50 Years at the New Metropolitan Opera House

Thursday, September 29, 2016 - 11:34 AM

A scene from Mozart's Die Zauberflote performed during the first season of the new Met. (courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives)

In my most recent article I described why it was necessary to build a new Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center and why, unfortunately, the old Met was destroyed in the process.

In 1966-67, I was a lucky ten-year-old in the first season of the new Met who saw many performances with remarkable singers in what is remembered as a musical golden age. According to an archived prospectus from 1966-67, Orchestra seats cost $11-12, the Grand Tier was $12, the Dress Circle was $7.50, the Balcony was $5 to $5.50 and a seat in the Family Circle (where we often sat) could be had for as low as $3.

The first season in the new opera house had nine new productions, including four in the first eight days. They were the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (Thomas Schippers conducting Leontyne Price and Justino Diaz; production by Franco Zeffirelli); La Gioconda (Fausto Cleva leading Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli); La Traviata (Georges Prêtre; Anna Moffo, Bruno Prevedi, Robert Merrill; Alfred Lunt, stage director; Cecil Beaton, sets and costumes) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (Karl Böhm; Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, James King, Walter Berry; Nathaniel Merrill, director; Robert O’Hearn, scenery and costumes).


This schedule was ambitious and there were problems with making new stage equipment work. Only Frau was a runaway success. Met tech crews had to solve all kinds of challenges the new building presented and it took time to find a working rhythm that accommodated new productions as well as revivals designed for the old house.

Later came Elektra (Schippers; Birgit Nilsson, Rysanek, Regina Resnik; Herbert Graf, director; Rudolf Heinrich, sets and costumes); Lohengrin (Böhm; Ingrid Bjoner, Ludwig, Sándor Kónya; Peter Lehmann, directing a production conceived by Wieland Wagner); Peter Grimes (Colin Davis;  Jon Vickers, Lucine Amara, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch); Die Zauberflöte (Josef Krips; Pilar Lorengar, Lucia Popp, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey, Jerome Hines; directed by Günther Rennert with scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall); and the world premiere of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra (Zubin Mehta; Marie Collier, Evelyn Lear, Sherrill Milnes; directed by Michael Cacoyannis; sets and costumes by Boris Aronson).

During the 2016-2017 season you can see a marvelous exhibition in Founders Hall on the Concourse level created by Met archivist Peter Clark about the first season’s new productions, with photographs, correspondence, drawings by Chagall and a picture of Tebaldi as Gioconda looking much sexier than I remember her. Clark told me Met general manager Rudolf Bing “had clearly chosen these nine operas carefully to feature a spirit of the ‘new’ as well as the continuation of the Met's long tradition of featuring the greatest artists.”

The company website has a new section dedicated to the 50 seasons of the new Met.

To me, the new opera house was elegantly modern with its crystal chandeliers from Austria, a ceiling of 23 carat gold leaf, gold silk curtain, plush red seats and walls made of delicate African rosewood that resonate and contribute to the auditorium’s stupendous acoustics, which set the new Met apart from almost every major opera house in the world. It was a tradition, when the house was new, that the ascent of the chandeliers (which dimmed as they rose) was a signal to be quiet and focus on the impending performance. The tinkling of the crystal was audible.

I am writing this the day after attending the opening night of the current season. Tristan und Isolde sounded magnificent with the incomparable Met orchestra led by Simon Rattle and a great cast including Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton.

Backstage at the new Met (once the technological kinks of the turntable onstage were resolved) was a wonderland. The intention was to construct productions in the building on the upper floors and send them in huge hydraulic elevators to storage areas well below the stage. Large shops, with floor space as big as the stage, meant that scenery could be built to scale. A vertical “paint bridge” allowed artists such as Chagall to paint scenery facing the large canvases. The bridge could be raised and lowered so the artist always had canvas at eye level.

Other shops were dedicated to building costumes, making wigs, designing makeup. Throughout the backstage on many levels were coaching rooms, rehearsal rooms of various sizes and all kinds of storage places.

The only real design flaw backstage was that many thresholds were too low for the large pieces of scenery to be sent through. Therefore, many sets had to be made with hinges and the scenery would be “folded” to get through a door to a rehearsal room.

Things change. Many productions are no longer built at the Met. The paint bridge is seldom used. Opera productions are much bigger and the storage areas in the building cannot hold as many shows as was originally intended. Many design areas have been rebuilt as office space. In the auditorium, the tiers used to be a creamy white color with gold rope bunting. This color scheme, set against the red velvet and rosewood walls, was gorgeous. Some 25 years ago the tiers were inexplicably covered with ugly veneer paneling that visually clashes with the rosewood. I wish these could be restored to the way they looked in 1966.

The lighting, broadcasting and stage technology when the house was new were soon obsolete and the company, of necessity, has updated them on a regular basis. In the process, certain areas of the auditorium have pieces of equipment attached and it can at times feel more like a “facility” than a temple of the lyric art. And it is rare nowadays when a new production uses the magnificent gold silk curtain.

In the front of house, things have become cramped and traffic flows poorly. Bars and food service need to be rethought in terms of quality and efficiency. Most of the paintings and sculptures in Founders Hall have inexplicably vanished and other art throughout the building is no longer found where it was originally installed.

All of these changes can be fixed and the magic of a night at the new Met will again be more than the glorious music one hears there so well.


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Comments [3]

Mary Zikos from Princeton, NJ

50 years!! I remember a high school trip to the old MET to see a La Boheme dress rehearsal. Magnificent opera in a magnificent house. My Mom talks of standing room tickets when she lived in Brooklyn before the War. I have often gone to the "new" Met. Still magnificent operas, but a modern house. Congrats, MET.

Oct. 04 2016 12:49 PM
David from Flushing

I believe the balcony fronts were changed from white to a faux wood paint job. When one puts the fake near the real the result is not pleasant. However, the fabric swags are things I do not miss.

Oct. 01 2016 01:41 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

There were many technological advances at the new MET,but the superlative acoustics of that large auditorium remain the most important aspect.Among improved rehearsal facilities are List Hall,where the chorus rehearses,and the "C-Level Stage",an area with the same dimensions as the main stage,located three levels below.The current artistic and economic climate,which involves more co-productions with other companies contributes to lesser or different functions for the set building and storage areas.Admittedly,the MET has much larger issues to address than some of the aesthetic improvements suggested,but it would be nice to see those flaws corrected.

Sep. 30 2016 08:15 PM

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