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From Norman to the Big Apple: Q&A with New York Metropolitan Opera radio host Mary Jo Heath

  • 9 min to read

Mary Jo Heath graduated from Norman High in 1972 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in music theory. She’s spent her entire career working in and around music and now she’s ready to take another leap from  New York Metropolitan opera senior producer to radio host. 

She will become the fourth radio host in company history when the season opens on September 21. 

NTown caught up with the Norman-born radio star to talk about life in the Big Apple, the future of the New York Metropolitan Opera and how she found her place on the air waves. 

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NTown: How did you get your start in music?

Heath: I know a lot about music. I went to the Eastman School of Music and got a PhD in music theory and got offered a couple of college teaching jobs. That was kind of the moment when I said, “you know what? I don’t think that really suits me.” I have a very nice husband who has moved all of the world for me. We moved to New York City and I got into the music business. I worked for the Philips Classics record label for 10 years — two years in New York and then they transferred us to Amsterdam. We lived in Amsterdam for eight years.

NTown: So you would say it was a good thing that you went out and got adventurous? 

Heath: Yeah. I got lucky because you never know. And then the record companies all folded, we moved back to New York, and I started working at an internet company called getmusic.com and I was head of their classical music site. That lasted for two years and I got laid off for a second time. I had worked at a radio station in Rochester when I was at Eastman, so I started working at a radio company in New York City.

NTown: How do you start working in radio?

Heath: When I was in graduate school in Rochester, there was a sign up on the bulletin board in the main hall that said that a local public radio station (this was in the early 80s) was looking for part-time announcers to do weekend shifts and fill-ins. So I called them up and they told me to come over and do an audition. They had you do a list of stuff, names of composers, stuff like that. This guy had the philosophy that if you were going to be in classical music radio, either you know classical music and they can teach you the radio part, or the other way around. If you come into that with neither one of those, you have a long way to go. 

I was just a music student and I came in and started working. I really liked it and I had a hang for it. I did that for the whole six years I was in graduate school and I moved back to New York. I sent my stuff into the radio station of the New York Times, WQXR, and lo and behold, they hired me as a fill-in person. 

So, I did that until I got the Philips Classics job and did other things. When the internet job fell through, I went back to my friends at WQXR, I knocked on the door and they put me back on their fill-in roster. It’s the thing I kept coming back to a lot. Once radio gets into your blood and you really like it, it’s really hard to let it go. So, when the Met decided to redo their broadcasts and were looking for a senior radio producer, I was just lucky I had all the right mix of experience and skill. They needed a lot of writing in this job and they wanted to see some writing. 

One of the things I had done in the interim was the music critic for the Greenwich, Connecticut newspaper and I had done a lot of feature articles and music concerts. I had already kind of written about music in every sort of way except for that until then. 

I had written academic, marketing and promotion, but I had never been a critic. This was my chance to see what that was like. 

NTown: What was your reaction when you got the job? How did they tell you? Did they call you?

 

Heath: I had three different interviews. One was with the president of the company, and I had a feeling that it might be going my way. But I was surprised, shocked and delighted and it was a “be careful what you wish for” moment because I got this job, and now I have to do it. I felt so lucky. For the first two years, walking under the sign that says Metropolitan Opera Stage Door,  I thought to myself, this is where I am coming to work everyday. 

It is still very special. I get to hear the greatest opera singers in the world. I get to hear what is acknowledged as the greatest opera orchestra in the world. If you have studied music all of your life, you love music. How cool is that? We revamped the broadcast and we got to reinvent it along the way. We put together some rodeo shows because we have our own broadcast on Sirius.

NTown: Well, there’s a lot more to radio these days, right? A lot of extra work?

Heath: Yes. It was about 70 hours a week the first couple of years until we got things on the road and settled down. We started doing an hour long monthly show on Sirius and that was 40 extra hours when we did that. There is always something more to keep us entertained.

NTown: When did you officially start?

Heath: My first broadcast will be opening night of this season as official host.  I came on board on early September, 2006, as the senior radio producer. We launched the Metropolitan Opera Radio on Sirius on opening night of that season three weeks later. That season was major invention time. Instead of just a host, there was a host and a commentator, interviews backstage, like sports coverage, and I love sports. 

I kind of had the right combination of radio classical music and passion of sports. We were figuring out what the host’s role should be and what the commentator’s role should be. We tried a lot of different commentators to find the right one. We now have one for Saturdays and a different one of the Sirius broadcasts. 

NTown: This is fascinating to me. You would never think opera and sports radio would have a Venn diagram to share.

Heath: A few summers ago we spent a day at ESPN radio. I guy I worked with back at WQXR 25 year ago was a sales guy and is now president of ESPN radio. We called him up and said that we wanted to spend the day watching what they do and see what we can learn. It was great. The thing we came away with was, we asked them how they gear how they talk. 

Who are they talking to? He said, on a scale from zero to 10, zero being a newbie and 10 being a guy who knows every stat, every ball player, we shoot for about a six and a half. 

