An Oral History with Michael Bronson
On August 13th, 2019, producer, arts administrator, and consultant Michael Bronson sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.
This interview was originally recorded on August 13th, 2019.
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.
Michael Bronson, producer, arts administrator, consultant
Six-time Emmy winner Michael Bronson has over 50 years of experience as an arts administrator, arts management consultant, and producer of cultural television and radio programs. In addition to serving as the technical and business administrator for the Metropolitan Opera, he produced the first 10 years of the Live from the Met television series. Bronson served in the Opera/Music Theater Program of the National Endowment for the Arts and on the Management Negotiating Committee for the American Federation of Musicians.
Oral History Project
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Marc A. Scorca: Thank you so much for coming in.
Michael Bronson: It's a pleasure.
Marc A. Scorca: And we will edit this into some soundbites and into a whole. You are only the second person I've spoken to, so far. The first was Ann Farris when I was out in San Francisco. So it's just great to be here. So, Michael Bronson you started working for The Met when you were a young man. We exchanged an email the other day about the year when you began, and you were a young man when you started there. So what is it that brought you to opera? What brought you to The Met?
Michael Bronson: My aunt (my mother's older sister; one of her older sisters) owned a resort in the Adirondack mountains called Green Mansions. And Green Mansions, unlike the Borscht Belt, had a repertory theater providing entertainment for the guests and the hotel. It was like a 500-seat theater with a small orchestra pit. And it did plays, operas, concerts, original musical revues, and when I was like 12 or 13, I started working props in that theater - riding my bicycle around the grounds, gathering the stuff. And eventually by the time I was 17, I was the production stage manager. I did that while I was in college and worked with a lot of talented people who went there. The way I described it was: what was so great about it was: people would go there to fail. And by failing you learn a lot. And so the 10 years I worked there, I worked with writers like Sheldon Harnick and Strouse & Adams; I worked with Carol Burnett, Don Adams. The best known of the opera singers in that period were these two young talents called Tom Stewart and Evelyn Lear who, the summer before they went off on their Fulbright to Europe, were in Green Mansions and everyone in the opera world knows the rest of their history.
Marc A. Scorca: It's amazing to think about the cultural "infrastructure." And I use the word "infrastructure" in air quotes. The amount of cultural activity that was going on in an unorganized, kind of spontaneous way. And I'm sure that wasn't the only such theater in the area.
Michael Bronson: There are only one or two other summer resorts that had that kind of entertainment. Very few of them did operas, plays and revues. Some did revues only. Some did plays only, but Green Mansions was kind of unique in that kind of a structure.
Marc A. Scorca: How fantastic to have Tom Stewart and Evelyn Lear before they went off to Europe.
Michael Bronson: And there are many others. I did an oral history for the Yiddish Book Center where my daughter works, and that went into more detail because of the cultural influence at Green Mansions. But anyhow, because opera was part of the program (for a couple of years when I was nine or 10) there was an outdoor stage. If it rained, the opera was canceled, but gradually it got back into the theater. And so stage managing those operas along with the other stuff was part of the development of growth - my interest in opera - and my father loved listening to music and opera.
Marc A. Scorca: How did you get to The Met?
Michael Bronson: So one of the things you do when you work in summer theater: when the season is over, the first thing coming back to New York, you go to the unemployment office. And at that time, I had just gotten married and my father, (having graduated college just before the Depression), said, "You'll never make a living in the theater and you should go back and get a master's degree." And I was thinking about that on the 104 bus coming back from the unemployment office to the west side. And just out of curiosity I turned to the Help Wanted section, and there was this little ad that said, "knowledge of music and theater production." I called this agency. A week later, I was at The Met for an interview. I was interviewed by Herman Krawitz. The interview was scheduled with his assistant whose name was Henry Wrong, who went on after The Met to run (The Barbican in London) one of the arts centers in England. But I think I might never have had a career at The Met if he had been the person interviewing me.
Marc A. Scorca: And of course, this is on 39th street.
Michael Bronson: This is on 39th street. It was for a job in house management, which didn't interest me. And Herman said, "You're right, that's not a job for you." Because his background before he got to The Met was in summer theater as well. But we both went to City College and he said, "But there may be a position for you, young man." And a week later I got a phone call, was interviewed by John Gutman (Bing's assistant manager) who, at that time, ran The Metropolitan Opera Studio. And I was hired, and started in the fall of 1961 as assistant stage manager and truck driver.
