 2011 paper, Amahl and the Future of Opera on Television
NBC's production of Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), screenshot by the author
A Historical Overview:
Opera has held an uncomfortable position within commercial television broadcasting since the medium’s inception. On the one hand, television introduces opera to a broad audience; on the other, opera on television fails to attract enough viewers to secure commercial sponsorship.
The BBC produced the first televised opera excerpts (Albert Coates’s Mr. Pickwick) in 1936, eleven days after it began television broadcasts. In 1939, NBC produced three programs of Gilbert and Sullivan excerpts. CBS began its Opera Television Theater in 1950 with an abridged production of Carmen. Two weeks later, the newly minted NBC Opera Theater inaugurated its fifteen-year run with a studio production of Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley. After this production earned favorable reviews, NBC broadcast one-hour English adaptations of opera standards such as Madama Butterfly, Hänsel und Gretel, and Die Fledermaus. These early studio operas emphasized the intimacy and realism that characterized live television of this era. Paller asserts that, through these offerings, “Americans were beginning to embrace quality television programming along with their weekly quotient of […] I Love Lucy […].”
In 1949, NBC commissioned Gian-Carlo Menotti to compose the first opera specifically for television (a “Television Opera”). By November of 1951, Menotti, overwhelmed by other musical obligations, attempted to extricate himself from his contract at the last minute, but NBC insisted that he complete the commission. With a Christmas deadline swiftly approaching, Menotti found inspiration in the Hieronymus Bosch painting, The Adoration of the Magi, and Amahl and the Night Visitors was conceived, “written, cast, designed, and produced for television in under seven weeks.” On December 24, 1951, the opera was broadcast live over thirty-five NBC network affiliates to an audience of five million throughout the American East, South, and Midwest. By the “final duet […], Menotti’s new work had completely won over the home viewers,” and both the New York Times and Variety ran rave reviews the next day. Amahl was immediately scheduled for a second live broadcast on Easter of 1952, and would be produced annually at Christmas until 1966.
The success of Amahl and the Night Visitors encouraged NBC to pursue studio productions of extant works, such as Britten’s Billy Budd and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, and to commission nine more original operas. The Billy Budd production received acclaim from critics and viewers alike; however, neither this nor any other Television Opera found commercial sponsorship—with the exception of Amahl. Hallmark cards sponsored the premier broadcast as part of its Hallmark Hall of Fame series and thereafter Menotti’s opera received consistent sponsorship by such companies as Alcoa and Pontiac.
NBC's production of Billy Budd (1952), screenshot by the author
By the end of the 1960s, NBC, CBS, and ABC had all commissioned operas for television. However, the 1958 shifts from New York to Hollywood and from live broadcast to film changed the landscape of the industry. The success of the adult Western and the televised Hollywood feature film created new market pressures, with which high-quality live drama could not compete. Television Opera, while critically acclaimed, faced the same pressures: it was expensive to produce (the final production of Amahl cost $500,000) and didn’t draw the numbers of viewers that less costly entertainment programs attracted.
Cable television tried to make up for the lack of “live ballet, opera, and theater” on the major US networks. Unfortunately, “CBS Cable, an all-arts channel,” only lasted for two years. Cablevision Corporation (Bravo) began in the 1960s as a commercial-free arts station. However, Bravo struggled financially and began showing more movies to attract subscribers. In 1992, Bravo signed a deal with Texaco to underwrite its performing arts budget, enabling the station to fill half of its programming with performing arts. Bravo’s current offerings demonstrate that, with the exception of Inside the Actors’ Studio, the performing arts have since been replaced by reality programming.
Broadcasters in the UK continued to produce studio Television Operas into the early 2000s. However, as Barnes points out, these works neither attracted the viewers nor inspired the same audience enthusiasm that Amahl generated. Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave, commissioned by the BBC and televised in 1971, drew “approximately 257,400 viewers, 0.9 percent of the potential BBC2 audience.” Though Barnes points out that, for an unknown opera, Owen Wingrave was “a staggeringly well attended event,” she admits, “for television, Wingrave’s debut at best provided a modest success and at worst provided little encouragement to commission further works for the screen.” Similarly, Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, commissioned by Channel 4 (UK) as part of a six-opera arts series, premiered in 1995 to an initial audience of 500,000; by its conclusion, the opera had retained only 200,000 viewers.
BBC's production of Owen Wingrave (1971), screenshot by the author
As studio opera declined, an alternative form of opera on television gained momentum: live simulcasts from the opera house. These had appeared on television since its early days; the Metropolitan Opera’s abridged English-language productions of Die Fledermaus and La Bohème were broadcast by CBS’s Omnibus arts series in 1953. As Kenneth Wright of the BBC discovered with his 1954 production of The Decembrists, however, these telecasts suffered from the limitations of contemporary camera technology: “I needed six great floodlights […] on either side of the auditorium. […] [T]he mysterious effect of the gloomy setting was entirely destroyed.” While Wright’s particular production turned out well on screen, it negatively impacted the experience of the attending audience. The same was true of the Met’s early efforts to broadcast directly to movie theaters. “‘There were banks of spots along the sides of the proscenium, and brilliant lights played from the directors’ and artists’ boxes [...], undoing for thousands of paying customers in the theater the carefully planned effects of the scenic, costume, and lighting designers.”
By 1971, the technology required for effective simulcasts had arrived and live opera on television was reinvigorated—New York City Opera broadcast a live transmission of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or. After further “developing the techniques and finding the technology,” PBS began telecasting Live from Lincoln Center in 1976 to great acclaim from critics and audiences alike. In 1977, after the New York City Opera demonstrated the effectiveness of these productions, the Metropolitan Opera returned to television; its production of La Bohème was “seen in an estimated four million homes.” The Met went on to develop its own series, The Metropolitan Opera Presents, which, rather than broadcasting a live opera, used footage of several performances to create a product that both captured the magic of live opera and allowed some of a studio production’s control. Beginning with its 2006-07 season, the Met further expanded this approach with its movie theater series, The Met: Live in HD. These events, broadcast live, are later edited using rehearsal material to produce flawless performances for television rebroadcast and DVD sale.
Continued next week...
 Kenneth A. Wright, “Television and Opera,” Tempo, 45 (1957): 9-10; Rebecca Paller, “‘Amahl’—Fifty Years Young,” Opera, 52, no. 12 (2001): 1443.
 Jennifer Barnes, Television Opera: The Fall of Opera Commissioned for Television
(Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2003),1.
 Peter Wynne, “Video Days,” Opera News, June 1998, 13.
 Wynne, “Video Days,” 16.
 Wynne, “Video Days,” 16; Paller, “‘Amahl’ — Fifty Years Young,” 1428, 1443.
 Frank Sturcken, Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Company Inc., Publishers, 1990), 47.
 Paller, “‘Amahl’ — Fifty Years Young,” 1428.
 Barnes, Television Opera, 16.
 Barnes, Television Opera, 17.
 Paller, “‘Amahl’ — Fifty Years Young,” 1438; Barnes, Television Opera, 17.
 Paller, “‘Amahl’ — Fifty Years Young,” 1440.
 Paller, “‘Amahl’ — Fifty Years Young,” 1441; Barnes, Television Opera, 38.
 Paller, “‘Amahl’ — Fifty Years Young,” 1443; Barnes, Television Opera, 18.
 Wright, “Television and Opera,” 10; Barnes, Television Opera, 19, 47.
 Barnes, Television Opera, 19, 35.
 Wynne, “Video Days,” 18.
 Sturken, Live Television, 2-3.
 Sturken, Live Television, 104-06.
 Wynne, “Video Days,” 17.
 Douglas Gomery, A History of Broadcasting in the United States (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 308.
 Gomery, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 308-09.
 “Shows,” BravoTV.com, accessed April 4, 2011, http://www.bravotv.com/shows.
 Barnes, Television Opera, 77.
 Barnes, Television Opera, 81, 95.
 Wynne, “Video Days,” 18.
 Wright, “Television and Opera,” 9.
 Wynne, “Video Days,” 18.
 Wynne, “Video Days,” 20.
 W. Anthony Sheppard, “Review of the Metropolitan Opera’s New HD Movie Theater Broadcasts,” American Music, 25, no. 3 (2007): 383.
 Gary Eskow, “HD Special Section: New York’s Met in HD,” Mix, April 2008, 28.
Welcome back for Part 3, the last in my blog series about Double Quintet. Part 1 and Part 2 covered the influences of mid-century Americanist composers and how I began to depart from that language in my compositions leading up to Double Quintet. In this final post, I’ll provide a listening guide with commentary on the compositional process behind, or what inspired my approach to, each section of the piece. I suggest that you open up the Double Quintet audio in a new window (on the Concert Works page or on my SoundCloud) so you can follow along with the timings.
This piece began life as a one-and-a-half minute sketch: while I was a student at the University of Maryland, the symphony put out an internal call for sketches, with the idea of selecting three new “Enigmas” that would be added to a performance of Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (op. 36). Even though my sketch wasn’t selected for that call, I was especially pleased with my first effort—in fact, the first 24 seconds that you hear are almost unchanged from that sketch (I’ll leave it to you to figure out the connection to Elgar’s “Enigma” theme).
As the title suggests, Double Quintet is comprised of two groups: a wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon) and a brass quintet (2 trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba). My model for this ensemble was Robert Washburn’s Concertino, which I performed as a graduate student. I had, for some months, been toying with the idea of tackling a wind composition, and I thought this instrumentation would sound like a large ensemble while remaining practical to program. One of my early concepts for the piece was to contrast the two choirs of instruments, much like an antiphonal canzona by Gabrieli. The brass interruption at 0:23 and the longer chorale at 1:14 follow this approach. In my lessons with David Froom, however, I recall him encouraging me to blend the two quintets, so that my orchestrational palette would be even wider. I remember building out the trombone and bassoon duet that begins at 0:30 for this very reason.
The first two minutes flow gently from one grouping of instruments to another. While composing this section, I naturally ran into a few roadblocks and, quite early on, decided to jump ahead to a scherzo section that had been forming in my mind. The quality of the chamber wind timbres and non-functional triadic harmonies of the first two minutes reminded me of the wind band repertoire that I had performed as a high school student: pieces by William Schuman, Fisher Tull, Vincent Persichetti, and John Barnes Chance. I entered into the scherzo with this aesthetic clearly in my mind. Bob Gibson noticed the strong affinity for this sound world and suggested I listen to the wind music of Irving Fine:
Partita for Wind Quintet exhibits motivic, rhythmic, and harmonic elegance—at the same time, Fine is able to move in striking tonal directions without disrupting the sense of “correctness” that the piece exudes. This was the direction that Bob and I had been working towards for my own music (discussed in Part 2).
My own two minutes of scherzo combine what I think of as Schuman-esque imitation (for example, 2:08–2:18) and Hindemithian melodic structures (as heard between 3:56–4:04).
After four minutes of a mid-century tribute, if you will, I was ready to try my hand at another sound. To free myself, I decided to compose a second movement that I would later attach with a transition (what became 4:08–4:49). At the true beginning of the movement (4:49), you’ll hear an alteration of the opening theme. Since the first movement began with some help from Sir Edward Elgar (allegedly), I decided to sneak a new tune into the second movement as a kind of second theme. This is introduced by the trumpet and expanded upon by the oboe (can you guess what it is?).
My original draft encompassed 4:49–5:53 and 7:35 to the end (if you hum the tuba note at 7:35 and rewind to 5:53, you’ll notice it’s the same pitch). All of this music flows into a shimmering climax, which gleams brightly before fading to a coda. On the advice of Bob Gibson, I went back and created a substantial minute-and-a-half insert that disrupted this carefully crafted counterpoint with a kind of wildness that wasn’t present anywhere else in the piece. In fact, I’m proud of this section as one of the first times that I really stretched my ear—and liked the end-result enough to leave it in! The section begins in fits and starts, gaining momentum while exploring a few of the melodies from the first movement that I felt needed more attention (compare 5:56–6:26 with the bassoon line between 3:00–3:09; and the trumpets at 2:36–2:45 and at 6:36–6:50).
As I mentioned above, the remaining music forms a long crescendo towards a climax. More than volume and range, I wanted this moment to glitter. Muted trumpet and stopped horn entrances create sparkling articulations, while overlapping to imitate a piano’s sustain pedal (beginning at 8:30). Following this high point, the music recedes towards a coda, and you will hear the material that began Double Quintet return (9:21). In between, there was an extended section characterized by sixteenth-note quintuplets—you won’t hear it there (it made the piece way too long, without adding to the overall trajectory of the movement), but I plan to revive it in some other work (maybe when I’ve exhausted all my other good ideas!).
All right, it’s late and I’m out of things to write. Enjoy the audio of Double Quintet in full for one more week. I hope this listening guide offers you interesting insights into how one composer muddles through some semblance of a compositional process!
Welcome back to Part 2 of my blog series about the evolution of Double Quintet, my featured audio recording for one more week! (If you haven’t heard it yet, be sure to check it out on my Concert Works page or on my SoundCloud.) In Part 1, I discussed the mid-century Americanist aesthetic that I cultivated from 2009 through 2014, with a musical example by my then-composer-model, Norman Dello Joio, as well as audio clips of two pieces I composed in this style.
Today, I want to ruminate on how and why my sound evolved to the point that I had the technique necessary to create Double Quintet. After studying composition as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I continued to compose while I worked on my trumpet masters at Western Michigan University. However, I did not take composition lessons again until I arrived at Robert Gibson’s studio at the University of Maryland as a doctoral student. In the intervening four years between graduating from college and matriculating at UMD, I believed that this neotonal musical language represented my “mature style,” and with a few experimental exceptions, most of my compositions were strongly melodic and pandiatonic (any note within a key is fair game) in nature. [Pandiatonicism allows the composer to create many chords beyond traditional triads while ensuring that all of the pitches sound “right” to the listener, and has been employed by a range of 20th-Century composers, from Stravinsky to John Adams.]
As I employed pandiatonicism, the key might change between sections of a piece, but at any single time, only one scale was in use. You can hear examples of this technique throughout the third movement of New American Dances, III. “Bourrée” (below). The same collection of 7 pitches is used throughout the first 45 seconds of this movement. At 46 seconds, however, the music moves to a new key area:
With this method, harmonic variety manifests over the course of an entire piece, but pitch content remains very static from moment-to-moment. For some stylistic approaches, like minimalism, this kind of slow harmonic progression is desirable. For a classical example of pandiatonic minimalism, check out Terry Riley’s In C:
Perhaps the closest I’ve ever come to writing minimalist music is my 2014–15 string quartet, Archi spezzati. Following the introduction [0:00–0:16], you can hear a short repeated melody in the first violin from 0:18–0:24:
In the finished composition that you just heard, this tune occurs over constantly shifting figures in the other three instruments and quickly moves off in a new direction. When I brought a draft of this piece to my first lesson with Robert Gibson at UMD, however, this tune and the supporting figures repeated identically for many measures, and the notes I allowed myself to use never departed from the key of E-flat major. Bob could tell that I wasn’t really interested in going “full minimalist;” over the course of the next several months, the refrain of my lessons became “getting off the scale,” by which Bob meant that I needed to expand my ear’s concept of what note combinations sounded consonant (or “right”) together. If you listen to the whole string quartet (if you’re strapped for time, start at 1:06 and listen for 40 seconds), I think you will hear that I’m reaching for a wider palette of pitches than I employed in any of my compositions featured in Part 1. I continued to hone this approach in the other pieces I composed before Double Quintet; you can hear a more refined effort in my choral piece, Sing – sing – Music was given:
Next week in Part 3, I’ll briefly discuss the creative process behind Double Quintet itself, followed by an annotated “walk-thru style” listening guide. Until then!
For the next two weeks you can hear my chamber winds composition, Double Quintet, in its entirety on my Concert Works page and on my SoundCloud. When I completed this piece in February 2016, it was the most ambitious of all my projects at that time. With three more major compositions--In Leviathan’s Wake (July 2016), Adaptive Reuse (March 2017), and Rapid Transit (May 2017)—in the rearview mirror, I think I can now say that Double Quintet represents an important transition in my compositional style, and I hope it will add some context to your listening experience if I mull over the influences that made this possible.
