Remembering Broadcaster Peter Allen

Friday, October 14, 2016 - 12:53 PM

Peter Allen inside the Met Opera radio booth (courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives)

I was in Venice last Saturday when I learned that Peter Allen — the beloved announcer of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts for 29 years — had died that day at the age of 96. Peter’s birthday was on Sept. 17, and I had sent greetings prompted by wonderful memories of him that readily returned this week.

Peter had been at WQXR from 1947 to 1974, and was the standby for Milton Cross, who had hosted more than 800 Saturday afternoon Live from the Met radio broadcasts. Cross died suddenly on Jan. 3, 1975, and Peter stepped in and hosted the next day’s transmission of L’Italiana in Algeri starring Marilyn Horne. I was a college sophomore home for the holidays, set to tune in because I love this Rossini opera (now onstage at the Met through Oct. 29, starring Marianna Pizzolato conducted by James Levine, and not to miss). Peter's voice was rich and smooth and the delivery cordial and less stentorian than his predecessor’s and immediately listener-friendly.

Cross had a style and delivery that was very "Old Met," much like Francis Robinson (the Met’s press and tour director and frequent guest on the broadcasts) and Edward Downes, who hosted the “Texaco Opera Quiz” for many years. They conveyed to listeners in North America a feeling of the Met as a grand, august temple of the lyric art that presented the greatest stars in glorious productions. Although the Met was indeed grand (and still can be), it has always been more egalitarian than is assumed. These weekly radio broadcasts were a big part of that openness.

Peter took the announcer’s chair at a time when opera had many big stars and a devoted listening audience that would become more international. But he innately understood that the times were changing and opera should be special without seeming forbidding. Peter was your friend at the opera each Saturday, sharing what was going on rather than making you feel that it was only something for posh New Yorkers that you (a listener in some remote place) were very lucky to share. With Peter it was "we are enjoying this together."

His naturalness and expertise were the result of scrupulous preparation. I first met Peter in 1979 when I was studying broadcasting and arts reporting at Columbia University. He kindly shared his approach with me, explaining how he would attend rehearsals to familiarize himself with the sound of the voices and details of costumes and scenery. He never took short cuts and always prepared for the return of each production even if he already knew it. Things change in live radio and live opera, he reminded me, and you cannot describe something that might not actually be happening. He made very few on-air errors and, when he did, his loving wife Sylvia (who was always with him at the broadcasts) would gently hand him information about the error and he would smoothly correct it.

Three years after I met Peter I became performance manager at the Met. Part of my job, after working late on a Friday evening, was to come in very early Saturday for a long day, including the afternoon broadcast of an opera and then the turnaround and presentation of a different opera in the evening. Peter and Sylvia were always there early, calmly but attentively preparing for the broadcast. They worked with staff in the Met media department and I would always have a brief visit with the Allens during my house check.

A key difference between Met radio broadcasts then and now was that the announcers now are on a high floor in a studio where they watch the proceedings on a video transmission. They are not seeing the actual performance. Milton Cross and Peter worked in a broadcasting booth inside the auditorium on the Grand Tier with thick windows that prevented their speaking from being heard by ticketholders only a few feet in front of them. Peter stood at a podium, reading his notes but also watching the action live on the stage through binoculars. This enabled him to pick out details that he would describe and also, when necessary, to report in real time unexpected things that might be happening.

Although the Met broadcasting staff were (and are) highly professional and able to deal with most unforeseen developments, the broadcasts are a combination of live radio (subject to the variables of weather and technology) and live opera performance, where anything can happen. It is different from listening to WQXR broadcast from our studios, where the announcers don’t have to deal with sudden occurrences such as a breakdown of scenery that could delay the start of an opera or bring a performance to a sudden halt.

I recall one time I was on the "Opera Quiz" and host Edward Downes mistakenly ended it much too soon and said, in effect, “And so ends today’s 'Opera Quiz.' This is Edward Downes in List Hall handing you back to Peter Allen in the broadcast booth.” List Hall is beneath the orchestra level on left side of the opera house. We panelists were stunned because we knew the quiz had ended prematurely. But we heard Peter calmly say, “Thank you Mr. Downes,” and then begin talking about the day’s opera, Parsifal, as if nothing had happened. I knew he had enough material to cover the six or seven minutes he had to fill in.

But then a bigger problem arrived: A breakdown in the stage equipment meant that the stage manager informed us that Peter would have to extend indefinitely after he had already had to jump in early to fill the gap from the early conclusion of the quiz. Peter told the listening audience that there would be a delay in starting the next act because of a scenic problem and spoke live to millions of listeners for more than 15 minutes about every detail of Wagner’s last opera as well that day’s production and cast. It was a master class in broadcasting professionalism but also attested to Peter’s commitment to careful preparation, constant study and not cutting corners. The erudition he deployed that day was not related to the preparation he did for that particular Parsifal but to his life’s work.

Peter Allen taught me many priceless lessons about work and gave pleasure to millions of people for a very long time. He leaves a glorious legacy. Listen to some of Peter’s recollections on WNYC’s Soundcheck following his retirement from the Met in 2004:

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Comments [1]

Hendrik Sadi from Yonkers, NY

I remember hearing Milton Cross's formidable, sonorous voice during WQXR's Saturday afternoon opera broadcast from the Met. When he suddenly passed away, I was worried who would replace him.
When Peter Allen came on to replace him, I was relieved, hearing a similar, formidable voice.

WQXR don't have that kind of a voice now. A voice that is easy to listen to and makes you feel the announcer knows all there is to know about opera and classical music and loves it.

Oct. 17 2016 10:08 AM

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