How Opera-Going at the Metropolitan Opera Has Changed

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One of the indisputable highlights in the life of any opera lover comes with attending your first performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. The pulse quickens in even the most frequent operagoer with the anticipation of what will soon take place. Or so it used to be.

The excitement began with the walk across the plaza of the Travertine acropolis that is Lincoln Center. The main square, with three buildings configured like those atop the Capitoline hill in Rome, makes the Met the focus of one’s attention. The central fountain shot water to dazzling heights and then briefly receded, revealing architect Wallace K. Harrison’s opera house façade with its five arches, said to have been inspired by the five cupolas of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. 

One sees (or saw) some of the dazzling Lobmeyr crystal chandeliers that were a gift from the people of Vienna as an expression of thanks for help Met subscribers gave for the reconstruction of the Vienna State Opera house after the Second World War. Looking up, right or left, one saw the world famous paintings (30 feet wide; 36 feet high) that Marc Chagall made specifically for the places they hang. “The Sources of Music’ (the yellow painting) stood above the Grand Tier restaurant while "The Triumph of Music" (the red one) was above the Serpentine Bar. 

One entered the crowded but animated lobby either from the left or right sides and then, going past the ticket takers, would go up or down the grand staircase to see and be seen. Then, when the doors to the auditorium opened, one would enter and behold the orchestra level and five tiers of red velvet seats, walls of African rosewood, and twelve more crystal chandeliers in a horseshoe configuration at the level of the Grand Tier that would rise and dim as they approached the 23 carat gold-covered ceiling. They made a gentle tinkling sound as they rose, which was discernible because the auditorium has fabulous acoustics.

At intermission, one took refreshment at bars on several levels or went downstairs to Founders Hall to admire paintings and sculptures of illustrious figures from Met history or special exhibitions in display cases. Historic costumes were on show on the Dress Circle and Parterre, where there were also two small vitrines with possessions belonging to Caruso, Toscanini and larger-than-life divas of the past 130 years. 

Wherever one went, in or outside the auditorium, there was electricity and magic in the air. I am not being unrealistically nostalgic. Even when the performances were routine, the experience of being at the Met was a thrill unto itself and made one want to come back in the hopes that the next performance would be better.

While many of these pleasures remain to some degree, much of the magic is gone. Somewhere along the way, the Metropolitan Opera House went from being a temple of art to becoming a facility. In contrast, no matter what Teatro alla Scala or the Vienna State Opera put on their stages (and I have seen plenty that is not memorable), the experience of attending a performance in these theaters is still an unforgettable thrill.

You might have noticed that, emulating Broadway theaters, the Met now charges a $2.50 “facility fee for the ongoing maintenance of the opera house” on every ticket.  The opera company is responsible for its own building and decides for itself how income for maintenance is spent. Certainly the marvelous stage and its equipment need constant care. 

I am not saying that the auditorium has become tatty. In most ways it is unchanged, apart from the troubling addition of technology used for HD broadcasts and certain productions. Also, about 25 years ago the creamy-colored façades of the boxes and the gold ropes that adorned them were replaced by paneling a bit darker than the gorgeous African rosewood that is part of what makes the auditorium so special. The older version was so much more elegant and I miss that. Most seats are comfortable, especially in comparison to other opera houses. Sight lines are good, apart from certain places in side boxes. Met Titles are projected on small screens on seat backs and are unobtrusive for those who don’t wish to consult them.

However, most of the Met’s public areas have been invaded by all manner of visual (and sometimes acoustical) ugliness. Space seems to be considered usable for revenue-generation or marketing opportunities. Starting with the approach on the plaza, one now sees gauzy promotional banners that obscure the view of the Chagalls and the chandeliers. Because the left entrance now has an art gallery with exhibitions inspired by operas, arriving audience members veer to the already overcrowded right entrance where the box office and gift shop are. The gallery is a good idea but is in the wrong place. It has become dead space that requires something that many or all arriving patrons will want to go to. This will make traffic flow more comfortable throughout the cramped outer lobbies.

There are now two screens in the outer lobby that create a promotional blare. Few people look at them, whether before curtain or during the day. It is unbecoming of an important theater and is more like the departure gate at an airport. There is a screen in the gift shop that shows opera videos and a direct feed from the stage. That is fine.