In 2008-2009, I composed New American Dances, a trio for trumpet, trombone and piano that was commissioned by Joe Burnam, a fabulous trombonist in Italy who had coached and directed our brass ensembles during my study abroad in Spring 2008. I was inspired by a set of Renaissance dances that we had performed with Joe, and wanted to write a set of movements that captured the spirit of these dance forms but used contemporary musical language—basic 20th Century Neoclassicism, though I wasn’t really thinking about this term while I was composing this piece. You can listen to the first movement below:
The basic building blocks of this movement are clear melodies supported by triadic harmonies, which I “spice up” by adding pitches that don’t belong to the chord, but that do belong to the key (you may have noticed some Sus4 or “pop” harmonies, which work on the same principle). My then-composition-teacher, David Froom, heard the direction my sound was taking and suggested that I explore the music of Norman Dello Joio, a prolific 20th-Century composer. He is well known for composing concert band literature, his focus from the 1960s onward, but in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, he was highly acclaimed on the professional circuit and won a Pulitzer (1957) for a suite of dance music, Meditations on Ecclesiastes. Dello Joio’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (below) is also typical of his lyricism and wit—definitely listen to the theme and first variation:
Following New American Dances, most of my subsequent compositions continued to reach towards the style of Dello Joio and his contemporaries, including Gian Carlo Menotti, David Diamond, and, of course, Aaron Copland. The high point of my mid-century Americanist sound is probably my trumpet solo Evening on the Town (2012), performed below by Jeffrey Work and Miriam Hickman in a video from the 2016 International Trumpet Guild Conference:
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll discuss how and why my sound evolved away from these composers—or, more accurately, how I came to incorporate more diverse compositional models. Read and listen to Part 2 next week, Sunday, October 1.
Pursuing a musical career has meant trying my hand at many tasks. Some have been predictable: practicing trumpet, studying music theory, and developing a modicum of keyboard skills. Some have been more whimsical, like composing a swashbuckling orchestral work, dabbling in conducting, or researching film soundtracks. For many years, I made music education central to my profession, teaching musical theater in the summers and undergraduate music electives during the school year. In my new position on a non-profit arts-marketing team, my relationship to music (at least at work) has become somewhat less direct, though I rely on my long history with the performing arts everyday.
As I sit down to compose (pun intended) my first blog post, I realize that the one constant throughout the twists and turns of my musical endeavors has been the primacy of writing. Program notes, lesson plans, and scholarly articles vied for time with practice sessions and engraving projects. Now I wrack my brain for concise event descriptions and snappy Facebook posts at work and, when I’m not composing, I spend my evenings maintaining my artistic web presence and working on my video game music research project.
Performers often talk about communicating to an audience through expressive phrasing on an instrument. Listeners sometimes say that music “speaks to them.” But one of the great challenges that classical musicians face is how to effectively advocate for the art when they aren’t actually making music. The aforementioned program notes are a time-honored method of offering audience members points of entry to unfamiliar pieces. Great stage presence while delivering pre-performance remarks (worked out ahead of time) can be even more effective at encouraging audience buy-in. Social media, when used strategically, offers musicians many ways to reach new listeners and to develop two-way dialogue.
Over the coming months, I will address a variety of topics that I hope will be interesting to all music lovers. You can look forward to a series of posts that give a behind-the-scenes look at the compositions on my Concert Works and SoundCloud pages. I will adapt my film scholarship on The Incredibles and Amahl and the Night Visitors into multi-part articles. And, as I continue my tenure in the marketing field, I hope that I can spark useful conversations about how we in the arts can effectively reach the audiences who are just waiting to experience the music, theater, visual art, or multimedia that we create!
Check back every Sunday for the most recent post, and while you’re hear, please read my latest news, listen to my multimedia tracks, and enjoy some of my trumpet recordings; feel free to share with your friends and colleagues, too. You’re also welcome to contact me about music, marketing, or both, and to offer feedback on everything you find on the site—I can’t wait to hear from you.
I write music, but I also love to write prose of all kinds! Here you will find journal entries about my creative work, scholarship on film and video game music, and thoughts about effective arts-marketing strategies. Read on and enjoy!