What the Radio City Christmas Spectacular Could Do for Opera

Friday, December 13, 2013 - 09:46 AM

Radio City Christmas Spectacular Radio City Christmas Spectacular (MSG)

I partake of a much broader range of cultural offerings than most people would expect of me. This is not a question of “high culture/low culture” as much as the fact that we can learn from, and enjoy, all kinds of artistic expression. I don’t have much interest in big blockbuster films because I find most of them formulaic and artificial. Similarly, while I used to adore Broadway musicals, I now think that most are mechanical and heartless. This great art form is now down in the dumps.

A couple of months ago it occurred to me that I have not attended a traditional show at New York’s gorgeous Radio City Music Hall since the late 1960s, though I do go there for  concerts, including Aretha Franklin’s annual visit (coming in January 2014). But I had not seen the Rockettes since I was a child and they are cultural—and New York—icons at least as much as Beverly Sills or Frank Sinatra.

I bought a pair of tickets for the 11 am show of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular on December 9 and took along my friend Kathy, visiting from California. Kathy has worked at the highest levels of corporate America and is an exemplary board member at several of the most important classical performing arts companies on the West Coast. In other words, Kathy is not your typical audience member for the Rockettes on a Monday morning. But she was game and we went with open minds.

As it happens, most of the show was incredibly impressive, in all of the meanings that word can embrace. A theatrical catch-all to be sure, but one that offers many delights. Most of these are provided by the 36 Rockettes, whose precise and varied choreography requires the kind of abundant talent and hard work that should be examples to us all. They are superb, even more so when you consider that they do this 90-minute show four times a day. 

To me, the show sagged just a bit when they were offstage changing into yet another set of smart costumes. What the Rockettes offer, apart from their high kicks and good cheer, is the incontrovertible evidence that few things are more exciting than human achievement when it is unmediated by technology or (in the case of some athletes) chemical intervention. In other words, no matter how fancy the “tech” is, there is nothing like the real thing.

This has an obvious correlate in opera. When I hear a singer’s voice soar thrillingly over a large orchestra, making beautiful sounds in fantastic music without the aid of microphones, this is more viscerally exciting than all the fakery that computers and other machines can muster.

Part of what I enjoyed about the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is that it was unreservedly sentimental here and unambiguously commercial there. It reflected the values of today as well as those of 1932, when the Rockettes first took the stage. In modern terms, there was the ugly reality of "product placement" in which businesses clearly paid money to have their logos included in the scenery. There was one sighting each of Delta Airlines and of Coca-Cola, and at least three by Chase Bank, which is also listed as a sponsor of the show. At one point, there is a Chase ATM machine on stage left.

Also present, and to my taste unwelcome, is too much 3-D imagery that turned the audience into passive viewers as they saw a bird’s eye view of Manhattan (fair enough, and it was fun) but then a couple of overlong and dull fantasy sequences that felt like filler while the Rockettes were getting ready for their next number.

Conversely, when the show evoked its roots, it revealed ways that we have changed as a society. Apart from a brief message of “Happy Holidays,” this was unmistakably a Christmas show. The “Living Nativity" has the three wise men, the manger and camels and sheep, although the animals seemed curiously sedated. The fact that I could ask myself, “Are they real or animatronic?” actually stripped the moment of some of its magic. Fake animals—here they were real—just don’t cut it. Part of the pleasure of big spectaculars, for young and old alike, is seeing real animals and being aware that even the best-behaved among them are interesting because of their unpredictability.

I don’t recall the last time I have seen four dwarves on a stage who are playing, well, little people. Nowadays, actors of small stature, such as Peter Dinklage or Giovanna Vignola (in the amazing new Italian film, La Grande Bellezza), play complex characters rather than dwarves. The Radio City dwarves (they are Santa’s helpers) are not what is considered “politically correct,” but the show’s unreconstructed values are almost bracing.

A highlight was the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers which, along with the Living Nativity, has been part of the show since the beginning. The Rockettes tumble backwards in slow motion, like 36 dominoes.

Kathy and I both remarked that children who see this show would have exposure to music by Handel, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Victor Herbert, among others. They would have the experience of live performance, of applause, of paying attention to the stage and having their eye and mind go where they want them to go rather than where a technical director would prefer. I think that if I am preparing a young person for going to the opera, I would consider a show at Radio City as a means of learning how to be a good audience member.

As we slowly exited the gorgeous auditorium, I paused and had a thought: In 1930, at the depth of the Great Depression, this site and all of Rockefeller Center were part of an urban development plan that included a new Metropolitan Opera House. That did not happen, of course, though the new Met would come along 35 years later. But Rockefeller Center gave the city a real heart, especially in winter, for which we should be grateful to its visionary designers.

These centers—Rockefeller and Lincoln—were products of a value system that is hard to find now. Places of great beauty intended to present performances to a very wide public while promoting urban and civic renewal are, sad to say, things of the past. Beauty has lost its value and, to some degree, so has enchantment. Which is why much of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular—the human part—caught me by surprise because it warmed the heart the way opera, at its purest, still can.


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Comments [6]

Charles Fischbein from Front royal, Va.

Interesting post Mr. Plotkin. However when you look at the lasting beauty of Rockefeller Center, do not forget the entire enterprise was built without any public money. Radio City Music Hall does not need public funding to continue their shows, they rely on quality performances that the audiences will support, and do not seek increases in New York City hotel taxes to keep their doors open.
A tribute to capitalism then and now. Merry Christmas, God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 23 2013 06:54 PM

Sorry, you'll need to cut and paste the link:



Dec. 19 2013 04:15 AM

While not downplaying the idea of Radio City as a way to introduce children to classical music, I offer my blog. It comments on free and low-cost concerts.


Most are Manhattan-centric, but I do try to include the other boroughs. I'm especially fond of the free Saturday afternoon Bargemusic concerts. And the series at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.


Dec. 19 2013 04:09 AM
Floria from NYC

Very nice article. I used to love Radio City when they had first run movies with the Rockettes show... and with ballet yet, in between the movie shows....live entertainment and film....aaah, that was the best! Did I mention the wonderful reasonable ticket price?????! We're in this technical age now, and the projections and kinkiness seems to be the rule of the theater. And in that vein, I think there is a difference between technical fakery and theatrical fakery. Theatrical fakery (the living nativity, the Tosca entrance of church "people" for the Te Deum, the animals in Aida) were awe-inspiring. The technical fakery (blowups of singing singer's heads, projected fake fire, projected almost anything) leaves a cold feeling.

Dec. 16 2013 11:53 AM
Concetta from Nassau

Fine article, thanks. Beauty is less the norm. We now have a society that exalts the ugly and the tawdry. There is a tv show about a chef who does nothing but curse and throws tantrums. He also does a radio commercial for a bank where he is throwing a tantrum. I remember the Christmas show at Radio City and my two sons loved watching it. Little beauty in the popular culture. I would love to see Amahl and the Night Visitors on tv. It used to be a yearly event on TV. My dear Fred, I could go on and on but you express my feelings so much better than I.
Best wishes

Dec. 14 2013 11:03 AM
David from Flushing

If anything, the Met Opera has been moving away from the use of live animals. The original specification for the stage turntable in the new house included references to supporting the elephants then used in "Aida."

Larger animals do carry a risk. There was a notorious Met performance of "Suor Angelica" that featured a gateway in the background. Several characters had to pass through this portal. Early on, two nuns arrived at the gate with a donkey and the inevitable occurred to the delight of the audience. The performers found the audience to be completely unsympathetic as they attempted to navigate about the stage.

Dec. 13 2013 09:41 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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