The brief history of made-for-TV opera

The brief history of made-for-TV opera

Jenna Simeonov

We stumbled across an interesting find the other day. Have a look at this Wikipedia list of operas made for television, and have a look at the dates.

Starting with Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, commissioned by NBC in 1951, there’s a decent consistency of television operas for about 20 years. Networks like NBC, BBC Television, CBS, and later the CBC lead the production of made-for-TV works like Malcolm Arnold’s The Open Window (BBC Television, 1956), Stravinksy’s The Flood (CBS, 1962), Carlisle Floyd’s The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair (NCE, 1963), R. Murray Shafer’s Loving (CBC, 1966), and Britten’s Owen Wingrave (BBC Two, 1971)

The trend slows down in the 1970s, and stops almost completely after 1976. Since then, only four operas have been produced for TV, the most recent being Alexina Louie’s series, Burnt Toast: 8 Mini Comic Operas About Love, presented by the CBC in 2006.

So, if you’ll pardon what’s perhaps a stupid question: why such a short-lived heyday of opera on TV?

The simplest answer is the most likely, and it’s also slightly depressing. By the 1970s, television sets were a true fixture in the average home; networks were broadcasting entirely in colour, and the TV sitcom had become a huge part of the competition for ratings. With the technology at hand and non-public programming a lucrative business, short, funny shows like sitcoms and talk shows clearly brought in more viewers than did opera.

We’ve written plenty about opera presented in non-live media, because it’s more obvious than ever that people consume the majority of their entertainment outside of theatres and concert halls. When the argument seems a futile uphill battle - that it’s important to keep genres like opera on mainstream media like TV and online streaming services - the question morphs into one about responsibility.

Do television networks, publicly funded or otherwise, have a responsibility to foster underdog-like forms of art by keeping them visible to the public? Are commercial networks like NBC or CBS or HBO free from the responsibility of exposing viewers to what they may enjoy - may learn from, even - and not just whats been statistically proven to get high ratings? What about Netflix or Hulu, which exemplify the sole source of entertainment for young people today?

Or, does the brief history of opera made for television tell us everything we need to know about the public’s passion (and lack thereof) for opera and other genres native to the live stage?

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