NEW YORK (AP) — Resplendent in a plaid turban, green cowl-neck muffler, pearl necklace and silver-ridged earrings, an icon of opera sits in a straight-back chair and reminisces about her career.
Leontyne Price (who turned 90 after this interview was conducted) is astonishingly precise in her memory as she discusses opening the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 and making a historic debut at the old Met five years before that.
Price is the unquestioned star of a documentary by Susan Froemke that blends operatic and architectural lore with an overview of New York's social and political history in the 1950s and '60s.
"The Opera House," a two-hour film with a soundtrack from the Met's own archives, will be broadcast to movie theaters worldwide Saturday as part of its "Live in HD" series.
Froemke said she didn't know what to expect when she went to the Baltimore area where Price now lives for the interview early last year.
"Nobody knew what her memory would be like," Froemke recalled. "But the moment she walked in the door, she was just on fire. It would have made a great opening because she went right over to the mirror and began to perfect her makeup."
Once settled into her chair, Price chatted for 2½ hours. "She has an ironclad memory," Froemke said. "I mean every one of the stories she tells, she remembers the nuanced details of everything that happened to her related to the opening, or her debut.
"The hardest part was not laughing because she's so humorous," she said. "She grew up in Mississippi and so she's got this oral tradition of being a great storyteller and her wit is just killing."
Price, whose debut in Verdi's "Il Trovatore" in 1961 launched her as one of the first African-American singers to become a leading artist at the Met, is also heard singing in the film. There's a snippet from her farewell performance in Verdi's "Aida" in 1985, and a passage from Verdi's "Requiem" to accompany stills of the demolition of the old Met at 39th Street and Broadway. And she's heard in brief excerpts from Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra," the ill-fated world premiere that opened the new house.
But there's far more to the film than Price. Among the other topics and personalities:
—Razing an entire neighborhood. Several blocks of tenements that were home to thousands of people were bulldozed to make room for Lincoln Center at the behest of Robert Moses, the city's development czar. Froemke sees it as "the beginning of his downfall. ... People began to realize that when you annihilate an entire community in the name of progress, that's a pretty big price to pay."
—Cold War rivalry with the Soviets. The creation of a new performing arts center became a propaganda weapon — a way of showing that America stood for more than capitalist materialism. Froemke said the bankers and society moguls who made up the Met's board "wanted to make New York the cultural capital of the world and they saw this as their opportunity. Berlin was destroyed, Paris was having a very difficult time, London had been pretty much destroyed."
—Wallace Harrison. The new Met's chief architect wanted to build a daringly modernist house, "almost like something out of space," Froemke said. But "his dream didn't get achieved," she said, because of opposition from a cost-conscious and traditionalist Met board and from the architects assigned to other buildings at Lincoln Center who didn't want the Met to overwhelm their designs. In particular, Froemke said, Philip Johnson, architect for the New York State Theater, "was so incredibly jealous of Harrison's reputation and his connections to society that he fought him all the way."
—Rudolf Bing. The Met's imperious general manager is captured in all his dapper elegance thanks to archival footage shot by cinema verite pioneer Robert Drew for the Bell Telephone Hour. (Froemke's team also obtained historical photos and video from The Associated Press and other news organizations.) Drew's film takes the viewer inside the house during rehearsals for "Antony and Cleopatra," where we see the Met's new turntable break down under the weight of director Franco Zeffirelli's grandiose staging and then watch Price get trapped inside a giant pyramid during the dress rehearsal.
WHERE TO SEE IT
"The Opera House" will be screened Saturday at 12:55 p.m. Eastern, with repeat showings on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 12:55 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. A list of theaters can be found at the Met's website: www.metopera.org/hd.