Nimet Habachy hosts Overnight Music on WQXR. For seven years she worked at New York City Opera as the Assistant to the Company Manager and was a language coach for French and Italian. A native of Cairo, Habachy has traveled abroad extensively and has contributed to the Travel section of The New York Times.
Tales of an Overnight Classical Deejay
How I faked an accent, lied about the weather and entertained countless cabbies
Monday, October 24, 2011 - 01:22 PM
Scheherazade spun tales for a Sultan for a lousy one thousand and one nights. I spun tapes, records and CD’s for insomniac New Yorkers for over six thousand and one nights on WQXR radio, the (then) radio station of the New York Times. Scheherazade enjoyed only one nocturnal companion, the Sultan Shahryar. I, on the other hand, had a handsome cross-section of New Yorkers on any given night; obstetricians, New York’s finest, the Entenmann delivery men, cabbies and a lot of people with jet lag who weren’t too sure where they were.
Scheherazade’s Sultan had a nasty habit of killing his night’s companion the next morning in retaliation for having been betrayed by his first love. But the wily Scheherazade told such good tales, the sultan had to keep her alive till the next day so he could hear the end of the story. Needing to keep my ratings up on the graveyard shift, I found I could tease the listeners into keeping me company a little longer by stringing out the identification of the piece of music, so they had to stay awake to find out what they were hearing.
Many was the time listeners had to hear a brief history of Tudor England before finally learning they had been hearing Gloriana, Benjamin Britten’s opera on Elizabeth Tudor. If I created an intriguing enough link to the next piece, why then I could keep the listener around for maybe the next offering and the next… Then, Mr. Arbitron, who kept score of numbers of listeners out there, would have to concede someone was there at 4 am and I could keep my job a little longer.
Like Scheherazade, I could indulge in certain powers. Even as she could lull the Sultan with a romantic tale, I could do the same by offering the music of Debussy and Vaughan Williams. Scheherazade could excite the Sultan with a rousing adventure: all I had to do was play Wagner, a sure fire way to keep anyone awake. With diabolical pleasure, I pushed a button and New York slept or jumped out of bed at my command. Heady stuff.
How did it all come about? In 1980, I was “at liberty” but performing as a chorister in a singular production of Carmen playing every geriatric center between Manhattan and Co-Op City. I was reveling in putting the voice lessons I was taking to good use and learning the Bizet score. The population of Seville varied according to who was employed from week to week. Wishing to play my part to the utmost, I concocted what I deemed was an appropriate Spanish get-up, heavy on red and gold bangles. It wasn’t my fault that our Carmen was diminutive and favored beige and that some elderly residents mistook me for Carmen.
One day, word came through the amateur opera company grapevine that the venerable New York Times classical radio station WQXR was looking for women, minorities and languages. I sort of fit the bill: I was definitely female, not blonde and blue eyed and I had French and Italian—or at least an ability to get through Pinocchio. David Vosburgh, our excellent Don Jose suggested I go up for an audition.
I presented myself to the chief announcer, Duncan Pirnie who bellowed instructions and gave me a sheaf of papers – some news copy, some music copy and a lot of commercial copy. The news concerned Mrs. Thacher’s economics and went into raptures about someone’s having piloted the Gossamer Albatross from Folkston to Cap Gris Nez and then there was something about the NFL, whatever that was. The toughest bit in the music was reciting the outrageously international cast of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda with Renato Capechi, Montserrat Caballe and Shirley Verette, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. This last was a real curve ball. But it was the commercials that threw me most—I simply couldn’t thrill to air fares from New York to Tampa/St. Pete.
My audition tape was heard but I was not likely to be heard from again. I came across as too English, the product of an early English School education. June Le Bell, the (then) only woman at WQXR suggested I call and ask to be given another “go.” This I did, but not until I had been to something called Announcer’s Training School and mastered an Eastern Seaboard accent, whatever that was. I came back, and tried again. This time, I sounded vaguely patrician and down right passionate about air fares. I was put on the Reserve List of WQXR.
I got my first air date doing a newscast about which I remember absolutely nothing except that I had no feeling in my fingers by the end of it, and that I couldn’t have been happier. A few days later, I was put on the weekend morning shift which was distinguished by my telling lies uncontrollably. You see, the script said the music would come out on the hour—it didn’t. I found I had nothing to say—so I lied about the time, and with great assurance, played the gong which indicated the top of the hour. Then it became necessary to lie about the weather because I realized too late that I had pulled off the weather in upstate New York near the Canadian border from the monster that was the weather machine instead of the New York Metropolitan area.
When I skulked into the studio on Monday morning, I was sure I was going to be thanked politely and sent on my way. I wasn’t. Instead, it was suggested that if WQXR ever chose to go 24/7 instead of closing down at midnight, would I consider doing an all night show? I said yes assuming it would never happen. A year later, October 20, 1980, armed with The New Yorker, Maxell Tape and American Express as sponsors, I embarked on my first overnight.