On Saturday, more than 300 radio stations around the world will carry, simultaneously, the Metropolitan Opera's rendition of the most famous piece of "galloping horse" music in the operatic repertoire: the "Ride of the Valkyries," which opens Act III of Richard Wagner's opera, Die Walküre.
This exciting orchestral showpiece is often performed as a stand-alone concert work on symphonic programs, and listeners who know where it comes from can build the scene in their imaginations: nine heroic women on horseback, daughters of Wotan, picking up the bodies of dead heroes from a battlefield, slinging them across their saddles and carrying them through the sky to Valhalla, home of the Nordic gods, where they will dwell forever in joy and honor.
The music makes that scene easy to imagine; it is intensely pictorial, full of muscular sounds and inexorable forward motion.
For this occasion, however, "The Ride of the Valkyries" will be played not as a concert piece but as a part of Die Walküre, a complete opera broadcast live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
It is one in a series of 20 operas featured by the Met, on Saturday afternoons (Saturday morning in California) between December 11 and April 22. This is the second installment in a complete broadcast of Wagner's Ring Cycle, which began with Das Rheingold on March 23 and will continue with Siegfried on April 15 and
Götterdämmerung on April 22.
The Ring Cycle which will be interrupted on April 8 by a broadcast of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande will conclude the 60th consecutive year of Met broadcasts.
These broadcasts are a significant part of American operatic history. Many of the broadcast performances are remembered as historic landmarks. Some have been issued in deluxe recordings. They have enormously increased operatic interest and awareness in America and
have provided the original spark for young Americans who went on to distinguished operatic careers.
But What About The Visuals?
Still, in the age of VHS and DVD, we can't avoid the question: Isn't opera on radio just a bit old-fashioned?
Opera is supposed to be a fusion of all the arts: poetry, music and drama, obviously and these can come powerfully through the radio.
But opera also involves elements that must be seen to be enjoyed: dance, stage direction and, in the scenery and costumes, visual design.
So why not put the Met's Saturday broadcasts on television?
The most obvious answer is production cost; for a radio broadcast, you simply hang a few microphones, hire engineers and announcers, and it's no big deal. Putting it on television multiplies the costs enormously not only production costs, but the cost of air time.
The Met and Texaco (its sponsor since the series began in 1940) have been able to present only three productions per year on television.
Radio, Horses and Corpses
But, much as I enjoy opera on television and in video recordings, I find the audio-only experience also worth cultivating.
Take "The Ride of the Valkyries," for example. The music has plenty of dialogue in its operatic format; the warrior maidens sing to one another as they ride through the sky, and a lot of what they sing about are their horses and the heroes they are carrying.
But in two productions I have seen from Bayreuth, Wagner's shrine and supposedly the citadel of Wagnerian correctness, you would look in vain to see a single horse.
The one conducted by Pierre Boulez set the scene on what looked like the parapet of a ruined castle, and the Valkyries simply dragged the heroes' corpses across the floor while they sang about carrying them on their horses.
Another Bayreuth production, conducted by Daniel Barenboim was staged more abstractly and lacked not only horses but corpses. The Valkyries simply paraded up and down a ramp that looked like handicapped access to nowhere, waving spears and singing about the horses and corpses.
It comes across better on the radio for listeners with imagination; the horses are very much there in the music.
There is also a question of balance. Since the arrival of television, our view of opera has changed conditioned by the media through which it is experienced.
In the '40s, Virgil Thomson wrote of going to "hear" Carmen. No newspaper music critic today would
spontaneously use that verb to describe the experience of a staged opera.
Since the '50s, the impact of television has drastically changed operatic production. The stage manager was once largely a traffic director assigned to keep the singers from bumping into one another and the scenery. Today, he often has a position equal to the conductor sometimes greater than the composer, shaping the performance with
his own concepts. These can illuminate the work but often distort it beyond recognition; singers and conductors complain about such excesses, but usually not for attribution.
So without any disrespect to opera videos, it is good to have this music available on the radio and audio recordings, too. These media keep us in touch with what the composer actually wrote.