On 23 December 1943, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel became the first opera to be shown in its entirety on television. But the tale of how the German composer’s work came to the small screen actually began 60 years prior to the broadcast.
It all started in 1881, when the great American inventor Thomas Edison – who devised the first sound recording and reproduction device, the phonograph, among other things – set up Edison Machine Works to make equipment for the electric light system he was developing in New York City. Five years later, Edison’s company moved to the small town of Schenectady in upstate New York, where it was eventually rebranded as General Electric (GE), the corporate giant that still exists today.
Fast forward 35 years and GE was beginning to dip its toes in the fledgling medium of television. In 1928 it founded an experimental station in Schenectady, which by 1941 had evolved into the first purpose-built studio for television in the US. It was there on 23 December 1943 that, complete with music, flickering black-and-white images of Hansel and Gretel – the opera that Humperdinck had written half a century earlier – were broadcast by the WRGB station (named after Walter Ransom Gail Baker, a General Electric vice president).
None of the footage has survived, and some of the detail surrounding the event is murky. How was a small company able to put an opera on television in 1943, at a period when the broadcast industry was suffering the privations of wartime America? Why would they even bother, when so few Americans could afford a television set?
The seed for WRGB’s Hansel and Gretel broadcast was almost certainly sown three years earlier, when on 10 March 1940 its parent company NBC hosted the first ever telecast by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Thirty-two musicians from the NBC Orchestra and ten singers from the Met crammed into a television studio in Radio City, performing excerpts from Carmen, La Gioconda, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Rigoletto and Pagliacci. Although New York had just 2,000 television sets able to receive NBC’s ten hours of weekly programming at that period, the die was cast – the Met telecast had proved that opera on television was possible; imitators were bound to follow.
WRGB was the first of these, and conditions for its Hansel and Gretel production would have been similar to the Met’s telecast. A picture of that Met session shows several dozen spotlights beaming light and heat onto a cramped, generic set, where temperatures apparently touched 90 Fahrenheit (32 Centigrade) ‘The lights were so strong, tears were coming from my
eyes,’ remembered Italian soprano Licia Albanese.
Budgetary constrictions meant that big-name soloists were not an option in the WRGB staging of Hansel, which was broadcast on the 50th anniversary itself of the opera’s stage premiere in Weimar, Germany. Instead it drew on singers from an opera workshop two hours away in Hartford, Connecticut. It also made do with a piano accompaniment in place of an orchestra. But the feat itself – putting a full-length opera on a broadcast medium still very much in its infancy – was astonishing, and laid the template for the numerous webcasts, telecasts and cinema relays which are part-and-parcel of the operatic ecosystem in the 21st century.
WRGB’s broadcast also proved that Hansel and Gretel is unusually telegenic, perhaps because its fairy-tale plot and characters translate vividly to a two-dimensional visual medium. A technicolor film from 1954, the Met’s live telecast on Christmas Day 1981 and a version designed for television in 1997 by the children’s author Maurice Sendak are just some examples of how Humperdinck’s operatic masterpiece has continued to attract the broadcast media’s attention. The cast and crew packed into that modest studio 76 years ago unquestionably started something.
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