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I Want My MTV

Not even Ed Sullivan could make TV viewers appreciate opera, but "Central Park" on "Great Performances" keeps the faith with a minority audience.

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Deep bench: City Opera diva Lauren Flanigan in "The Food of Love," from Central Park.  

They are singing all over Central Park (Wednesday, January 19; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), beginning at Bethesda Fountain, moseying over to Strawberry Fields, ending up at the zoo. In a trilogy of one-act operas jointly commissioned by "Great Performances," the New York City Opera, and the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, they are singing music composed by Deborah Drattell, Michael Torke, and Robert Beaser for librettos written by Wendy Wasserstein, A. R. Gurney, and Terrence McNally, with subtitles as easy to read as the rhinestones on a velvet Elvis. And I am comfortably at home in my sweat socks, watching it all on videotape, while I wonder why -- with the single possible exception of Ingmar Bergman's production of The Magic Flute -- we are so resistant to opera on film, especially on television.

Talking about something else 30 years ago, Pauline Kael confessed in passing that she didn't know why, when opera singers went into the movies, "the baritones can act but the tenors can't." This is so breathtakingly authoritative that it almost doesn't matter if it's true, like the single joke in Edward Said's 380 pages on Culture and Imperialism. "As was the case in all of Verdi's early operas," writes Said with a wink, "Aïda is about a tenor and a soprano who want to make love but are prevented by a baritone and a mezzo."

There are, of course, many jokes in Wasserstein's libretto for The Festival of Regrets. After a blimp's-eye view of the park, a descent to the fountain, the setting of the stage, the tuning of the Glimmerglass orchestra, and the tossing of a Frisbee from the conductor to a player, there are jokes about facials and psychiatrists, Brearley and Tic Tacs, New York 1 and Evelyn Waugh, Lenny Bernstein and J. Alfred Prufrock. But mostly, as a rabbi on the Jewish New Year occasion of Tashlich exhorts his flock to toss bread crumbs into the fountain, there is ruefulness cast upon the waters, as in a well-bred New Yorker short story -- and Lauren Flanigan mourning her bygone marriage in Drattell's pastiche of synagogue melodies and klezmer blues.

For Strawberry Fields, Torke's music is a lot more pop, tending to the schmaltzy, and Gurney's libretto a lot less witty, verging on the lugubrious, as mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle sits down on a park bench next to Columbia grad student Jeffrey Lentz for what she imagines will be a performance of the operatic story of her life, although it's really a delirium of Alzheimer's. But even here, as Castle and Lentz tour nineteenth-century music among hard hats, beggars, and serpent-toothed adult children, between references to Bergdorf Goodman and Women's Wear Daily, there is a lovely residue, particularly when they compare John Lennon and Giuseppe Verdi.

The McNally-Beaser collaboration, The Food of Love, is the darkest and most anguished of the three one-acters. Lauren Flanigan returns, as a jobless, homeless, unwed mother, with a baby she wants to give away to someone better equipped to care for him. But aside from a moderately friendly cop on the beat, all she finds at the zoo are cell phones, "compassion fatigue," and (a brilliant conceit) a matched-luggage pair of tan-seeking yuppies who wear wraparound sun-reflector shields like military sonar or the mandibles of aliens. If we are tempted to interrupt Flanigan's dazzling performance with the suggestion that she get herself arrested and let Rudy take care of the kid, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Okay, so Central Park isn't exactly Sunday in the Park With George. But I'm in favor of real writers' getting television money for something other than sitcoms about pimples, and real composers' getting television money for something other than jingles about deodorants, and public television's investing in more than three tenors. We depend almost entirely on public TV, along with Bravo and maybe a night or two from Bulgaria on Channel 24, for any small-screen reminder at all that operas are still staged and sung. This mystifies. It can't be that spectacle doesn't work on a smaller scale -- what else is pro football, not to mention pro wrestling? Isn't opera just premature music video?

Ed Sullivan certainly thought so back in 1956, when he entered into his $100,000 deal with the Met's Rudolf Bing. To five different operas on five separate Sunday nights on CBS, Ed promised to devote eighteen minutes each. On the first such Sunday, November 26, 1956, Maria Callas made her TV debut as Tosca. This was Ed's best shot, and it cost him six points off his Trendex. The second Sunday, January 27, 1957, with Dorothy Kistin in Madame Butterfly, Ed actually lost his time period in the ratings. March 10, the third Sunday, a desperate Ed cut La Bohème down to a four-minute duet by Renata Tebaldi and Richard Tucker. That was it for grand opera on Ed's show (unless we count Rise Stevens's singing "Cement Mixer Putty-Putty"). Bring on Elvis. We hear a lot about what television has done to the attention span of the American public. We don't hear enough about what the attention span of the American public has done to television.


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