Renée Fleming sang the title role in Manon in the 2008 opening gala of the Metropolitan Opera, seen on Great Performances.
Judith Jamison performs Revelations in 1985; the signature masterpiece of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, it is set to a suite of traditional spirituals.
Sally Kellerman and Jac Venza in 1980 on the set of Big Blonde, an adaptation of a Dorothy Parker short story
Morgan Freeman in The Gospel at Colonus, a performance seen in 1985
Great Performances, or great equalizer?
As it launches its fiftieth-anniversary season on September 16, this PBS series continues to do what no other program attempts — make the greatest live performances available to everyone. Live too far from Manhattan to watch dancers defy gravity at Lincoln Center? Can't afford tickets to London to see plays at Shakespeare's Globe? It's all here — for free.
This democratization of culture began with a U.S. president committed to enriching all Americans and a behind-the-scenes visionary who understood that live performances had to be as spectacular onscreen as in theaters.
That's no mean feat, and when achieved, it can change lives. No one knows that better than soprano Renée Fleming.
"I was in college when I saw my first opera, and it left an indelible mark," Fleming says. "It was Luciano [Pavarotti] and Renata Scotto in La Bohème. That was early enough in my education to really impress upon me that it was something I would hope to achieve someday.
"My voice teacher had us come over and watch at her house," she adds. "It was incredibly inspiring because I had never been to New York at that point, even though I grew up in New York State. I had seen opera, but it was where I grew up and it wasn't on that level."
In 2008 Fleming became the first woman to host an opera for Great Performances in which she also sang. "It was a real milestone for me," she says. And anchoring and performing [at the Metropolitan Opera] that night, she recalls, was "harder than the Super Bowl," when she sang the National Anthem on the Fox 2014 telecast. That an opera star could kick off the most-watched event of the year — and be widely recognized — is due in no small part to Great Performances.
Initially, though, some stage artists were skeptical about how their work would translate to television. One who intuitively understood the power of reaching the masses through the airwaves was violinist Itzhak Perlman, who had first heard the instrument played on the radio as a toddler. His lifelong passion was sparked. At thirteen, he came to New York from his native Israel to study at Juilliard. That same year, 1958, he made his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, playing Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee."
"When I came to the United States, the way I [first] came was through television," he says from his Manhattan home. "I was always into televised events, especially on PBS. Whether it was [appearing on] Live from Lincoln Center or Sesame Street, my thing was TV. I always felt that television was one of the best things that happened to classical music."
As Sullivan continued its long run, divas and dancers jockeyed for slots between acrobats and the famed Italian puppet Topo Gigio. (In 1964, when Perlman played on the show, the Rolling Stones appeared the same night.) In the meantime, educational television did what it could with a scattered network of well-intentioned stations. Still, there was a chasm between those who had access to great art and everyone else.
That changed when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, saying, "While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit. That is the purpose of this act."
For PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger — who joined the public network in 2006, when Great Performances was in season thirty-four — the legacy of LBJ's action informs every workday.
"The reason that LBJ in particular had this notion about the possibilities of public media, when it migrated from educational television to public television, was this idea of uplifting the human spirit and seeing potential," she says. "But he was also making sure that everyone — whether you were in the heart of Manhattan, the heart of Peoria or the heart of Appalachia — had the opportunity to see really great work firsthand. And, in fact, not just see it, but see it in a way that was so carefully presented and curated."
Almost five years exactly after LBJ's signing, Great Performances had its debut. On November 4, 1972, a male mime wearing a hot pink jumpsuit introduced the program as "Theater in America" (more about the show's various titles upcoming). That first installment was a filmed version of a Lanford Wilson play, The Rimers of Eldritch, featuring Rue McClanahan and Susan Sarandon.
The original force behind Great Performances was Jac Venza (who, decades later, would hand- pick producer-director David Horn to succeed him as executive producer). The son of an immigrant shoemaker in Chicago, Venza, now ninety-five, found his calling at a local children's theater. He went on to study theater design at the Goodman Theatre and understood how performances should look. Venza, who also created American Masters and American Playhouse, knew greatness when he saw it.
