A Day at the Opera

[The following is a fuller version of the article that appears in the Vol. 16, Number 3, November/December 2006 issue of OPERA America’s Newsline magazine. Many thanks to this great organization for giving me the opportunity to write this piece and a special thank you to Kelley Rourke for her opinions and aid. For more information visit operaamerica.org.] Men cheat, women cry, people die. What more could one wish from entertainment? New York City’s Metropolitan Opera has been pondering that in the face of the flat ticket sales it has experienced in recent years. This season the Met hosted its first ever open house in order to expand its demographic base. The staff of OPERA America’s Newsline comprehended the importance of this seminal event; however, they were faced with a conundrum: everyone at OPERA America is a veteran lover of the art form. How could they, of all people, best capture the experience of a virgin opera viewer? That’s where I came in. I’m not completely philistine: I love theater, going to museums, and indulging in the various arts-related events that make New York intriguing, but opera always struck me as something for the elite, if for no other rationale than only they could afford it. Thus I was recruited to attend the open house and record the experiences as the typical denizen that the Met wished to entice.

I had scant information via OPERA America. Free tickets were available (maximum two per person) on a first come-first served basis at the Met’s box office on Wednesday, September 20, for the final dress rehearsal of Madama Butterfly on Friday, September 22. I made a mental inventory of all I knew about the opera. Incredible wealthy octogenarians: women bedecked in pearl encrusted diamonds, clutching dainty binoculars and draped in endangered animal pelts on the arms of top hat and tails wearing mustachioed gentlemen would attend arriving in horse drawn carriages, and watch either three penguin impersonating men gesticulating with handkerchiefs or rotund ladies disguised as Viking pillagers whose songs, apparently, signify the impending apocalypse. There were also rumors of a ghost. I knew this specific opera was about a diplomat in Vietnam who is seduced by a transvestite. Obviously, I was well prepared.

The Met was attempting to redefine itself and capture a new audience. My stereotype of the opera viewer was hurting its bottom line and if it is to prosper it must entice a younger, hipper audience with the disposable income necessary to attend, but first needed convincing that this art form was not exclusively for the individuals I have caricatured. As part of this effort, the Met spent a half-million dollars on a transit advertising campaign that, while arguably artistic and tasteful, does nothing but alert New Yorkers near a bus that the Met exists, something its patrons are aware of. I had been informed of the open house by OPERA America, yet hadn’t noticed any advertisements for the event. I questioned how successful it would be if no one even knew about the event occurring. The box office would open at 10:00 a.m. and if I arrived at nine, I would surely be one of the first, if not only, person there. The Met auditorium could hold four thousand people; there were plenty of tickets to go around and wherever my seat was would be part of the experience.

For those unaware of the Met, it is centered in a complex consisting of several buildings, making up what is called Lincoln Center — a square block of prime Manhattan real estate. Upon arrival, I discovered not a paltry trickle of would-be patrons, but a throng coiled around the front of the Center not once, not twice, but thrice. I guesstimated two thousand people. A task force of security guards ushered people around and some gave the disheartening verdict that those in my spot, an hour before the office even opened, were unlikely to receive a ticket. I was flabbergasted. Who were these people that had heard about this event, much less had the time and fortitude to come out on a Wednesday morning to stand and wait for only the possibility of tickets? Even as I pondered, the line increased to a fourth and fifth coil despite assurances that there were not enough tickets.

As the Met’s purpose was to attract those like myself, I expected to see my reflection everywhere. Instead I found that the vast majority were — in increasing dominance — middle-class (if attire can inform), female, over fifty (I’m being generous), and white. Hardly the most generic slice of New York City. Wasn’t this the current opera fan demographic? The ones that had no need to receive free “try your first opera” tickets? After some polite “we’re all stuck on this line” conversations, I discovered that my assessment was correct — it wasn’t the opera itself most were interested in (they see them all the time), it was the extras: hearing about the technical work that went into the production; seeing the mock-ups, sketches, and costumes up close; having the chance to hear from the various personalities about the show; and getting the chance to stand on the stage itself. All great additions to a show, but not necessarily what would lure new viewers in, had they heard about the offerings.

The wait itself was largely uneventful due to the Met’s diligence, with a few typically New York exceptions. One older woman was laid out when, in her rush to join the rapidly elongating line, she snagged an elevated flagstone. None dared vacate their place in line to aid her and eventually she was carted off in an ambulance. Tensions rose as patrons shifted and multiplied. Apparently, the most cunning had an early riser stake a claim and then joined the plant hours later. Many grumbled at this situation, yet its ubiquity stifled any rebellion. I berated myself for not finding a partner who could at least hold my place for coffee and bathroom breaks. The highlight was a particularly entitled lady who went ballistic on a hapless Met volunteer who, in a foolish attempt to follow the organization’s plan, informed her that she had to wait for a form to be distributed. The lady responded by tossing aside my 6’3” frame so she could hurl insults into the terrified volunteer’s face.