Marc A. Scorca: Let's take a minute, and just talk about what The Metropolitan Opera Studio was.
Michael Bronson: The Metropolitan Opera Studio was a training program that John Gutman and George Schick (who was one of the conductors) started with a mixture of young American singers who were part of The Met roster, but singing small roles and singers that they auditioned, to give them coaching and training. And the studio took abridged versions of operas to schools throughout New York that the Guild set up. So the year that I started, we did 130 performances of Cosi fan tutte without chorus; a piano - hoping that when you arrived at the school that first: the piano worked, and second that it might be in tune, if you were lucky. The Guild set up materials in advance. It was a great opportunity for these young performers to gain some performance experience.
Marc A. Scorca: So it really was a prototype of so many young artists programs that exist today, where you're using young rising singers and they have performance opportunity in school, in community settings. Was there a training aspect to it as well?
Michael Bronson: There were coachings. I don't think it was the kind of training aspect that you see at The Met today or in the other opera companies that have really robust training programs, with language and voice, et cetera. But in that first year, Time Life took an interest in this project and sponsored an eight week tour through the Midwest, going to cities up to the Mississippi. So, the first stop was Minneapolis, unloading the truck at 32 degrees below zero, before global warming. Then in the second year I was with the studio, we added The Barber of Seville to the repertoire. In mid-fall, Herman Krawitz said, "Come to my office, I'd like to talk to you." He said, "I have an opening in the technical business administration," which he ran. "Would you be interested?" And it was raise in pay; I had a young child and I said, "Sure."
Marc A. Scorca: You begin to paint a picture of the American opera landscape more than 50 years ago. And The Metropolitan Opera: the main company did its tour to Minneapolis. You mentioned Minneapolis, and other cities, Cleveland, Atlanta and others.
Michael Bronson: Detroit, Dallas, Memphis.
Marc A. Scorca: And The Metropolitan Opera Studio also was representing The Metropolitan Opera in a more (probably) accessible small city circumstance.
Michael Bronson: Correct. And I think the studio worked for a number of years, and then starting in the '70's when Levine became, -before he actually had the music director title - he felt that it wasn't sophisticated enough in some respects; that the performance element wasn't as important as other aspects of singer training. And so they made this transition.
Marc A. Scorca: And of course you were at The Met in the halcyon years of those big tours and the whole company would go out to these cities.
Michael Bronson: When I first went on tour, the company was still going by train. It was two sleeping in parlor cars with separate baggage cars that only the New York Central Railroad had, so that you could open the end doors so the drops can go in without folding them. And it was a logistical thing to get the baggage cars to each city, get them unloaded.
Marc A. Scorca: So the baggage cars weren't for just people's luggage. The baggage cars were for the scenery and props, which did not travel by truck, but traveled by train.
Michael Bronson: So there was a schedule: if you finish the performance on Monday, the railroad had to know that you were loaded with props and scenery for opera x and it would be on its way, and had to be in the freight yard in the next city by a certain time.
Marc A. Scorca: That is absolutely remarkable. I didn't realize. In my earliest job at New York City Opera, I was part of the national company. And that was all buses for the chorus and the orchestra, the soloists, and trucks. The idea of coordinating that with the railroad company is unbelievable.
Michael Bronson: But the railroad was already fading away in our society. And there was one leg in 1964 that we flew the company from Dallas to Minneapolis, because of a changed schedule the year The Met had a season for the World's Fair in Flushing. A couple of years later Eastern Airlines and The Met had discussions and they were able to fly the company, and we worked out arrangements with a trucking company to haul all the props and scenery around again and that kind of schedule.
Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting that, let's say Dallas: so you were still touring to Dallas in the 1960's, even though The Dallas Opera had been established. And it is the intersection before OPERA America, 1970. And even into the '70's, there was this almost handoff, if you will, from the energy of the touring of The Met on tour into local opera companies: Atlanta Opera, Minnesota Opera, Dallas Opera, Cleveland Opera - that grew up in contradistinction to, and harness some of the resources of that Met audience.