"There was a need to do a program like this," he says simply. At first, though, "We had nothing but a telephone. We had no studios."
But Venza had experience as a set designer and producer for CBS. And he forged connections with giants like dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, playwright Tennessee Williams and composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.
He even talked the notoriously prickly George Balanchine, founder of New York City Ballet, into letting PBS film dancers for four days to create an hourlong show. He regularly combed regional theaters for ready-for-broadcast productions. The impresario also started buying programs from the BBC, "something innovative that commercial television would never do," he says.
As for his selections, Venza trusted his instincts — and gave Meryl Streep her first onscreen job.
"Great Performances played a very important role at the beginning of my career," Streep said while hosting its twentieth anniversary show in 1992. "One of the first plays I did in New York, a Civil War melodrama called Secret Service, was taped for the series. It was the first time I ever appeared in front of the camera and got paid for it."
Twenty years later, actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith introduced the anniversary show. Her one-woman plays, which take an unflinching look at society, including Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, have been seen on Great Performances.
"The idea of who gets to see, quote-unquote, art, for whom it is made accessible, is something that we're still talking about," she says. "And of course, television had an opportunity to do that better than, say, regional theaters."
Julie Andrews, who hosted that fortieth-anniversary special — as well as many PBS New Year's Eve celebrations — would happily return to do more. She consistently watches and learns.
"It's so diverse and raises so much of the arts," Andrews says.
"And it's so worthwhile. I know that whatever I'm going to watch is going to be very well done, very interesting and revelatory, and educational as well. And that I will have a lovely hour or two to sit back and wallow in something that I might not have known that much about.
"You don't even have to go to the theater!" she marvels. "It all comes to you. And the man at the helm, David [Horn], is such a lovely human being and does such a classy job."
Several others single out Horn, including composer and record producer David Foster. "I was shocked the first time he went, 'Yeah, well, in bar thirty-six, I'm going to the oboe, so make sure his hair's done or whatever.' No! Like, how do you know bar thirty-six?" Foster recalls. "And then I came to find out, of course, he is a schooled musician. A director who can sit in the control room and read a score! Are you kidding me? I mean, this is just golden for somebody like me."
As Venza did before him, Horn constantly attends performances, scouting good fits for the series. On a steamy summer morning in New York's Theater District, he quietly observes a workshop (for potential investors) of a Broadway-bound musical that Foster composed.
Later, over coffee in a Turkish café, Horn explains that he began at WNET in 1979 as a typist. "This was my day job," he says, "because you don't make any money trying to be a jazz musician."
As complicated as capturing any individual show may be, he notes it is a craft. "It's trying to preserve the interpretation that the director has already made," he says. "So basically I take a single video of the show, I take my script and break it down and add all the movement in it."
When Horn confers with the director he'll ask, "'Did I miss this? Should I be on this actor reacting while this person is talking?' There are things that you always miss, and that's where the relationship with the actual stage director comes into play."
It's exciting to attend the plays and concerts featured on Great Performances, but the audience has a better vantage watching at home, notes Neal Shapiro, CEO of PBS flagship WNET, which produces the series.
"As marvelous as it is to be there, you can only sit in one seat," he points out. "You can only have one view. But David gives you six views! You get a sense of different perspectives, yet it's shot in a very intimate fashion."
The benefits aren't reserved for the audience — artists, of course, want to bring their work to more people.
"It's that chance to put your foot in the door," says Judith Jamison, artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "And to invite people in who are not necessarily only interested in, say, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or any other company. Once that door is open, it's like being in the theater as well."
It's a theater where the show never closes, and time stands still long enough for us to appreciate the glory of artists at their peak. It might be Jamison channeling hope through her powerful dance in Ailey's Revelations. Or two icons reveling in the American songbook in Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek LIVE! Sometimes it's two artistic worlds uniting, like the National Symphony Orchestra and a rap artist teaming for Nas Live from the Kennedy Center: Classical Hip-Hop.
