What the Radio City Christmas Spectacular Could Do for Opera

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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.