Michael Bronson: Without a doubt. I think the best example of an opera company growing out of The Met tour was probably Michigan Opera Theater when David DiChiera did these previews for The Met coming to town. In some cities the same board leadership became the leadership for whatever grew in the local opera community, in others not. But The Met tour ended I think for several reasons: it became expensive - too expensive for the tourist cities to raise the money to cover the costs. And so gradually, they were having difficulty. I don't remember the exact year, '83 or '84 was the last year. I think also the complications for The Met by moving to Lincoln Center: the productions became much more difficult to adapt for these tourist stages, so the audiences were somewhat disappointed. They'd read a review of something spectacular in New York and they'd come to the 8,000 seat Cleveland Auditorium and it was kind of a flat picture postcard version of that. And that was expensive, and also impacted on what designs you might accept from - particularly European designers, who didn't understand these limitations. So some designers got rejected because we didn't want to build a second production for that particular opera for touring. For one tour.
Marc A. Scorca: We'll talk about it in a few minutes. There also was the media department that you established that made Metropolitan Opera performances accessible on television, and that kind of replaced the physical presence in the city.
Michael Bronson: There's that. There is the economics. I think Met leadership at that point was beginning - particularly Levine and John Dexter...did not feel the compromise, that artistically and playing in these theaters, was appropriate. And now you had television to provide a larger audience with access to the opera through Live from The Met. And remember a lot of the audiences that came to these seven or eight cities that became the base in the '60's and '70's, got into opera because of the Saturday afternoon Met radio broadcasts. And also the impact of the Central Opera Service, which ran the auditions. So The Met had all of these national, if you like, tentacles. And the two years that they had The Met National Company in the early sixties - that was a project really of Frank Taplin and Anthony Bliss. I think partially that led to, the year after The Met opened in Lincoln Center, Bliss stepping down as Board president, because he and George Moore were in opposition and there was a feeling of some board members that the national company was a drain on The Met's resources.
Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting as you talk about the tour and moving things by train; baggage cars that could open from one end so you could get all the flats in. So in production: the concept and execution of productions has become far more sophisticated. In the mid '60's, what was the scenic dramatic value structure of a Metropolitan Opera production?
Michael Bronson: Before I get to that, I'm just going to make a comment about how productions were created; who were the directors and designers, because history repeats itself. So when Bing came in, he was going to revolutionize the staging of opera and actually the first new production he did was Don Carlo directed by Margaret Webster. He had Garson Kanin from Hollywood. And going through the '60's, (I just made a few notes earlier today) Mourning Becomes Elektra was directed by Michael Cacoyannis who was a film director and Boris Aronson, who is better known for his work with Harold Prince and Broadway, for all those years. So having stage directors and movie directors and people who didn't grow up as opera folk is nothing new in The Met's history. But The Met had its limitations. So in the '60's, whatever one was building - mostly drops, flat scenery - but it was also the period...that was true probably in the Broadway theater as well. Designs change. So as audiences began gradually to become accustomed to more effects: projections; scenery with steps; with platforms, with steel girders, - The Met had a difficult time adapting to that in the early '60's because the stage limitations of wing space and storage spaces, et cetera, were just what they were. And you know, pictures - I'm sure you've seen them: of the scenery stored outside in the snow; the warehouse across the street. The space of the new opera house was - proscenium was the same size and the width, but everything moving from 39th street to Lincoln Center looked tiny in the new opera house. That's because of the spatial relationship of the hall. So the assumption that was made by all of us geniuses - that we would have a house that would store the entire season - was a historically poor judgment. But you know, it was (the) best we all knew or did. And gradually, the designers and directors looking at this space said, "My God, I now have twice more space to play with." The best way I've ever figured out to explain the change in volume of scenery and complexity is a study we did in 1969. I'm trying to figure out how do you explain to a board of directors why we have more stagehands. What happened? And so we came up with a measure. It used to be a truck that the transfer company used to take the scenery from 39th street to the warehouses. It was called an Erie rack truck. And for example, La Traviata (that was in the old opera house) was four of those trucks. And the production that opened in Lincoln Center designed by Cecil Beaton and directed by Alfred Lunt in the first week of the new house was 16 trucks. So you can just take that math for all the things - a factor of four or more today. Certainly the hope that the theater could house the scenery for a season was quickly proved to be not true. And unfortunately from my perspective now, none of us in any of the administration's new house (until now) made the investment to find more warehouse space. And now The Met has all these trailers with scenery and costumes, which is not only a cost, but has health and other issues that happen when you open the door to a truck that's been sitting in a parking lot.
Marc A. Scorca: Are there surprises?
Michael Bronson: Yes, there are surprises. So now you have lighting equipment that is automated. You have all this other stuff. The Met is 50 years old, but actually its theater stage equipment to a large (extent) is old and another issue for them to deal with going forward. And I'm sure they are.
