On the Beat: Music First
MARY JO HEATH, the new Voice of the Met. by Brian Kellow
Research junkie Heath believes in doing as much homework as possible.
© Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera
WHEN IT COMES to its broadcast history, the Metropolitan Opera has prized continuity: in eighty-four years, the company has until now employed only three full-time radio hosts—MILTON CROSS, PETER ALLEN and MARGARET JUNTWAIT, who died last June after a decade-long battle with cancer. Starting with the opening-night Otello last September, MARY JO HEATH, former senior producer of the broadcasts, officially stepped into the host’s chair, on both SiriusXM and the traditional Saturday-afternoon Toll Brothers-sponsored broadcasts. She will be heard on more than eighty performances in a single season.
When I spoke with Heath by phone recently, the first topic was Juntwait. “We all keep expecting Margaret to come around the corner and down the hall,” she says. “We miss her terribly. But we will carry on.” While Peter Allen’s style was Ivy League/avuncular, Juntwait’s voice was warm and friendly, and she loved to delve into the human relationships in the opera, as well as detailed descriptions of the costumes and sets. “I’m going to have to up my game in that respect,” says Heath. “I have all of my History of Costume books out, so I can talk to the costume department.” What Heath looks forward to is deeper exploration of the scores themselves—not surprising, given her background as a music theorist. She wrote her master’s thesis on Madama Butterfly and still recalls the thrill of unraveling the interstitial music that Puccini wrote to get from one moment to the next. For her Ph.D. at the Eastman School of Music, the topic of her dissertation was a comparison of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue. (It was at Eastman that she got her first radio job, as an announcer at the public station WXXI.)
All of this is sure to be good news to those who have wanted the broadcasts to focus more on musical matters. “I start with the score, because of my background and because it jazzes me,” says Heath. “I hope that whatever I can find in there I can put across in a way that will enhance the listener’s experience. I think that, in and of itself, is a little different.”
You don’t have to talk to Heath for long to grasp the genuine opera fever that animates her in her job at the Met. The turning point in her personal operagoing history was a performance of Der Rosenkavalier, and it’s still her favorite. In 1978, she was a student, backpacking around Europe, when she got a standing-room ticket for Strauss’s opera at the Bayerische Staatsoper, with GWYNETH JONES, BRIGITTE FASSBAENDER and LUCIA POPP, led by CARLOS KLEIBER. “I knew Strauss’s tone poems,” she recalls, “but I didn’t really know his operas. This one just hit me in the face.”
Years later, when RENÉE FLEMING and SUSAN GRAHAM were starring in Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, Heath asked to do an intermission feature on Strauss’s orchestration. “It was a really good excuse to sit down in the orchestra pit,” she says. “I sat there listening to the Met orchestra, and it took me weeks to recover from that experience. It was so magnificent to sit down there among them all. Now it will behoove me to go to the orchestra rehearsals, and sit in, taking notes and getting ideas. That’s my job, and that’s pretty cool.”
Heath is a research junkie who can’t think of taking her place behind the mic without having done as much homework as possible. She recalls working with broadcast cohost William Berger on RENÉ PAPE’s Met recital in 2014. “He was doing stuff I didn’t know—like Beethoven songs and Dvořák songs,” Heath says. “So I had an intern put together a notebook of all the repertoire, and Will and I went to a practice room at the Met and had a couple of sessions playing through them. We were ready to roll when the broadcast came. That’s the most fun preparation we ever had.”
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