Next month's radio broadcast premiere of Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy on December 24th is a proper holiday present for the millions of listeners around the world as befits the 75th anniversary year of the Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcasts.
Since 1931 when the Met Broadcasts began, eleven world premieres given by the Met have been shared with the radio audience, and five of those were the premiere performances themselves. Under the general managership of Giulio Gatti-Casazza from 1908-1935, the Met was very active in premiering new works‹nineteen operas in all. Since Met radio broadcasts only began towards the end of this period, just three of these newly premiered works were on the air. Desmond Taylor's Peter Ibbetson broadcast in part (Acts II and III) in the first Met broadcast season in March, 1932, and complete two years later in 1934. The world premiere of Louis Gruenberg's The Emperor Jones, based on a Eugene O'Neill play, was broadcast live from the Met on January 7, 1933, and the stage premiere of Howard Hanson's Merry Mount was broadcast about a year later in February, 1934. All three of these works were conducted by the great Italian maestro, Tullio Serafin, and featured a major role for the American baritone Lawrence Tibbett.
During the reign of Edward Johnson (1935-1949) as general manager, the Met was beset by financial problems that precluded much experimentation with financially unpredictable new operas. Of the three operatic world premieres that Johnson brought to the Met, only two were broadcast: Walter Damrosch's A Man Without a Country, and Bernard Rogers' The Warrior. The former was particularly noteworthy for the debut of a young soprano named Helen Traubel, while the latter, a treatment of the Samson and Delilah story, cast with young soon-to-be stars, Regina Resnik and Mack Harrell.
Rudolf Bing, general manager from 1950-1972, worked hard to modernize the Met's production standards, but was still leery of producing new works for financial reasons. He was sufficiently impressed by the music of the American composer Samuel Barber however to commission a new opera, Vanessa, which turned out to be one of the Met's more successful world premieres. Vanessa was broadcast in both 1958 and 1965. Following on this success Barber was the logical choice to compose a new opera to open the Met's new home at Lincoln Center. His Antony and Cleopatra, broadcast live on the radio, premiered on September 19, 1966, with Leontyne Price, Jess Thomas, and Justino Diaz in the leading roles of Franco Zeffirelli's elaborate production. Later that season another new work, Martin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra made its Met broadcast debut on April 1, 1967.
A quarter of a century passed before the Met presented any more world premieres. But under general manager Joseph Volpe the practice has been revived, beginning in December 1991 with John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, which was broadcast the following month. James Levine conducted with a cast including Teresa Stratas, Marilyn Horne, Håkan Hagegård, and Renée Fleming, The next season Philip Glass's The Voyage, had its world premiere performance broadcast live on October 12, 1992. The new opera was a commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World, with Tatiana Troyanos as Queen Isabella and Timothy Noble as Columbus. The Met Broadcasts greeted the new century on January 1, 2000 with John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, which had its premiere a few weeks earlier. Conducted by James Levine, the opera brought F. Scott Fitzgerald's American classic to the opera stage with Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, Mark Baker, Dwayne Croft, Richard Paul Fink, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in major roles.