Marc A. Scorca: Did The Met really sell out on subscription in those years?
Michael Bronson: When I started at The Met, besides the work I did for the Opera Studio, the advertising, such as it was in that day, was under John Gutman's supervision. So one of my tasks every day was to clip the tombstone ads that were in (then like 10) newspapers in New York and put them in a scrapbook. Those ads did not have casts. When the season ticket sales went on sale in the spring before the next year, the subscribers did not know which operas they were going to have. They did not know which casts. They may have found out through the standee grapevine - the standees who would go backstage and ask their favorite singer, "What are you singing next year? Give me the dates." And they piece it together. There were basically these tombstone ads and that was it. And The Met was selling 80%, 90% plus. 70% of the sales were subscription. And now I don't know what The Met figures are, but you know this from opera companies and symphony orchestras, you're lucky when it gets to be 50%. And then you have single sales, which is more expensive.
Marc A. Scorca: And it is also dependent today on title. And sometimes on cast.
Michael Bronson: But also at that point, the casting wasn't done four years in advance. A lot of the singers were still coming by ship. Europe was still in a way rebuilding. So there wasn't that kind of competition. I remember we used to laugh on tour that Rudolf Bing and his artistic administrative team, Robert Herman and Paul Turetsky, they'd be sitting at the swimming pool in Atlanta with the upcoming season stuff. They were playing with it and the wind would blow. And you'd say "There goes next season into the swimming pool."
Marc A. Scorca: But it could be done last minute like that, you know: spring tour - planning the next season.
Michael Bronson: But gradually as we moved to the new house, people wanted more information. So first you didn't know what the operas were. And then really I think the marketing of The Met changed dramatically after the 1969 labor dispute. And that famous ad, "Strike a Blow for Civilization," which in one ad really brought the box office back and then it's been up and down since, as you know.
Marc A. Scorca: Now you were very early on involved in the NEA. And the National Endowment for the Arts, now a little bit over 50 years old, kind of the same age as The Metropolitan Opera House. You were a panelist. How were you recruited into NEA duty as a panelist?
Michael Bronson: The answer, because it relates to my involvement for The Met with OPERA America. So when OPERA America was formed, it was around the time of the beginning of the transition from Bing to Gentele. So Bing's administration, other than Herman Krawitz, I wasn't too interested in. When it started, I think they gave lip service to it, but in the year just after Charles Reeker and I were appointed to our positions for Gentele, Schuylar Chapin, who was then his assistant manager, asked us to attend an OPERA America meeting at Avery Fisher Hall or I guess it was called Avery Fisher Hall at that point?
Marc A. Scorca: No, I think it was still Philharmonic Hall at that time.
Michael Bronson: I felt strongly that The Met needed to participate, not because we had the same issues to learn from other opera companies, but: as a leadership opera company in the States, we could offer something back to the field and that it was good for us to know our colleagues, both those in the senior positions, but even maybe more importantly, those in other positions because that way as jobs open at The Met, you might have ideas of who you would bring in. And after that initial contact, Schuylar asked me to be The Met's representative. So I was The Met's official rep, the only non-company leader, basically until I left.
Marc A. Scorca: Because you had a long term on the OPERA America board from 1974 to 1985.
Michael Bronson: Of course, the organization was considerably smaller than it is today and was structured really around professional opera company membership only, which worked for a while. And it's really exciting to see how the organization has grown as we sit here in New York City at the Opera Center, which you guys built.
Marc A. Scorca: It's so interesting to hear about the value proposition for The Met back in those years and absolutely having an idea of who's good at their job at another company and who might be rising and someone who could be hired by The Met. And I guess having the OPERA America national platform, the National Endowment for the Arts also realized that you are someone who had a broader view and might serve as a panelist.
Michael Bronson: I don't remember who called me. But besides being a panelist...I just found something a couple of weeks ago in looking through a file up in the Berkshires. A panel that I led wasn't the granting panel. It was an evaluation of new programs or something.
Marc A. Scorca: Those were called oversight panels at the time.
Michael Bronson: But it was during the period, because when I first started, opera was part of the orchestra funding program. So while I was a panelist, we went through periodic meetings of "what should opera be?" I remember one day everyone spent hours talking about, should it be opera-music theater, or opera-musical theater. I think Steve Sondheim was on that panel and he had strong feelings. I don't even remember which way everybody felt. But I met a lot of wonderful people. I think my takeaway as an experience was, which I still think is valid for the Endowment, if you go to sit on those panels, you can't judge the artistic evaluation of a small company in Montana when you're also evaluating The Met. And you have to kind of take the hats off and be objective, but also recognize the value to those communities of what the arts mean at that level.
