Peter Allen, a broadcaster who for 29 years was the announcer of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee radio broadcasts, delivering Wagner and Verdi to millions of listeners beyond the Met’s gilded and glittering New York theater, died Oct. 8 at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.
A niece, Carol Epstein, confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.
Now in their 86th season, the Met’s Saturday radio presentations are billed as the “longest-running continuous classical radio series in American broadcast history.” Their patrons, widely dispersed rather than gathered in a single theater, are famously devoted fans, tuning into the radio no less avidly than the Met’s season subscribers sink into their red velvet seats.
For the first 43 years of Met radio broadcasts, listeners knew very nearly only one announcer - Milton Cross. He inaugurated the series in 1931 and hosted more than 800 subsequent broadcasts, missing only two upon the death of his wife.
Cross died of an apparent heart attack on Jan. 3, 1975, while readying himself for the next day’s matinee of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri.” Allen, who had trained as Cross’ understudy, took over for that performance and remained for over 500 more. He retired on April 24, 2004, after a performance of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” missing not a single broadcast in nearly three decades.
Speaking to the New York Sun, his successor, Margaret Juntwait, described him as “sort of like the Cal Ripken of radio broadcasting. Cal Ripken never missed a game and Peter Allen never missed a broadcast.” Juntwait died last year of ovarian cancer, at age 58, and was succeeded by Mary Jo Heath. Today, the matinee broadcasts reach listeners on 573 U.S. stations, as well as other stations around the world and on Sirius satellite radio, according to the Met.
While recognizing his indebtedness to his predecessor, Allen said that he sought to distinguish himself from Cross, who retained the floridity of 1930s radio broadcasting long after the decade was out.
“No flamboyance, no phoniness, no deliberately putting a chuckle into my voice,” Allen told the New York Times in 1975. “If I can honestly convey a sense of the drama, in a way that’s intelligible and attractive, that should be enough.”
He saw himself primarily as the listener’s guide to the opera, like Virgil to Dante in “The Divine Comedy,” leading the way through byzantine plot twists, interpreting libretti in a universe of foreign languages and describing the costumes, settings and action for audiences that could hear but not see the excitement in the house. To prepare for performances, he attended dress rehearsals, immersed himself in study of the opera and interviewed other members of the Met operation.
Although many of his listeners were regulars, he had special affection for those who might be tuning in for the first time.
“Sure, there are millions who already know the story of ’Carmen’ backwards and forwards, but each year there are as many millions for whom this is a first-time thing, who don’t even know that ’Carmen’ is in French,” he told the Times. “I want to be ready with plenty of material. And I want to be prepared to talk intelligently about the particular opera being performed, not just flummer around with generalized remarks about the history of opera or the weather.”
He studied costumes in advance, inquiring whether they were silk or silk look-alike, to avoid leading his listeners astray. Describing the onstage props, he took pride in sometimes noticing details that escaped many others in the theater. “Like the cafe scene of ’La Boheme,’ where director Franco Zeffirelli has used real street posters from 19th-century Paris, advertisements for laxatives and lingerie,” he told the Associated Press.
Allen conducted his broadcasts from a sound booth behind the Met’s Grand Tier. He stood at a lectern with the opera’s libretto before him and opera glasses in hand. Also in the sound booth was his wife, Sylvia Lipson Allen, a fellow opera-lover. He said she signaled him when he made the rare mistake, so that he might correct himself.
Operatic comedy, and tragedy, occasionally took place offstage. Once, Allen recalled, he was waiting for the conductor, James Levine, to ascend the podium, while Levine was waiting for Allen to conclude his narration. Allen described it as “a classic case” of “After you, Alphonse.”
During an intermission in Puccini’s “Tosca,” Allen received an enigmatic order: “keep talking.” Only later did he learn that the tenor Carlo Bergonzi had been seized by a coughing fit.
In 1988, Allen had to fill airtime after the commotion when a patron jumped to his death from the balcony during an intermission in Verdi’s “Macbeth,” based on the Shakespeare play. The rest of the show was eventually cancelled.
“There is a theater legend about Macbeth being a jinxed play,” Allen once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The opera carried that out.”
Allen was born Harold Peter Levy in Toronto on Sept. 17, 1920, and he grew up in Cleveland. According to his niece, he took the surname Allen after entering radio.
His career began at Ohio State University, where Allen was principal violist in a student symphony and was invited to play on the radio with a quartet. When the other three musicians failed to report for the job, Allen could scarcely perform the quartet alone. He talked instead.
He was a radio announcer in Columbus before moving to WQXR, a classical radio station in New York City, where he worked for 26 years before assuming his post at the Met.
Allen’s wife died in 2006 after 65 years of marriage. He had no immediate survivors.
By the time he retired from the Met, Allen was 84. “I don’t like to emphasize my age,” he told the Times, “not out of vanity, but I don’t like to reinforce the cliche that opera is for old people.” He wanted to be known, he said, as “just a guy who enjoys the opera.”