Christmas Day, 1931, is one of the most significant dates in the 122-year history of the Metropolitan Opera. That day, Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel was broadcast live to more than one hundred NBC radio stations around the country, initiating one of the Met's grandest traditions, the regular live broadcasts of performances direct from the stage. Beginning this December, the Met celebrates the radio broadcasts' 75th anniversary season.
While it might seem obvious today that opera and radio broadcasting were predestined for a great future together, the Met's legendary general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza had long been dubious about the suitability of the new medium for opera. Gatti (as he was known) had joined the Met in 1908 and reigned over a golden period, both artistically and financially, in the company's history. At the same time, the company's balance sheets had shown a slight surplus for many years, that is, until the stock market crash of 1929. By 1930, the Met had begun to hemorrhage money, and the future looked bleak.
An early attempt to broadcast a Met performance via wireless telephone, in 1910, had had marginal results. A newspaper reporter witnessing listeners trying to discern the voice of Caruso on the broadcast wrote: "The guests took turns fitting the receivers over their ears, and one or two of them thought they heard a tenor; they were not positive."
Unimpressed by this early essay, Gatti, quoted later in The New York Times, felt that "opera is a work of art that must be seen as well as heard," and was concerned that "some voices are reproduced better than others, absolutely irrespective of the actual merit of the voice itself."
What turned Gatti-Casazza around? Surely, it was in part the tenacity of Merlin Aylesworth, president of NBC, who was determined to have the prestige of Met broadcasts for his network. Ultimately, however, a new and considerable source of income must have been a major enticement for a desperate general manager watching his company's finances plummet. NBC promised to pay the Met $120,000 a season for the first two seasons, plus the promise of more if they were able to sell the programs to a sponsor.
But national and international radio broadcasts were eventually to prove an even more important fund-raising tool for the Metropolitan. Beginning in 1933, the Met appealed directly to millions of listeners for donations either to help the company with special projects or simply to continue functioning. It is not an exaggeration to say that the radio broadcasts rescued the Met at a crucial time in its history, and have since become an integral part of this great institution.