Marc A. Scorca: The contextualization of it is so important. Even in our own grant making here at OPERA America now, we do try to think about what is groundbreaking in a smaller city: in a community where the opera company perhaps has only done two or three operas a year from the inherited repertoire, stepping into American work. It's different than if you're evaluating a proposal from a city that's filled with opera.
Michael Bronson: I remember I did an onsite visit, which I'm assuming the Endowment still does?
Marc A. Scorca: No there are no more onsite visits.
Michael Bronson: Oh, that's too bad.
Marc A. Scorca: It was discontinued at least 10 years ago. And regrettable. Just as a bit of background, I referenced the oversight panels that annually the NEA would convene field leaders to talk about "the condition of the field" and how might grant programs be adjusted to respond to those conditions. Those no longer happen. In a way, OPERA America serves in that capacity. Then there were the onsite evaluations and the NEA would fly people from city to city to write evaluations. And it was a great cross-pollinization exercise as people got to know one another. But for cost purposes, that was eliminated about 10 years ago.
Michael Bronson: I did an on site. I went to Cooperstown, New York when they were playing in the high school. And Paul Kellogg was obviously there and I remember sitting on the lake at the home of someone by the name of Tom Goodyear who was then his board president, telling me their dream of building an opera house, which at that time was at a site downtown. But it was an impressive conversation that helped write a good report for them cause it was deserved. Although they ended up with a different location and probably a much better opera house than if they'd been downtown.
Marc A. Scorca: I didn't realize the original plan was for downtown.
Michael Bronson: That was the very early stages of it. I just thought for that small company to be thinking in that way was a really positive indication of good and responsible board and management.
Marc A. Scorca: So there you are at the NEA in the 1970's and yes, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince were around the table talking about opera, opera-music theater. What was the discussion like? Was the discussion bold, imaginative? Was there excitement about American cultural policy? Was there a sense of potential? Of possibility? What was it like?
Michael Bronson: I think not just the panels; I'm going to put it in a larger perspective. And I'll tie this to my work at The Met as well. I think leadership of opera, symphony, arts organizations in the '70's really were optimistic. That with the establishment of the NEA and NEH, an objective of getting significant government money as a portion of your budget was a realistic vision. And so when you served at the NEA, there was an optimism about the role that you were involved in. And so there was a level of excitement and commitment to make the NEA work in a way that would enable increased funding to achieve that mission. Obviously the mission has diminished because of Congress and how things have changed in our country. So simplistically, I remember Tony Bliss was thinking that one third of The Met's budget, (financial needs) one day should come from government funding, city, state and federal. One third from fundraising and the other, you know..., I think it's, what is it, a 10th of 1%?
Marc A. Scorca: If that. It rounds to zero.
Michael Bronson: But it was also a rich experience for those of us who were on the panels because of the level of panelists that you were involved with. So, one of the panelists - I haven't seen her for a number of years, but we became friends for two or three years and we'd always have dinner - was Joan Harris...
Marc A. Scorca: Brilliant thinker.
Michael Bronson:...and we'd have dinner. And you'd exchange these ideas about opera or other things and... you miss that.
Marc A. Scorca: The NEA no longer has panels in person. They only meet telephonically and with computer backup.
Michael Bronson: Having just spend hours on conference calls in some labor negotiation stuff with the San Francisco Symphony, it is the most frustrating way to exchange. You don't know who's talking....very hard.
Marc A. Scorca: We could have a conversation about that, for sure.
Michael Bronson: I just want to go back to one thing that really gets back to this topic and my work at The Met. Because The Met always had this national outreach. If you look in the late '60's, early '70's, say at the program in Minneapolis, there were people attending from 45 states and provinces in Canada. I think at the time this focus on the NEA was developing; it is the time when The Met, which always had an interest in media, started to explore the new opportunities for media as part of reaching larger people, as part of the justification for the institution getting support beyond its New York performances for the amount of money that had to be raised.
Marc A. Scorca: In my very early years in opera and my work at the NEA, The Metropolitan Opera was getting $1 million a year. And now the largest gift from the NEA is $100,000 a year. And in those years, The Metropolitan Opera budget, of course, has increased probably three or four times. And part of it, of course, is the fact that the budget has been flat, but the NEA and state arts agencies and local arts agencies wound up creating this enormous arts infrastructure and the NEA just hasn't been able to keep up with what it gave birth to in a very important way. So there you are on the OPERA America board representing The Metropolitan Opera. And I have not been able to find anywhere a photograph of David Baber, our first executive director. Of course our first head of board was Bob Collinge of Baltimore Opera. I guess you knew both Bob and David.
Michael Bronson: I knew David a little bit. I don't have a clear memory of him. I have a very clear memory of Bob Collinge.
Marc A. Scorca: Everyone seems to have a clear memory of him.
Michael Bronson: He was a force who really helped get the organization off to a start. And here you are. I think the next president was John Crosby who had to be persuaded to take on the task. But he ran good meetings. He wasn't the most communicative person as we know, but he was thoughtful and he had great support from Ann Farris Darling. I think the organization did develop new programs and thinking, which I think has been what's so wonderful about OPERA America over all these years - that it has continued to explore new ways to challenge itself and to challenge people who work in the opera field to think differently.
Marc A. Scorca: I appreciate you using the word challenge, because we wrestle here with how much do we respond to expressed need and how much do we actually step outside of that, and challenge people to go in a direction they might not have thought about. That's a balance we think about. I'm fascinated by the founding personalities. Because when you think of the people who started Houston Grand Opera, San Diego Opera: the same fellow immigrants from Europe escaping the horrors of the war, bringing their cultural perspective to the United States. Or you think about someone like Kurt Adler who didn't start San Francisco Opera but molded it; or Carol Fox, a founder of Lyric Opera of Chicago. These were titanic personalities. Glynn Ross in Seattle who we credit as being the founder of OEPRA America. What was it in the drinking water? These were real pioneers.
Michael Bronson: I think part of it may be that they all struggled to start something that didn't really exist. And you need a certain force of personality to move that rock, so to speak. They also had to have multiple skills. One of my concerns, in terms of management knowledge, is that everyone is so specialized today. To run an opera company or an orchestra, you really should have some knowledge of all the elements you're supervising. But it's really hard today because you don't grow up working in that. Just as an example: the department I worked in at The Met was responsible for labor contracts; it was the human resources department; it was dealing with pensions and health benefits; it was dealing with music copyright clearances; it supervised the stage hands and the workshops and was the coordinating team for designers and directors; tours. So we did everything. But again, the season was only in the winter. The summertime you could survive. And today's world's more complicated.
Marc A. Scorca: And in fact, those founders didn't have departments: development, marketing. They had an assistant and those assistants then could become the next generation of general directors because they had done everything.
Michael Bronson: It's also interesting: in each of the circumstances where there was a strong founding director, the different stories of what happened next. Because did the founder leave of their own volition? Or was the founder pushed out by the board? Or whatever. And each of those scenarios you might look at around the country would have a different outcome. And yet most of those companies are still around.
Marc A. Scorca: When you look at acceptable financial practices these days: HR; other issues, certainly a lot of these founders would have been stepping over the double yellow line in a number of circumstances.
Michael Bronson: Without a doubt. That's not part of their history that you want to have on tape.
Marc A. Scorca: The media department at The Metropolitan Opera. So, here we have The Metropolitan Opera with radio broadcasts and a national tour. We've talked about the national company, about the studio. What motivated The Met to say, let's go beyond radio. Let's go to television. What was that like to get that started?
