Mary Jo Heath, a Norman High and OU graduate, anchors opera’s long-loved radio broadcasts.
Oklahoma native Mary Jo Heath is the radio voice of the Metropolitan Opera. Following is an exclusive online addition to the full profile in our print version.
Music has dominated the life of Mary Jo Heath, the 1972 Norman High graduate who hosts the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts. But the score she has followed to Lincoln Center has had dynamic shifts.
In the second grade, Heath began the first of 10 years of piano lessons with Ruth Powell and continued playing under Lytle Powell, a longtime professor of piano at the University of Oklahoma, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in music theory.
“I never got to pull that trick that some piano students do by saying, ‘Well, my old teacher never made me do that,'” she says. “Professor Powell knew exactly what I had done because he was married to Mrs. Powell.”
One of Heath’s first jobs out of OU was as a music therapist at Central State Hospital in Norman.
“Music therapy in a state hospital setting is about bringing peace, solace and solitude to the patients,” she says. “It was a valuable experience.”
Eventually, Heath worked with Philips Classics Records for eight years in Amsterdam, where “I learned the value of the word different. It doesn’t mean anything is better or worse. It means more today because no one is better. We’re just different.”
After Philips went out of business and Heath landed some classical music positions with a public radio station in Connecticut, Heath made it to The Met in 2006 … but not as an announcer. For nine years, she produced the broadcasts of Margaret Juntwait. In succeeding Juntwait, who died of ovarian cancer, Heath became just the fourth person in 86 years to host The Met’s radio shows.
Juntwait caused a bit of stir in 2004 upon the retirement of Peter Allen because of her gender. Heath acknowledges that her dear friend paved the way for her own transition into the host’s chair “because I haven’t heard a peep about my being a woman. Isn’t that nice? The ceiling has been broken. There just needs to be more of us and keep marching forward.”
Heath says her second year as host has gone better than the first, mainly because “I just go with the production much more now and add in some music history and music theory when it applies.”
Because of her intense involvement in classical music for decades, Mary Jo Heath finds it difficult to name a favorite opera … but she does have a Top Six grouping (in no particular order):
- Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss (“Tonality was breaking new ground at the turn of the 20th century,” and this time is Heath’s favorite period of academic study);
- The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart;
- Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck;
- La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini;
- Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartok;
- The Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner (“I’d see it anytime”).
Heath prepares many hours before each broadcast; her knowledge of music history and theory is evident, but her on-air persona is conversational, natural and spontaneous.
“You hope you know your stuff and you react to something and you hope it comes across as genuine,” says Heath, who only drops in minutiae to her commentary when the time is right. “I make sure that I’m telling the people on the radio something that enhances their listening experience and to help them enjoy it more.”
Heath is never a long time away from Oklahoma because her daughter is sophomore at OU. Her husband of 38 years, high school history teacher Ronald Heath, still has family in his native Seminole. Her brother, David Renner, is an Oklahoma City videographer. And Heath loves playing golf around the Sooner State, especially the municipal course in Purcell.
“It’s so funny when I go down there with my friends,” she says. “Sometimes they just tell us to start on the second nine holes so we don’t have to wait. One guy in particular always says, `If anyone gives you trouble, just tell ’em that Killer says it’s OK.’
“Only in Oklahoma, right? A guy playing golf with the nickname Killer.”
That down-to-earth sense of humor is what Heath tapped into in 2016, when she gave a commencement address at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, as a distinguished alumna (she earned her doctorate in music theory there). The experience brought her life into perspective because writing the speech was “frightening, scary, cathartic and overwhelming.”
“You just never know what’s going to happen. That’s what I told them,” she says. “I learned from every single step. I was laid off twice in my 40s. And it’s been an amazing ride.
“You just never know.”