By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
POMFRET – The world of 19th century German operatic composer Richard Wagner is one that Pomfret resident Peter Fox Smith knows deeply, not just because he wrote his doctoral thesis on him at Harvard College but because opera has always been at the center of his life and work.
“Opera is something that I have grown up with,” said Smith in a recent interview. “It’s been a part of my life from the very beginning, even long before I could remember because it was always to be heard in our house. It’s an essential part of me. I enjoy listening to it virtually every day and, depending on my mood, there are clearly Mozart days or Wagnerian days.”
Recently, Smith faced a new turn in his professional career – one that he said took him by surprise but left him even more determined to continue his lifelong passions of music and poetry.
Earlier this month, Smith’s weekly opera program on VPR – “A Passion for Opera” – was suddenly cancelled. Smith and his colleague, Senior Production Engineer Sam Sanders, established the broadcast in 2011.
Smith had been part of VPR since 1977, hosting “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera,” a program he agreed to transform on behalf of the station’s management team.
“They wanted to change the concept of my program with my willingness to go from 4-5 hours of live opera to one hour of lecture with musical examples,” said Smith.
Yet altering the former “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” from Metropolitan Opera live broadcasts to hand-selected programs of operatic arias and scenes along with the occasional theme-oriented program focusing on a particular artist, genre, style or operative motif, however, did not eventually yield an invested audience, according to VPR Chief Content Officer and Senior Vice President John Van Hoesen.
The decline was based on the Nielsen audio rating by which audiences are surveyed and the number of people listening is estimated, Van Hoesen explained. In the spring of 2014, for example, the average listening rate to opera in an average quarter hour at VPR was 3,200 people. Two years later, that number fell by half, said Van Hoesen.
And, given the statistics, it was still costing the station between $25,000 and $30,000 a year to produce, Van Hoesen indicated.
“Importantly, though, the media landscape was changing,” said Van Hoesen. “As such, VPR thought it would be a good time to conclude the program. We’ll continue to have our own Saturday afternoon program and provide live performances by the opera companies as we have always done. So our work in the community and our commitment to opera will continue.”
Going forward, audiences will hear classical music in the noon hour on Saturdays from VPR Minneapolis partners, Van Hoesen related. “Saturday Matinee” will continue on VPR Classical from 1-5 p.m. each week, featuring “Metropolitan Opera” and operas recorded live in concert from around the country.
“We honor Peter’s work with VPR over the last 40 years,” said Van Hoesen. “We’re proud of having had such a nice association with him and for him sharing his love and knowledge of the human voice in music with our audiences.”
As for Smith, he said he does not feel embittered.
“I left very quietly and have moved on to other things,” he said. “And I’ve actually received some very intriguing invitations that I’m not at liberty to discuss at this time, although they do involve opera.”
Raised in an operatic family where meeting such notable Metropolitan Opera stars and singers included Italian soprano Licia Albanese, African-American mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, American tenor James King, South African mezzo- soprano Elisabeth Connell and even director and publicist Gottfried Wagner – the great grandson of Richard Wagner – was commonplace. Smith grew to become an acclaimed opera expert and respected poet as well as a teacher of opera and the humanities to undergraduate and graduate students.
“When compared to opera, my fascination with words came later in life,” said Smith. “Where opera was part of my life before I was even capable of knowing what was going on as an infant, poetry landed in my lap somewhere
around junior high school. I discovered that I was absolutely fascinated by words, primarily by the way poets use them. The power and meaning they could get with so few words was something I greatly enjoyed. Poetry for me is exceedingly musical – it is the music of words to me.”
Smith has lectured on opera and led music tours in the U.S., Canada, and Europe and produced and narrated weekly radio programs on opera and classical music for over 40 years on the station of Vermont Public Radio in addition to giving poetry readings at schools, clubs, libraries and literary societies.
He has an impressively large library of historic, rare, and contemporary recordings and books on opera in several languages along with complete orchestral scores of many works. He has written “A Passion for Opera,” “North Pomfret Poems,” “Voices of the Millennium,” “A Piddle Doodle Memoir” and “Sisters of Eve” and published articles on a variety of subjects in the Sunday magazine section of The Boston Globe, The Ohio Historical Quarterly, Scribe Literary Quarterly, and the Harvard Theological Review, among other magazines.
Smith was educated at the University School, Denison University (B.A.) and Harvard University (M.A. and Ph.D) where he was a member of the Poetry table of the well- known American poet Robert Lowell and studied elocution with Professor Frederick Packard.
Along with radio work and writing, Smith taught courses on opera and humanities to undergraduate and graduate students and has held teaching appointments at Emerson College, Harvard College, and Dartmouth College where he coached women’s cross country running team, taught opera courses to freshmen, and produced an annual arts concert for years.
Saturday, Sept. 9, was the final program in the series “A Passion for Opera” – and the final chapter at VPR for Smith who presented a potpourri of his favorite recordings. Nonetheless, he remains grateful not only for the “wonderful audiences” that stayed with him throughout his 40 years but also being able to do something he truly loved for 40 years.
“Opera and poetry are the essential ingredients in my life to the extent that food and sleep and water are,” said Smith. “I’m fortunate to live quietly and privately in Vermont where they are just that.”
This article first appeared in the September 28, 2017 edition of the Vermont Standard.