Three and a half hours into my sojourn I finally entered the main building giddy with anticipation, which turned to despair when I was told no seats remained. I was, however, allowed to collect either a standing place ticket or free tickets to The Barber of Seville several weeks in the future. Not wanting to completely fail the Newsline staff and having no need for a haircut, despite the generosity of the opera house, I eagerly accepted the former.

After a day’s hiatus, I returned to the Met to engage in my operatic experience. Numerous staff members mulled unobtrusively but eager to field inquiries and give explanations when asked. I always enjoy seeing the inchoate origins of things and I was able to indulge in examining the early sketches of floor plans, sets and costumes, and even see little collages of the outfits and stage settings which gave insight into how the finished product would look. Actual costumes were on hand for inspection and several technicians were diligently explaining how various parts of the set were created. I think it included floor and screen making, but I made a beeline to the origami demonstration at the expense of all. I soon learned my creative skills are nonexistent and, graciously, the instructors allowed me to take one of their display swans so I could lie about my prowess.

When bells sounded I made my way to the seating area, correctly assuming that activity had begun. On my way I took a photo of a calligraphy silkscreen reading Cio-Cio-San (a smaller version of the giant banner outside), while a matronly volunteer told me what it said. After capturing the snapshot she reminded me that photos where prohibited in that part of the building. I thanked her for her delayed reprimand and I hurried to witness the final set-up and hear Technical Director Joseph Clark’s description of the mechanical necessities of Madame Butterfly. Few other people had arrived and I relied on the kindness of the ushers in order to sit for the lecture rather than dutifully stand by my assigned podium.

Clark explained, while his staff busied themselves on stage with final touch ups and calibrations, the intricate, laborious work involved in every production at the Met. Madama Butterfly was, to some extent, easy since they did not have to toggle between two concurrent shows — yet. Clark’s self-deprecating monologue was endearing, humorous and informative. He spoke for over an hour, then answered audience questions about the performance and institution. I can’t say I comprehended everything discussed, although it was abundantly clear just how intense the work was for such a minimalist production. Toward the end, thousands started to flood the hall; as I could no longer hear him and I knew that I would soon be ejected from my usurped seat — in fact, several people had already been caught pilfering space that wasn’t their own — I took my leave.

Plush chairs a distant memory, I positioned myself by my “seat,” a space on the third row of glorified countertops behind the orchestra seating. Several people awakened to the truth that being under 5’5” meant hearing — not seeing — the performance. An obvious veteran next to me stood on two technical manuals to achieve the necessary height. I was in the section of the truly desperate or the deeply ignorant; honestly, I counted as both, but the discomfort of standing for hours, the inconvenience of bending down to read the prompter followed by straining to see over those ahead of me and the impossibility of seeing the entire stage made it clear that I would have to be heavily compensated to ever take this “seat” again.

At exactly eleven it began as promised. Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Met, the man responsible for attempting to reinvigorate the dwindling reserve of operatic enthusiasts and make opera a vital, accessible cultural destination, welcomed us “to the greatest opera house in the world,” thanked us for our fortitude and informed us that great music coupled with great theater made for perfect opera. I welcomed his evaluation and prepared myself.

The singers took to the stage and I was greeted with the story of Cio-Cio-San, a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl purchased in a sham marriage by a pedophilic American naval officer, Pinkerton, who abandons her and their yet unborn child to predictably tragic results. Giacomo Puccini’s three acts of gravitas enveloped and reduced me to emotional flotsam amid sweat and tears. James Levine produced a harmonic subtlety that wove the threads of Peter Mumford’s magical, radiant lighting and Han Feng’s elegant, early 20th century costumes around Michael Levine’s mirror-enshrined set for a surreal punch. I had never encountered such disparate theatrical parts and was amazed how seamlessly it all pieced together. I did, at first, think tenor Marcello Giordani and soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas where ill conceived for their respective roles of the dashing, young seaman and the impoverished geisha, until their sensual voices facilitated my suspension of disbelief. The entire cast was magnificent, especially the full-bodied baritone Dwayne Croft, the aptly named U.S. Consul, Sharpless, and Butterfly’s loyal maid, Suzuki, played by mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak; however, the Japanese Bunraku-esqe puppet of Butterfly’s son unnerved me. I was impressed by Anthony Minghella’s directorial work. I didn’t believe his actors, distant on stage, could managed to project their emotions succinctly without resorting to dramatics, or that he could turn Pinkerton, so obviously an Edwardian villain, into a robust character.

Gelb returned after the first intermission with New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg in tow. The mayor greeted us in Italian, praised the opera and Gelb for “bringing opera to everyone,” reminded us that this was the first open house in history and let us know that there was, despite clichés to the contrary, a free lunch. A fact appreciated by the ravenous audience. Two different meals were available, depending on where you collected it: bottled water, a mediocre sandwich (either turkey and cheese or a variety of finger sandwiches) coupled with a pair of fabulous cookies (peanut butter or chocolate chip; I managed to sample both). The viewers claimed squatter’s rights willy-nilly throughout the house and I chuckled while we lounged amid portraits of operatic personalities long gone, as the idea of the opera being reserved for the upper echelons seemed a farcical dream.