In the opera house lobbies, there has been a frightful undoing of what things looked and felt like. When the Met opened its doors in 1966, the modern building did not appeal to everyone. There was nostalgia for the grandeur of the old Met, a place where doing valid opera productions was never possible because the stage had little surrounding space where scenery could be mounted or moved. The lobbies of the new Met had harmony and many new works of art along with treasures from the old building. The broad windows (like those of other Lincoln Center theaters) suggested accessibility and openness and afforded wonderful views, inside and out.

Someone who attended the opening would be disoriented now. Famous sculptures have been removed, as have many of the paintings in Founders Hall. They are in storage or adorn hallways out of public view, according to Met archivist Robert Tuggle. Many of the precious items from the displays on the Parterre are no longer there. The vitrines were cleared to use as part of a special exhibition on Die Walküre. A few pieces are again on display. Mr.Tuggle added that some of the artifacts are now in storage or loaned for exhibitions elsewhere.

Founders Hall (Flickr/carlmikoy)

The portraits in Founders Hall were an integral and gracious evocation of the company’s history since 1883. Recent paintings, including those of Leontyne Price and Regina Resnik (by her artist husband Arbit Blatas) are gone. Curiously, a new portrait of Renée Fleming has been added and she is still in an active career. The past is now represented by floor-to-ceiling walls of poor resolution black-and-white photos that bring to mind pictures one sees tacked on walls in delicatessens and pizza parlors in the Broadway theater district. This look is meant to evoke the lobby of the old Met, but that is lost on almost everyone who sees it now. It is nearly impossible to identify most of these faces and the overall impact is ugly as sin.

Worse still, the plaques (also called tiles) with the names of donors—the Founders who give the hall its name—are falling off and glue stains glare at anyone who notices. This wall of honor is now behind stanchions and ropes and no one seems to care. It dishonors those who helped make the performing arts center, including the new Met, possible. I am told that, although the plaques are inside the Metropolitan Opera house, their maintenance is the responsibility of Lincoln Center. Eileen McMahon, Senior Director for Publicity and Publications, said in an e-mail that "Lincoln Center is evaluating how best to handle the situation."

Upstairs, restaurant tables, as well as those selling gift shop items or used for package inspection, now block key areas, so the audience of nearly 4000 (when all tickets are sold) is constricted. Traffic flows terribly and many areas are cramped and dark. Most doors to the lovely outdoor terrace are locked, in part due to the expansion of the number of tables at the Grand Tier restaurant. Getting in and out is not easy.

As for the restaurant, and food services to the public in general: most major opera houses outdo the Met, serving delicious food that lends excitement and a frisson of pleasure to the experience, all at lower prices than the Met. To name just a few: Amsterdam, Chicago, Munich and Stockholm. Dining at the Grand Tier restaurant brings to mind suburban country clubs of three decades ago. On some nights, the preparation and presentation of dishes are a disgrace. This should not happen at the iconic opera house in New York, one of the world’s capitals of food and wine. 

At bars in the building, prices of dreary sandwiches and pastries are very high. Coffee is mediocre and costs more than the better one served at Avery Fisher Hall. Wine is plonk, to use a term of the trade. I recall a New York Times profile that depicted Peter Gelb as a wine connoisseur. If that is so, he needs to get on the case. And, at more than $20 a serving, the premium Champagne served on the Parterre should come in glass, not plastic.

Everything described in this article impoverishes the experience of a night at the Met and undoes the bond between the company and its core audience. I will address the situation of ticket pricing and the impact of HD transmissions in my next article and offer ideas for how the Met (which I revere, which is why I feel it important to raise these issues) might get back on track.

And what of the iconic Chagall paintings? They are very hard to see from within and many newcomers do not have the pleasure—and form the bond—that is part of a night at the Met (everyone at Paris’s Opéra Garnier can admire its beloved Chagall ceiling). A chill coursed through the veins of those of us who love the Met when the company disclosed, in March 2009, that it had put its Chagalls up as collateral against a loan of $35 million. The issue was not just about how bad finances might have been but, more revealingly, that nothing at the Met was sacred. 

And that, my friends, is the most alarming message of all. 

Photos: 1) The Chagall painting 'The Sources of Music' (Flickr/NiallKennedy) 3) Opera Gateau with coffee crema and cocoa nib coulis at the Metropolitan Opera's Grand Tier restaurant (Flickr/ralphandjenny).