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East Hampton filmmaker's documentary looks at the history of the Metropolitan Opera House

Susan Froemke's film highlights one of NYC's cultural treasures.

Susan Froemke is director and producer of the

Susan Froemke is director and producer of the PBS documentary "Great Performances: The Opera House." Photo Credit: HBO

Long Island-based filmmaker Susan Froemke launched her career in 1975 alongside Albert and David Maysles with the classic "Grey Gardens," about the mother-daughter East Hampton recluses both named Edith Beale. Over the 43 years since, Froemke has earned an Oscar nomination, for 2001's "LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton," and has won three Primetime Emmys. Her specialty is the performing arts, and she has produced many films on legendary opera figures. But this Friday, a slight departure: Her newest film is on the history of a legendary opera house. "Great Performances: The Opera House" (WNET/13 at 9 p.m.) looks at both the original Metropolitan, on 39th and Broadway, and the Lincoln Center landmark, which opened Sept. 16, 1966.

I spoke recently with Froemke, who lives in East Hampton. An edited version of our conversation:

Why a film on the Met?

At dinner with Peter Gelb [the Met's general manager] — we've made probably 13, 14 films together — we wondered as the 50th anniversary [of the Lincoln Center building] approached whether there was a film idea there. Bob Drew, the pioneer of cinema verite [who died in 2014] had been hired by the "Bell Telephone Hour" in the '60s to actually film the months leading up to the opening [of the Met]. That was a big deal because in those days, the Met was the dominant force in New York society. So we had this great footage in the archives as well as this documentary the BBC had been doing. We thought, let's look at the history. I didn't know the film would turn out to be the history of New York of the 1950s.

The film often does feel more like the history of a city than just of a building or two.

Robert Moses was very involved in getting the Housing Act of 1949 passed … [and] when he did many of the areas that were designated slum areas by him were tenement houses. ... He was able to make the deal to purchase the land [that would ultimately comprise Lincoln Center] and he designated that a slum. In reality, it wasn't a slum but a vibrant neighborhood …[where] people had lived for three or four generations. It was a shock to their system to be forced out.

The press at the time covered the Met groundbreaking — with a dedication by President Eisenhower — as if it were one of the most important events of the decade. Why?  

After the Second World War and in the midst of the Cold War, there was a push to make New York City the capital of the world. Berlin had been destroyed. Paris was just getting back. It was an opportunity to fight the Cold War not in a military way but also in a cultural way, and Lincoln Center was very important in that battle.

Leontyne Price — the great Met soprano, now 91, and who retired in 1985 — hasn't done an interview in years, yet she's here, and you even get her to sing. What was this encounter like?   
I had to write a list of questions we were going to ask her, which I hate to do with any subject … [but] when she walked in she just kind of took it over. We could tell immediately that she was a great storyteller, her memory ironclad. ... She hasn't done an interview in 25 years, because she had this whole idea that when you walk away and go into your private life, you stay private. We later got a DVD made for her, and she called Peter later to say, "I love this. I'm going to put it in my coffin so when I get to heaven I can show it around."

What was the biggest surprise to you about the building of the Met?

It was the chandelier — that its design all started with an accidental splotch of paint that fell on the [architect's plans].

James Levine — legendary musical director of the Met, fired in March for an alleged pattern of sexual misconduct that stretched back decades — was the subject of your 2011 "American Masters" portrait, but not mentioned in this film. Your reaction to his firing?

I was shocked and blindsided by these allegations. I had not heard any of the back story at all. He was so revered — when he came to the podium the audience would cheer. The love for him was enormous. Everybody feels shocked and stunned and probably betrayed on some level.

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