17 October 2007

Leave It to Diva

America’s Favorite Redhead starred
in the zany sitcom I Love Lucia

Nowadays opera on American television is pretty much relegated to specialty channels on cable; in the early days of television, however, opera lent distinction to all kinds of programming. Among the best-known examples, Ed Sullivan’s weekly variety program featured some of the greatest singers of the day; Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood presented an original opera for children each season. Excerpted scenes and complete operas regularly turned up on prime time on the networks, whether on omnibus shows such as, uh, Omnibus, special-event programs, or series such as Live from Lincoln Center.

The success of these shows led the networks frequently to incorporate opera into all kinds of programming.

Among the most popular shows, M*U*S*H was Joan Sutherland’s weekly lesson in diction for aspiring singers. On The Beverly Sillbillies, a streetwise New York singer adjusted to life in Southern California. My Mother the Carmen starred Nicholas Surovy and Risë Stevens. A renowned singer was delighted to discover that her new roommate was a great big ol’ fan who already owned most of her albums, and some of her old costumes, in Will and Grace Bumbry. And a young composer joined the Los Angeles police force in Adamo-12, equipping his patrol car with a twelve-tone siren.

With imaginative use of puppets, animation, songs and games, Sesame Stratas taught children the fundamentals of the Greek alphabet and an understanding of Kierkegaard. Recurring characters included Big Homeless Bird and Oscar the Manic-Depressive, and favorite songs were “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others (Because It’s Dying of Malnutrition),” “Who Are the Tubercular People in Your Neighborhood?” and “Let’s Count All the Rats in the Basement.”

A number of game shows had operatic themes. In the hit Miss Price Is Right, only Leontyne knew the answers; Irene Dalis was the trophy each afternoon on Bowling for Dalis.

But opera wasn’t necessarily the key to game-show success. Bjoerling for Dollars was dismissed as a rank imitation; Who Wants to Be a Milanov? foundered for lack of sponsors. Let’s Make a Delius offered contestants the chance to win an English composer almost nobody had heard of; most preferred to take their chances on an alternate prize, behind Door Number Two.

Opera failed to make much of a dent in the popular Western genre. Such worthy efforts as Nathan Gunn’s Smoke, The Virginiazeanian, Bonazzi Bonanza, and The Lone Arranger failed to find an audience.

Among other fondly remembered opera-themed shows were:
Eight Is Godunov
Father Knows Bastianini
Lohengrin Acres
Parsifal My Children
Allein! Weh, Ganz Allein the Family
The Six-Million-Dollar Manon
Touched by an Alagna
The Dick Van Dich, Teure Halle Show
The Mary Tyler Morrò, Ma Prima in Grazia Show
The Taddei Show
Here Come the Bartered Brides
Where in the World Is San Diego Opera?
Charlie’s de los Angeles
Bridget Loves Bernheimer
Golden Girls of the Golden West
Petticoat Juntwait
Sex and the City of Kitezh
Laverne and Shirley Verrett
Walküre, Texas Ranger
Welcome Back, Hotter
Family Thaïs
Voigt’s My Line?
Lost in Speight
In Levine Color
Zajick the Night Stalker
Upshaw’s, Dawn Stares
Monty Python’s Flying Cerquetti
Are You Being Served the Head of Jokanaan on a Silver Platter?
Amos ‘n’ Angelotti
Have Goerne, Will Travel
Saturday Night Livengood
Chico and the Manrico
Voyage to the Bottom of the C-Flat
Sanford and Sonnambula
Battlestar Gheorghiu
My So-Called Liebestod
Gilligan’s Eileen Farrell
Saved by the Bellini
The Other Kind of Sopranos

And of course, the unforgettable Six Feet Under Jane Eaglen.