Home listening: behind the scenes at the Met

In a studio high up in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, presenters Ira Siff and Mary Jo Heath take us through their meticulous pre-broadcast preparations

• Her favourite is Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier; his, Verdi’s Falstaff. It’s Saturday afternoon in New York, and Mary Jo Heath and Ira Siff, names familiar to the 10 million people in 40 countries who tune in to the Metropolitan Opera’s live Saturday matinee broadcasts, are gearing up for another show. Perhaps you were listening, via the BBC’s Opera on 3, to Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito on Radio 3 yesterday, or maybe you heard a powerful Tosca earlier this month, broadcast the afternoon I was given exclusive access behind the scenes at the Met.

High up on the sixth floor of the massive opera house sits a broadcasting suite. Presenter Heath and commentator Siff are at their desks, microphones at the ready half an hour before curtain up, monitor cameras trained on the stage and conductor’s podium. Next door, a vast bank of broadcasting equipment is overseen by a single engineer, standing by with a cued script. Everyone is as cool as a deli counter cucumber.

“We work on the scripts for weeks beforehand,” explains Heath, who became presenter after the death of Margaret Juntwait in 2015. “It may sound like an easygoing conversation about the opera but we write, rewrite and rehearse. The more you rehearse the more you can improvise.” They are acutely aware that their introductions have to keep the knowledgeable engaged while also nurturing the newcomer – and reaction can be sharp from the radio audience. “We dropped the synopsis once. We won’t be doing that again!”

This is live broadcasting, and things will go wrong. Memories of a 45-minute staging hiatus in Die Walküre still haunt the studio. “We have filler script and taped interviews ready, but you must be honest with the listeners,” says Siff. “Even glitches capture the buzz of live performance.” His life as a singer and director grew from the moment in 1961 he spent $1.25 to stand at the old Met to hear Joan Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor – quite an introduction.

Another institution, the quirky interval opera quiz, is now joined by the dressing-room interview. Some singers agree to do this as they come off stage, sports star-style, as Tosca (Jennifer Rowley) did after singing Vissi d’arte. Not Cavaradossi, though: Joseph Calleja chose to record his days beforehand, rather than break the spell before that final, fateful scene. Catch it all on BBC Sounds and be amazed.

Contributor

Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Home listening: heavenly Haydn, and a good week for Farinelli
An exemplary recording of the Missa Cellensis; Ann Hallenberg channels the great castrato; and in praise of Opera on 3

Nicholas Kenyon

15, Dec, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Home listening: Bach, Beethoven and two great violinists
Tremendous new releases from Kati Debretzeni and Leonidas Kavakos, plus 50 years of the Met on BBC Four

Fiona Maddocks

24, Nov, 2019 @5:29 AM

Article image
Home listening: a good week for Stravinsky
The RLPO and Petrenko dazzle in The Firebird, while the Mariinsky Orchestra and Gergiev make Petrushka their own

Fiona Maddocks

23, Dec, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Classical home listening: Penderecki, Fauré and more
The late Polish composer’s chamber music is a treasure trove for the Tippett Quartet

Fiona Maddocks

10, Jul, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: where Beethoven, Shostakovich and Bach meet
Sparkling new releases from the Danish String Quartet, the DSCH-Shostakovich Ensemble and James Rhodes

Fiona Maddocks

02, Dec, 2018 @7:59 AM

Article image
Classical home listening: Vaughan Williams, Paganini and Ysaÿe
The LSO and Pappano fire on all cylinders in RVW’s Symphonies 4 and 6. And Alina Ibragimova’s Paganini Caprices astound

Fiona Maddocks

24, Apr, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: Howard Skempton piano works and more
Take two pianists and a druid princess…

Fiona Maddocks

16, Feb, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Home listening: a good week for keyboard wizards
Each in their own way, Martin James Bartlett and John Challenger pull out all the stops

Fiona Maddocks

21, Jul, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: Vaughan Williams, Frank Martin and Kenneth Leighton
The RLPO concludes its magnificent Vaughan Williams symphony cycle. Plus, two masses for double choir

Fiona Maddocks

26, May, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Home listening: step up, Franz Clement and Henry Litolff
These two overlooked composers are well served by two new recordings. And 20 glorious years of Radio 3’s New Generation Artists

Stephen Pritchard

09, Feb, 2020 @5:30 AM