From the beginning, Great Performances was different from anything else on television. And over the years, the series has had various iterations — and titles — so even those who star in it or work behind the scenes can get confused. For example, Fleming cites The Metropolitan Opera Presents: La Bohème. Others reference Great Performances at the Met, Live from Lincoln Center or Dance in America. All were on some version of the series.
That first episode, back in November 1972, opened with theme music bordering on groovy. If today's theme music puts viewers in the mindset that greatness is to follow, credit Horn for getting John Williams to compose it. A full orchestra heralds whatever the great performance is that Friday.
"It's not the biggest audience in the world," Horn acknowledges. "It's kind of hard to program." Covering drama, music and dance means that "audiences are different for each one," he says.
"The biggest challenge in my job is having the balance of the different genres, but also the contemporary and the classical and the things that speak to now, and the things that maybe kids out there are not exposed to," Horn explains. "We're hoping that, like when we were kids, there are family viewing habits."
Singer Michael Bublé grew up watching the show with his family in Vancouver, B.C., on feeds from Washington State. In 2008, his smooth stylings landed him on a Great Performances episode titled Hitman: David Foster & Friends. He was already an international success, but Bublé admits he was nervous about the special.
Speaking just before leaving for the airport to launch his current tour, Bublé recalls Horn telling him, "You got your part down. And I promise you, I have my part down. If we both just do what we're supposed to do, this is going to be beautiful." Bublé adds, "And he was a great director, and it was joy, and I became a fan of his for life."
At sixty-seven, Horn would like to retire, perhaps in a decade. There's so much to do in the meantime, including plan a fiftieth-anniversary special, which will air in 2023.
For now, Horn is pleased with the September 16 season premiere. Black Lucy and the Bard is based on the book Lucy Negro, Redux by Caroline Randall Williams, who narrates. Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi composed the score, and Paul Vasterling directed and choreographed. Celebrating the Bard, banjo and ballet, the performance exemplifies the cross-disciplines found on Great Performances, which has won sixty-seven Emmy Awards and six Peabody Awards.
Culture wasn't meant to be the purview of PBS alone. "Channels like A&E and Bravo were supposed to be about arts and culture, but none of them really are anymore — the commercial imperatives don't allow it," WNET's Shapiro says. "So what public television does is to say, "We're going to fill a need, because some of the people who care about this the most are the people who are least likely to be able to support it.'
"Part of what Great Performances can do," he adds, "is to give you those front-row seats you could never afford to buy yourself."
The Power of Performance
Why does Great Performances resonate? Some artists weigh in.
Opera singer, actress
"It's one of the most important series for the perpetuation of the performing arts. These performances are so valuable — they enrich our lives, they teach us about humanity."
"I never doubt that it's going to be anything but very informative, very classy, very well done. It's such a joy to be sure that you're going to watch something like that."
"Great Performances is a vehicle that doesn't exist anywhere else on the planet. It has the kind of programming that, sadly, doesn't get attention from the big commercial networks."
"It's a remarkable gift in our country that we have an educational channel that involves all the arts. I don't know quite where we'd be if you didn't get a chance to see, say, Revelations."
Anna Deavere Smith
Actress, writer, director
"The idea of this wonderful thing coming to you on your television set — and PBS being a part of it — was great and exciting. When I was invited to be a part of that, it seemed like something very fancy to be doing."
"Can you imagine how much it meant for me to be part of it? That was a big moment in my career. It helped to introduce me to millions of people who might not have otherwise known who this young kid was."
"I always believed parents should make their children watch PBS — or any classical show on TV. Going to concerts is very important, but especially right now, it's easier just to tune in, and there's a lot of fantastic stuff going on."
President and CEO, PBS
"The first ballet that I ever saw was on public television. Growing up outside Baltimore, in an area that was not far from rural, access wasn't easy. After I saw that ballet, I wanted to be a dancer."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #10, 2022, under the title, "Best Seat in the House."