Live from the Met

Ben Cameron tackles the tough trivia on the Texaco Opera Quiz

You got your Price is Right, your Wheel of Fortune, your Jeopardy. But these pop-culture game shows don't hold a candle to America's longest-running game show, the Texaco Opera Quiz. Broadcast live around the globe during the Saturday matinee of the Metropolitan Opera, the radio quiz pits three experts against one another in the penultimate battle of opera trivia. Ben Cameron made his third annual appearance on the show in March, during the Met's performance of Camille Saint-Saën's Sampson et Delila. The North Carolina native came to Minneapolis a few years back to work at the performing-arts division of the Dayton Hudson Foundation. He recently resigned from his position as Target Stores' manager of community relations to become the executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, the New York City-based service organization for the professional nonprofit American theater. He departs in June.

So how'd plucky little Ben Cameron end up on the Texaco Opera Quiz?

I was on a panel for Opera America's annual conference, and they asked us to introduce ourselves and give our backgrounds. They already had a copy of our bios, so when they got to me I said, "My name is Ben Cameron and I think it's high time someone bumped off Father Owen Lee and made me a contestant on the Texaco Opera Quiz." I got a big laugh, and I thought that was that.

Back up a second. Who is Father Owen Lee?

He's sort of like the Kitty Carlisle of the opera quiz. He's a Jesuit priest, and he's been on for centuries.

So anyway.

So I went out afterwards for drinks with Mark Weinstein, who at the time was the executive director of the New York City Opera, and he asked me if I was serious about the opera quiz, because the producer, Michael Bronson, was a good friend of his. Mark gave Michael my name, and Michael and I met for drinks a few months later. A half hour after we met he asked, "How would you like to be on the Cosi [Fan Tutte] broadcast on the 28th with Bartoli?" I mean, how could I say no, particularly since it was her broadcast premiere?

Did you walk away with fabulous prizes?

The listeners who send in questions get lots more stuff than the actual panelists. If your question gets read on the air, you'll need a truck to haul away everything: the Grove Dictionary of Opera, about 20 CDs, a CD player, just tons of stuff. Contestants get a lovely lunch at the Met's Grand Tier restaurant and seats in the Texaco box, which are fabulous, dead center. It's very grand. You get to watch almost the whole opera, but a half hour before intermission they yank you out of the box and take you downstairs to a small auditorium.

Then what?

You sign a few release forms. Then they go through a few warm-up questions, and they're petrifying. This year's warm-ups totally freaked me out, and I got on the air thinking, "I am so dead in the water." But fortunately that didn't happen.

Who were your fellow contestants?

Will Crutchfield, the New York Times critic, and Henry Fogel, executive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And there's always an alternate standing by, in case someone throws up during the broadcast, or faints from stress, or whatever.

Sounds like heady company.

These are people who do this for a living, day in and day out. Opera is, at best, an avocation for me, so every year I look across the table and think, "I am so out of my league."

And then there's the terror of being broadcast live.

It's very nerve-wracking. Rob Marx, the head of the New York City Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, had dinner with me the night before I did my first quiz. He had done the broadcast a few weeks earlier, and he told me that I'd undoubtedly have a moment in front of the microphone where I'd realize that I'm live and being heard by millions and millions and millions of people around the world. I told him, "Thank you so much." But the great thing is you also realize you can make a mistake and the studio audience will laugh and be in your corner. That takes the pressure off and allows you to have a good time. But it's still scary.

How were the questions this year?

There were four. They started by telling us about crimes committed during operas, and we had to tell them who the character is and what ultimately happens to them. The second batch was played on the piano, and I'm awful at those. The third set was "drop-the-needle": They played recordings of five British singers, and we had to guess the voice. I got the first two. And the final question was from a 15-year-old listener who wanted to know about those rare opera couples who live happily ever after.

How do you prepare? Is it like cramming for the LSATs?

There's really no way to prepare. I spend a lot of time listening to operas while I'm puttering around the house or driving in the car. I keep a list of the 50 most commonly performed operas and a week or so before the broadcast I go down the list and ask myself if I know the plot, the major characters, the big arias. That's about all you can do.

In prior years, [Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster] Jorja Fleezanis, Emilie Buchwald of Milkweed Editions, and [former Minnesota Public Radio announcer] Eric Friesen would orchestrate a coaching dinner, but with Jorja on tour and Eric relocated to Toronto, it didn't happen. Eric, however, was the first person to call me up and chew me out about a dumb mistake I made.

Share.

It was on the name-the-Brit-singer thing. I listened and listened, and went back and forth on the two choices: Peter Pears and John Vickers. I know John Vickers is Canadian, but when he was born I think Canada was still considered part of the British whatever, so I thought it might be a trick question. And I've seen Pears once, late in his career when he was in sad vocal shape, and this recording was pretty impressive. So I said, "Vickers," and of course it was Pears. And I got a message from Eric saying, "How dare you identify John Vickers as British when everyone knows he's Canadian!"

Will you be back next year?

Hopefully, but you never know. Maybe the only reason I've been on the show is to promote geographic diversity among panelists. Now I'm afraid that since I'm moving to New York City, they'll drop me. You know, the old, "With so many opera queens in Manhattan, why would we want you?" routine.

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