That’s how we try to gear how we talk. There is some knowledge but not everything. My husband likes opera, likes to go see operas, but he doesn’t know a lot about it. We don’t want to leave him behind. You have to have something that will keep the nerdy people who know everything happy, but you want to make the zeros feel like they are invited too. We are going for about a seven. 

We use musical terms like colaratura but we will use it in context so that if you don’t know what it means, you can figure it out. The tone of our talk is like you are sitting in the opera house and having a really interesting conversation. 

So, we changed from the former, one man with a deep voice talking, into what radio sounds more like today. It was very cool that I was the producer who got to do that.

NTown: So switching from producer to host, who did you get as producer?

Heath: We are looking for one now. They figured they should announce me as host before advertising the job. Insider people in New York may have wondered what was happening to me when the host job was posted. 

NTown: Will you get some approval on that?

Heath: I will be involved in the process of chatting with them.

NTown: In radio, it’s more like a teammate thing, rather than the producer being your boss, right?

Heath: Exactly. I have done about a thousand broadcasts as a producer. I’m sitting there with my headphones on, I’m in touch with the stage, I have four timers running, I know how far we are in, how far we have to go, there’s an eight minute stage call where we can check reality, I have to make sure we stay on time along the way. 

There’s a whole plan. We have to have somebody who can catch on to stuff like that. I also have to start relinquishing control a little bit. Margaret was my colleague I am replacing who died in June. She battled ovarian cancer for nine years.

Last year I hosted about two thirds of the season while she was gone. I was doing both jobs as producer and host for a lot of last season. We have a couple of really good freelancers who would take turns coming in and sitting in the producer chair, but I was still preparing all of the broadcast material. 

NTown: Who was the original host?

Heath: Milton Cross was from 1931 to the 1975 and then Peter Allen did it from 1975 to 2004. Margaret took over from there. 

NTown: You started working there in 2006. You got to spend the last few years with Margaret. Did you have a close relationship with her?

Heath: Oh yes. We spent 50 hours together a week. 

NTown: Was it a bittersweet experience to take over her job after she passed?

Heath: Bittersweet with mixed emotions. I would have been very happy to continue as Margaret Juntwait’s producer and retire as that. When she went out, I sat in for her with great pride. She was my friend. It’s not the way you would want to get a job, but I am now psyched and ready to go. 

NTown: On some level, it’s kind of like being a Supreme Court Justice. You stay in the job forever.

Heath: They do. One of my friends asked if I would stay in that chair for as long as Milton Cross. I said, “I don’t think they will want me in this chair when I’m a hundred years old.” 

If I get 10 years in, I will feel like I did really well. But really, I thought I had my dream job already, frankly, but I guess the dream changes sometimes. It’s going to be really exciting for it to be mine. 

NTown: What do you think your legacy will be years from now?

Heath: It’s probably too early for me to say that. Margaret’s strengths were that she was such a wonderful human being and her warmth came over so well. 

She was so good at describing the human struggles that were going on amongst all the characters in the operas. She was always great at describing the sets and the costumes. People love to hear that. 

NTown: Once again, like sports radio, there is a play-by-play describing everything that is going on.

Heath: Well, we know how the opera is going to end, so we don’t have that going for us. Sports do. So we have to talk about the story, the struggles, what the composers are trying to do, how the music is different in this opera from another opera the same person wrote. 

We have two-minute features we do at the top of the first intermission called Time Capsules and starts with an opening line that describes the time when the opera was premiered. We pick some top things that can connect it with what was going on in the world. 

People love those things. It also makes us look like we do acknowledge the outside world. Putting that together was one of Margaret’s strengths. Probably what’s going to make me different is that I come at this through a score, since I have all of this background in music theory. 

For me, when I look at an opera, I look at the score, read the history and the background of the opera, I make notes and approach it that way. I come at it from a musical angle and she came at it through the characters and the feelings. 

Sometimes I listen to it with the score and notice that there is something kind of funky harmonically during a few pages. I sit at the piano and mess with it. If I tell the commentators about it, they always find something cool about what is going on in the story during that time. Both of the commentators are great and they know the operas really well. 

NTown: Outside of the Sirius channel, how can people listen to the broadcasts?

Heath: On Sirius, people can hear two or three broadcasts a week. One of those every week we stream for free on the Met website. Come December, the Saturday matinée broadcasts will start. They are carried locally from the classical station out of Edmond. 

NTown: Any thoughts on being back in Norman? Do you ever miss home? Is this home to you?

Heath: Norman still feels like home. I have been here every year at least once since I moved to New York in 1981. My husband is from Seminole and I am from Norman. 

The reason I am here right now is because my daughter is starting her freshman year at OU. She applied and got into a lot of schools on the East Coast. She wanted to go to OU because she said that Norman feels like home to her. How could I argue with that? 

I will be coming back in October for homecoming since I have some time off from broadcasting. I have been to all of my Norman high school reunions. I really enjoy coming back. I did an interview this last winter with Kelly O’Hara when she did her Metropolitan Opera debut and toward the end, we had a segment about how we are both obnoxiously proud to be from Oklahoma. We are holding up the flag in New York City.

Mack Burke

mburke@normantranscript.com

follow me @TranscriptNTown

Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.