Michael Bronson: So going back to the early thirties when the radio broadcast started. In spite of the difficulty of the depression, the networks were interested. That's a whole other topic, which has nothing to do with The Met or with the arts, but with broadcasting. While that got firmly established then: when it was about to not exist because of lack of support, Texaco was found, (which is a whole other story not for today). But that was around the time of the world's fair in New York. And there were early experiments for television. So even back in the late '30's, early '40's, The Met was involved in some early experiments about television. I think Mark Schubin, who you know well...if you go to his website, he has his whole history of opera stuff and you'll see those early stages. While there wasn't much until the 50's, NBC had its own opera company. The Met was regularly doing scenes on the Ed Sullivan show. So there was a thinking that this new medium would have some legs, if you like. The first real telecast from the new Met was a test with NHK in 1968 of The Barber of Seville, which I think only aired in Japan. They brought their new lenses and stuff, which turned out not to be so new and wonderful. But it was paid for by one of The Met donors. And then the Bing Farewell Gala was televised, a 90 minute version of that two or three or four hour concert. Unfortunately, we only have the edited down version of that in archives, and hope is still there that one day the rest of it will be found. Around that time John Goberman who was then at City Opera and Lincoln Center started the first experiment that led to Live from Lincoln Center, which was a performance of Le Coq d'Or with Beverly Sills. And then they found some more money. John left City Opera and was hired by Lincoln Center to try experiments of doing live TV from all the constituents. The Met was the first, which was a Pagliacci with Richard Tucker. The second one we did was, (I may have the order mixed up, but another one) Tales of Hoffman with Joan Sutherland, Placido (Domingo) and Tom Stewart. I'm going to come back to that experiment in one second. But that showed that you could do the live pickups. Kirk Browning was the director who then did all the Live from Lincoln Center for years in The Met. Tony Bliss and I got a phone call from John Mazzola, who then ran Lincoln Center. And Mazzola and John Goberman came over all bubbly: "We found a sponsor for Live from Lincoln Center. This is good news." So Bliss said, "Who's the sponsor?" And John was over with a smile on his face, and said, "Exxon". And Tony Bliss and Michael Bronson said to them, "I guess the Met won't be part of this." And they said, "What do you mean?" I said, "We have, at that time, 35 years of support from Texaco," and that led to The Met going its own way: not part of Live from Lincoln Center. We thought about doing an Aida in 1976. I think the best thing that happened for The Met in television was that that did not happen, because we couldn't reach agreement with the principal singers, in what we thought was the economic model for television. A year later we went back to the drawing boards about the economic models. What do you pay them? That's when we did La Boheme. We co-produced it with John Goberman's team. We did one more with them where John did not like one of the intermission features that we included, which was a piece with John Dexter talking to kids who'd come to watch all the rehearsals of the Rigoletto new production. And one of the kids said to Dexter, "Where will you be on the night of this live show?" And he said something like, "You know, I don't really think live television is the best way to go for things. Film might be better, but I'll probably be in Charlie's Bar." And Mr. Goberman wanted this edited out and I said, "He's the director of production at The Met. We're not going to edit that out; it's an opinion; it's valid." He said, "But it destroys everything my team has been working for; they will not like it." He said, "I need to speak to Mr. Bliss." I call Tony Bliss, told him what was happening. He went to see Mr. Bliss. The edits were never made. What the compromise was - I think that's been reissued on DVD - I said, "If you're embarrassed for your crew, then your name and my name as co-producers can be deleted." And I went to Mr. Bliss and said, "The Met should do this without Lincoln Center." And he said, "How would you do it?" I said, "We know all the people; we'll figure it out." And here we are.
Marc A. Scorca: So there was the technology, there were some early tests of the technology experiments. Getting the technique down.
Michael Bronson: Which you still do - you learn every time how to do it better.
Marc A. Scorca: At the time that you started it, the reaction to the Boheme was tremendous. I assume that The Met felt that it was a real feather in the cap to have this media department.
Michael Bronson: Well at that time the media department was not a separate department, so I was still at that point in charge of the - what had been called - Business and Technical.
Marc A. Scorca: So I'm talking to the media department?
Michael Bronson: The media department and the business and technical department. So I was still doing the coordination of the shops and the stage hands and the tours. As you say, the response to that was overwhelming. Part of it was because it was new; part of it was because it had two wonderful stars. The ratings never achieved that level again. The next year the ratings were okay relative to everything, but I think by the early 80's, they'd settled down to somewhere where they are now, which is, still from a point of view of reaching a million people through live television, not shabby. The key to that happening was that Texaco was willing to provide the support in addition to the radio broadcasts. So that support enabled us to do what became four and sometimes more productions a year. And led to (because the home video industry was starting at that point) these other opportunities. A total of DVD' s out in the home video market? You know, it's a hundred. I shudder to think of the bookkeeping to figure out the share of income that the chorus and everyone gets. A system that I sort of am responsible for so they can blame me for having started that.
Marc A. Scorca: Media, electronic media has become your specialty, as you consult with opera companies and run with Joe Kluger, the Electronic Media Association. So clearly you believe in the role of electronic media in the live performing arts.
