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Review: The origin story of a New York landmark is well told in ‘The Opera House’

Leontyne Price Robert Merrill Photographer: Bob Serating Date Photographed: 1/20/1964 Construction o
Leontyne Price and Robert Merrill during construction of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, Jan. 20, 1964, from the documentary “Opera House.”
(Bob Serating / Lincoln Center Archives)
Film Critic

A plethora of pleasures are hidden under the deceptively mundane title of “The Opera House.” Nominally a documentary about the creation of New York’s half-century-old Metropolitan Opera House, it turns out to be a charming and convivial celebration of not just the building but also opera in general and creativity across the board.

Key to this success is veteran documentarian Susan Froemke, who’s directed more than 30 works and was for many years the principal filmmaker at New York’s Maysles Films.

Though she is mostly known for her direct-cinema, fly-on-the-wall work, Froemke has lots of previous experience with documentaries about music, including collaborations with Met general manger Peter Gelb such as “Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic,” “Karajan in Salzburg” and “Wagner’s Dream.”

Froemke also had the good fortune to secure gripping archival material, including BBC documentaries and the Bell Telephone Hour network special “Countdown to Curtain,” which detailed the agonies of the house’s opening night.

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Even better than that, Froemke discovered superb interview subjects, venerable employees who have worked for the Met for half a century or more and turn out to be vivid and compelling storytellers.

Best of all in this department is legendary soprano Leontyne Price, now over 90, whose memories are rich and eloquent. Froemke recalls in a director’s note that when her interview with Price was over she texted Gelb: “Now we’ve got a film.” The assessment was completely accurate.

Though the focus in this film is ostensibly on the current building, “The Opera House” spends considerable time on its predecessor — a storied place where society grandees inhabited “the diamond horseshoe” seating area but a structure that was so small that its key storage area was the public sidewalk on Seventh Avenue.

So it was no surprise that Rudolf Bing made a new structure a priority when he took over as general manager. The highest paid music executive in the world, he was a “my way or the highway” type, someone Price remembers as “the emperor, tough as nails.”

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Bing shared that single-mindedness with New York City building czar Robert Moses, who had a passion for demolishing what he considered to be slums in the name of progress and urban renewal.

Moses sold the Met, the New York Philharmonic and other institutions on the idea of a cultural acropolis on Manhattan’s west side to be known as Lincoln Center.

One of the virtues of “The Opera House” is that Froemke does not sidestep the sadness of the death of a vibrant urban neighborhood. She interviews adults who lived in the Lincoln Center area as children and remember it fondly.

Each component of the Lincoln Center complex got its own architect but Wallace Harrison, who designed the Opera House, was given the extra burden of being in charge of the whole complex, a kind of architectural ringmaster thrust into a lion’s den.

And, in truth, Moses, Bing and architect Philip Johnson made Harrison’s life miserable, forcing him to scale back his Opera House dreams. As architecture critic Paul Goldberger notes, “he sold a little bit of his soul” to get the overall job done.

“The Opera House” concludes with a focus on the new house’s September 16, 1966, opening night production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” complete with menacing sets that could not be made to work right.

“I will never get out of here with my life, I know it,” Price, the opening night star, is seen saying in archival footage. She obviously survived, as did the Met Opera house itself, and, as this warm and surprisingly emotional documentary makes clear, we are all the richer for it.

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‘The Opera House’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran

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