Friday, January 7, 2011

How We Program the Sunday Opera Matinee

Longtime listeners to WTJU's Sunday Opera Matinee ask us, "How do you decide what to program?" Our signature is programming unfamiliar works, sometimes by unfamiliar composers. We tend to limit the number of works from the standard repertoire because opera lovers can see those works on stage, either live or via broadcast, fairly frequently. The world's major opera companies tend to program works from the standard repertoire because those are the works that sell the most tickets. Moreover, singers are reluctant to learn new roles for the stage of works that are unlikely to be staged elsewhere. We are not constrained by having millions of dollars of costs, both fixed and operating, as major opera companies are. So we take advantage of the flexibility to present lesser known works.

The paramount consideration in the programming decision is whether our listeners will enjoy and appreciate the work and the performance. There is no point in programming a performance of any work that is dull, unimaginative, or poorly performed, especially if the work has little to recommend it musically. Given the choice between programming Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) or Carmen, we tend to favor The Pearl Fishers, not because it is a better work than Carmen (far from it!), but because many of our listeners will get to hear this work for the first and perhaps the only time. But we will only program The Pearl Fishers when we can find a performance that merits being programmed.

Sometimes we like to introduce listeners to a composer whose works have been largely forgotten. An example is Eugen D'Albert's Tiefland. The work is unique in being the only example of German verismo opera that remains in the repertoire. D'Albert is a largely forgotten composer, but Tiefland remains tenuously in the repertoire, especially in Germany, and it needs to be heard and appreciated more widely.

Some works, despite their musical and/or dramatic flaws, are redeemed by a great performance. Massenet's Esclarmonde, while not the composer's best work, was taken up and recorded by the great Joan Sutherland. Hearing her sing this music about as well as it can be sung merits its being programmed and enjoyed by a wider audience.

Occasionally we encounter a work, either in a staged performance or in a recording, that is so compelling that we must program it, even if it is not familiar to most opera lovers. The live recording of Wagner's early opera Rienzi from Munich with Rene Kollo in the title role and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting is so compelling that it cried out to be programmed. Deutsche Oper Berlin's production from 2009-10 was so good that we just had to share this flawed but compelling work with those of our listeners who could not see the production live.

Occasionally we will get a request from a listener that inspires a programming decision. A listener asked to hear the great 1953 recording of Tosca with Maria Callas in the title role. We are never jaded, but sometimes we overlook recordings of works that are familiar to us, but that will be heard by many listeners for the first time. Everyone must hear (and see) La Bohème for the first time, not to mention hear Callas sing for the first time.

We do not just program our favorite performances of best-loved works (we went through all of them years ago!), but we do program performances that both entertain and inspire. It takes a lot of work to prepare a presentation for broadcast, but nothing could be more fulfilling than to have a listener tell us how much he or she appreciated being introduced to a new work or a new performance. We've been doing that for two decades, so tune in on Sunday afternoons at 2 P.M. and enjoy! If you have a suggestion or comment, don't hesitate to call us when we are on the air at 924-3959 or email Our Sunday Opera Matinee schedule may be found at our website,

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