Michael Bronson: Absolutely: for a number of reasons. One is that it's a fabulous archive, in the same way that The Met radio history is, in that you can now see and hear the best singers, best productions, best conductors of the day, for the future. What a great opportunity just for the artists to have the ability to go back and learn. Particularly in this day and age where we don't have much recording anymore. Because if you talk to singers who are in their forties, fifties: when they grew up, they would buy all these records. It doesn't exist anymore from their current period. The other part of it is: how do you get this and the future generation interested in the various art forms?...without a presence in media? And that doesn't necessarily mean full length Met HD-type of production, which is expensive. But using media in any creative way that suits that company at a particular time is a tool that I'm not sure we're using well enough. And it's much more difficult today because classical music/opera doesn't have the presence that it did in the 1950, 60, 70's on mass media. And so the challenge to me is: how do you utilize the media in a way that will stimulate younger people - a new generation to have the love that the current generation does; how to use it to help train new talent, because the technology changes so quickly. It's hard to be sure as you do it, because the next technology may make what you're doing outdated. So it needs its focus. One of the things I sometimes say to member companies (and Joe Kluger says the same thing) "Is electronic media in your mission statement?" And for a lot of organizations, it's not. Would you think of running your opera company without an HR department? You can go on in terms of how few are devoting resources to media because so many leadership positions still believe: "Well if we can't make a lot of money from it, it may not be worth doing." But we lose money when the curtain goes up, so to me that argument is one of lack of vision.
Marc A. Scorca: I really appreciate your clarity about that, because even when I work with boards and we talk about community programs: well those community programs lose money. Why should we do them? And I say, well Carmen and Boheme and Aida lose money. It is a matter of choosing how you lose money that will shape the future of the company.
Michael Bronson: And how you create the program. Because if it appears to be an afterthought, then it's not going to have much energy. In that regard, The Met history is really a good example for others to look at. Not because of its size, but when we started Live from The Met, even if I wasn't thrilled to have some responsibilities taken away from me in the transition that led to when the media department became a standalone. In hindsight, it was really good because it allowed the focus at a senior management level with a staff and a team to do both the television and radio at that point. And one of the things we did in the radio broadcast when we first became the fledgling department was to propose to Texaco that The Met take over all of the distribution responsibilities, which led to The Met getting on stereo radio nationally, 'cause that was important. It was disappointing to see San Francisco have to scale back because they made this investment. And I think part of the reason was there were too many expectations of what that investment was to have in a financial return as opposed to another return.
Marc A. Scorca: You've been chatting about the traditional media: radio, television. We mentioned some of the old fashioned media: videos and DVD. Here we are in the current world of live streaming, of YouTube, of Instagram. I assume that you see real potential too not in just a radio broadcast or a television transmission, but in using the new media in new formats as well.
Michael Bronson: Well, sure. The Detroit Symphony is a good example. Right after their labor dispute - difficult time for them back in 1910-11. One of the resolutions of their labor settlement was a contract that enables them to have more flexibility in how media was created, and as far as I know, they are the only arts organization in the States that has almost all their concerts streamed and therefore it can be stored. So ultimately there's an archive that people can access. There's a huge challenge with the artists and the orchestras and choruses to change mindsets to look at what that means as an investment for the future. As opposed to, I should get paid something because it's my intellectual property or because it's not part of my live performance. That's an ongoing effort for all in the field. In a positive way, those discussions need to continue to evolve; something that will allow the economics for companies to be more realistic in terms of what their budgets are.
Marc A. Scorca: Well, Michael, I could go on chatting with you all day and I'm just so grateful to have this hour with you to capture some of the history but still to look to the future.
Michael Bronson: So I'm going to end with a Bronson anecdote which I'm not sure you know. Before I got to The Met, while I was at City College, I did off-Broadway work - stage managing and stuff. In one of the shows, I was assistant stage manager for Mistresses and Maidens At Home at the Zoo. And the second was a one act play. Leueen MacGrath, who was married to George S Kaufman, was the lead actress. And I, besides my stage managing duties, played the role of an invalid husband. I sat in the wheelchair for 45 minutes with my back to the audience without moving, while she, with a young Spanish guitarist that we'd hired, seduced our wealthy women friends because I'd squandered the family fortune. And at the end of the show, as the curtain came down, I got slapped across the face and wheeled off-stage. And I got a review in the New Yorker magazine that my interpretation of the role of the invalid husband was a masterpiece of restraint. That was the end of my acting career.
Marc A. Scorca: I think somehow that is a moniker for life. "A master of restraint." Well, thank you for not being restrained and being so generous with me in this conversation. I really appreciate it.
Michael Bronson: Thank you.