This is the subject more of you have asked for than any of the many topics I am germinating for my posts on the Operavore blog. I do hope that readers will post comments that candidly -- but cleanly -- recount their own memories of a time that is part of opera history, whatever we might think of it.
Back in my salad days, when the notion of sleeping at the opera was the province of people who were well into their broccoli days, there was a none-too-subtle awareness among younger people that you did not so much sleep at the opera as sleep around at the opera.
I kid you not -- that was an era of sexual freedom untroubled by the plagues that would change everything a decade later. Not that things changed so quickly -- some habits cannot be adjusted at will. When I was performance manager at the Met, part of my job was to roam the stairwells during the show to see that emergency exits were unblocked and that audience members were safe. Well into the 1980s, I chanced upon a considerable amount of nooky in just about every cranny.
In the 1970s, I heard from veterans in the audience that the design of the new Met (opened in 1966) was not conducive for spontaneous hanky panky the way it was at the old Met. For New York opera lovers, the sexual revolution apparently began when the old Met opened in 1883. I did attend opera at the old Met numerous times, but always under parental supervision and not yet with enough hormonal charge to even figure out what Gilda said she did with the Duke of Mantua, let alone what people were doing in the back of the Family Circle.
But even in the seventies and eighties, there were nights in the audience that felt like the opening scene of Tannhäuser or the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila. Fridays and nights with a full moon were the most active. Everywhere I went, on every level of the opera house, I spotted the young and not so young in all manner of unbridled couplings, triplings and the occasional quadrupling. These happened not only in the stairwells but, more discreetly, in the presence of other audience members who were so focussed on the opera that they were unaware of what was happening near at hand.
I recall nearly tripping over a rather important man in the back of the Grand Tier, inside the auditorium and during a performance. He was quite lubricated -- with whiskey. His jacket was on the floor, his white shirt had lost whatever ironing it may have had, and all of his cheeks were bright red. He was enjoying the company of an opera fan half his age even though his socially prominent wife happened to be seated in row C of the same section.
All of this transpired during the triumphal march in Aïda. The musicologist in me wanted to know why this particular music might have inspired his actions. When I asked him, after having him gather his things and step outside, I got a much more obvious and practical response: “There is so much happening onstage during this scene, and it is so loud, I thought people would not hear us.”
A Show of Hands
Music in an opera can serve not only to drown out the sounds of passion, but to inspire it. There was a solitary, middle-aged woman who sat in the Dress Circle on Saturday matinees. Her seat was #15, right in the middle of one of the rows. She was flanked mostly by elderly women who had been going to the opera since the 1930s. Several of them told me that during some operas, such as Tristan und Isolde or La Bohéme, the seats in the row would often rock back and forth. The next opera on that subscription series was Boris Godunov, and I noticed that the chairs did not move at all. The one after that was Don Giovanni, and I suspected that whoever made the seats rock might be so moved during Mozart’s sexy opera.
By the time James Morris, as the Don, sang “Là, ci darem la mano” (Here let us place our hands) to the Zerlina of Maria Ewing, the woman in seat #15 took matters very much into her own hands and the row began to shake like a bunch of bumper cars in an amusement park. I gently and diplomatically addressed the problem during the intermission so that no one felt embarrassed, but it struck me that music and story can, to a great degree, inspire the most visceral human responses. Most of us opera lovers do not directly act on these impulses during performances, but isn’t it wonderful that an art form can have such an effect that we can channel it and chastely experience it with four thousand other people?
Operagoers with more financial means, at least back then, often splurged for a big night out and bought tickets for all eight seats in a Parterre box. They would watch the parts of an opera they wanted to see and then quietly slip into the anteroom, which has a small divan. Usually there was just one couple in the box but, on some occasions, additional people attended the performance and used the anteroom in all sorts of combinations. They would purchase a bottle of Champagne and a box of chocolates or some chocolate-dipped strawberries, and they were off to the races.
The most unusual lovebirds I ever chanced upon were a couple dressed in a punkish mix of denim, leather, chains, safety pins and piercings --let’s call them Sid and Nancy-- who traveled to the opera houses of the world to achieve congress during performances of Berg’s Lulu. Though they remained fully clothed, just enough of their zippers and buttons would be opened to make a connection as “Nancy” had her back against a pillar in Orchestra standing room while “Sid” made love to her. In this case, unlike most of them, these two really seemed to be making love. And because it was Lulu, there were few if any people in standing room to notice.
I sought them out as they arrived for a later performance of the opera and told them that, while everyone is entitled to their fantasies, I hoped they would not necessarily carry them out when I was the manager on duty. They turned out to be an exceedingly polite pair from Denmark who got a certain thrill by quietly but deliberately getting it on while Lulu and Alwa sang a love duet onstage. In the pre-Google era, they researched future performances of Lulu around the world (and there were not many), packed up their gear (no airport security metal detectors then!) and off they would go for an escapade in another opera capital.
Readers should not assume that all of these activities were exclusive to the Met. In my travels I have seen plenty going on in other American opera houses and in most of Europe’s great theaters. The difference, I think, was that the Met had enough places tucked away just enough for some canoodling while still listening to the music.
Nowadays, when I attend opera at the Met and elsewhere, I have no reason to wander about the theater during performances. But I suspect that things are not as they were. Younger people are often too busy reading to think about “hooking up,” as the current parlance would have it. Projected titles (at the Met they are on seat backs) might help operagoers follow translations of the libretti but, I fear, it means that their minds are more engaged in reading than in listening. The music does not always reach as deeply in the young operagoers of today because they are concentrating on the words. Back in the era I have evoked for you here, there was nothing to read when the lights were down, so we listened and, at times, the music had its way with us.
If you want to experience what that was like, play this clip of Christa Ludwig singing the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, and listen --really listen-- with your eyes closed and let the music go deep, deeper, deeper still, to those places that are seldom reached.
Was it as good for you, darling, as it was for me? Leave your comments below:
Photo credit: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera