The Omnibus television program of the 1950s and ‘60s has been called “the most successful cultural magazine series in the history of U.S. commercial television.” One of its most popular and innovative undertakings was a seven-part series—plus a bonus eighth performance—Leonard Bernstein made for the program between 1954 and 1958.
Now the Arizona Senior Academy is presenting those eight episodes on separate dates this summer in the Academy’s Great Room. The seventh, to be shown at 3:30 p.m. Thursday (July 28), is entitled “What Makes Opera Grand?”
In this episode, Bernstein demonstrates what critic John Rockwell calls the composer’s “tangibly clever ideas.” Rockwell adds: The juxtaposition in the opera program of librettos acted in English and then staged and sung in Italian and German by top-of-the-line singers of the era is brilliant.”
Recognizing the special nature of the program, the producers rented the old Metropolitan Opera House and the company’s orchestra to add authenticity.
Originally broadcast on March 23, 1958, the episode includes selections from Puccini’s La Boheme, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Verdi’s Otello.
The final ASA program from the “Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus” collection is a bonus: a performance of Handel’s Messiah with Bernstein conducting the Symphony of the Air and Hugh Ross conducting the Schola Cantorum.
Omnibus was created by the Ford Foundation, which sought to increase the education level of the American public. The show’s producer, Robert Saudek, pledged to “raise the level of American taste” with educational entertainment. It won more than 65 awards, including seven Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards.
Written by Mike Maharry, Academy Village Volunteer