The rehearsal was running long, although I was uncertain if the delay was due to audience mayhem or other issues, but it all played to my benefit. At the final intermission a lovely couple approached me and the woman with the technical manuals, explaining that they had to meet their daughter and offered us their tickets. I jumped at the opportunity like a lion on a sick gazelle. Margaret Juntwait, WNYC’s classic music host, who the following week would be named the Met’s first woman radio announcer, took the stage and informed us of the upcoming Monday opera blitz. Radio Sirius would broadcast Butterfly, along with showings in front of the Met and in Times Square itself. If people wouldn’t go to the opera, apparently the opera would go to the people. I sat in my new seat and truly felt I was at the opera. Comfortable accommodations were just the beginning: I could see the entire stage. The sensational layout with mirrors reflecting the various elements and giving a multidimensional feel to the environment was as incredible as previously completely inaccessible. I still had difficulties mastering the visual transition from monitor to stage. If I had seen Butterfly before or even knew the plot, I might not have been distressed but I wanted to be surprised and experience it as I was: an opera newbie, and that meant accepting some discomfort.

After the rehearsal, there was a brief Q&A session with many personalities that included audience submitted questions. Obviously, the questions were from people who were not new to the forum. It amounted to little more than self-congratulation and mutual praise. Necessary, yet hardly insightful.

I was actually disappointed that no mistakes were made, at least none to warrant a repeated scene; remember, this was a rehearsal. We were told that we now had the chance to stand on the actual Met stage; as so few people had come to the tech discussion, I assumed most of the patrons would vacate the premises. Flashbacks to Wednesday emerged as we queued up, down, and around the Met from the basement garage to the backstage entrance for the opportunity to stand upon sacred ground. Once more, decorum was managed by the plethora of volunteers. However, I was jostled and outmaneuvered by the most unassuming of elderly visitors who snapped at one another for attempting or being denied the chance to cut each other off and steal a minute from their wait. I put up with this annoyance because we were assured everyone would make it to the stage, yet the wait and the shoving made the brief moment on such a magnificent platform, and the comprehension of what it is like to face such a huge auditorium, sadly anticlimactic. Perhaps if there were a roaring crowd greeting my arrival on stage it would have felt different. Others shaped their own visions by breaking into song. (A taste of what they might, unfortunately, never have the chance to do professionally.) Regardless, I still had the wherewithal to ask a stagehand to snap a picture of me amidst the opulence. I was more intrigued by the sheer scope of the backstage. It never occurred to me that an area could be so absolutely vast yet so cramped with material. Here were devices and props I couldn’t begin to understand; the truth behind the visual glamour.

The final leg of the journey (yes, it involved standing on line again) was to view a documentary on the creation of this Madama Butterfly. I sidled into the room, and a few minutes into the film acquired a seat. People were getting tired, the idea of something that wasn’t live didn’t appeal, and the trickle-off began. I, however, loved the film as it showed insight into the personalities of the performers, warts and all, that made them come alive in a way that the Q&A should have, yet failed to do.

There are two questions everyone who has been wading through this article must want answered. The first is whether or not Gelb’s attempt to bring opera to the people worked. Unfortunately, the answer is no. The idea was sound; the practice flawed. If I haven’t made it painfully clear, the visitors to the open house were overwhelmingly veterans, and so the event was reduced to a reward for the established demographic. People who are not opera fans are not going to endure, and probably can’t afford, to go through what I did. If the Met truly wishes to expand its clientele, it must make a serious effort to target the audience they want. Randomly giving out tickets during the workweek, broadcasting in a busy city center, and having generic advertisements will prove as futile as expensive. I can’t explain how to track down the younger, culturally interested would-be viewers (there are consultants for that) but when the college students and new families are found, tell them how to get those discounted tickets and they will come.

Despite the myriad of pure intensions, when the first official show opened the following Monday night it solidified the very misconceptions I had started rejecting. In Times Square and outside of the Met the performance was shown to eager, somewhat caged, audiences while inside the house was a gala of the black tie and designer dress wearing rich and famous, confirming that groundlings may occasionally be thrown a bone, but the true experience was reserved for the elite. Opening nights are always red carpet events, but the stark contrast between the viewings exacerbated the opera fan stereotype in the midst of an outreach campaign.

The other main question everyone has been anticipating a conclusion to is if my experience made me a returning opera patron. Resoundingly, the answer here is yes. I learned that the opera isn’t exclusively for the fortunate and famous, but anyone who loves any combination of dramatic story, powerful music, enticing displays, and the emotional intensity that results from the mixture. I no longer feel ignorant of or intimidated by the art form and see it more as a joyous escapade into the imagination. There is a reason why the art form itself has lasted hundreds of years and the performances themselves may be viewed for hundreds of years still. It is more than a fat lady singing. It is glamour. It is profundity. It is theater. Men cheat, women cry, people die. What more could one wish from entertainment?