What Can Happen When an Opera Performance is Cancelled

Monday, October 31, 2016 - 10:19 AM

The notice posted on a door at The Metropolitan Opera announcing Saturday's cancellation of 'L’Italiana in Algeri'. (Stefano Palazzi)

By now you have to know, if you are a reader of The New York Times,  New York Post or social media, that this past Saturday's matinee of Guillaume Tell at the Metropolitan Opera was cancelled when an audience member scattered a powdery substance into the orchestra pit during the second intermission. Like the proverbial stone tossed into a lake, this action created waves of consequences and collateral damage that proved very destructive on many levels.

The evening’s performance, L’Italiana in Algeri, on this all-Rossini day was also cancelled because investigators had not yet determined that the powder was not dangerous to audience members or musicians. Only after tests were done could the powder be removed from the pit, where it had penetrated the instruments of several orchestra members, all of whom were not allowed to return to the pit out of concerns for their safety.

The company will offer invitations to future performances of Tell and, I imagine, to other productions to ticket holders who did not see the final performance of Italiana. These cancellations will prove very costly in financial terms and audience relations, even though what happened was not the Met’s fault

It was National Patron Weekend, with major supporters of the company from around the country converging at Lincoln Center to attend Tristan und Isolde, Jenufa, Guillaume Tell and L’Italiana in Algeri. This was a particularly unfortunate circumstance in that so many of the Met’s most important supporters were affected.

Other audience members traveled long distances, some having spent precious savings for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear Tell in the U.S. (the Met has not performed it since 1931). In addition to opera tickets, they spent money on transportation, hotels and meals.

Friends of the Rossini Festival, who were ecstatic about hearing two masterpieces by their beloved composer, consoled themselves on Lincoln Center Plaza after the show. One handed me a poster with a prescient message: "Keep Calm and Listen to Rossini."

The soloists for both operas were frustrated and disappointed. In the case of Tell, some of its finest music comes in the act that was cancelled. We would have heard Bryan Hymel stop the show with “Asile Héréditaire”  

I was doing the Rossini doubleheader, attending Tell in the afternoon and planning to see the wonderful Italiana in the evening. I bought six tickets to that performance as friends from Italy were coming and it would be their first time at the Met. While I easily got a refund, the look of deflated disappointment on my friends' faces was a sad microcosm of what thousands of people experienced that day.

The latest reports indicate that the man whose actions led to all of these problems was from Dallas and the powder was the ashes of his late mentor. Based on comments I have seen on social media, he is an opera lover who is well-known to, and liked by, many singers and others in the community. I discovered that he is also a follower of my posts. His actions do not seem to be inspired by thoughts of terrorism or even malfeasance.

Tenor René Barbera, who was to have sung in Italiana on Saturday evening, posted remarks on Facebook asking that this man be spared abuse and criticism. He wrote, in part, of “A very kind, sweet, and good person who made a mistake, albeit a very expensive one ... He had no ill-intent and truly believed that his actions were nothing more than a loving gesture for a dear friend who passed away ... We all know the end result of his decision and it did have a very wide reaching negative effect. One he is immensely sorry for and one he had not even considered would have been a possibility.”

Even if this man’s actions were a product of grief or a well-meaning desire to honor someone in a special way, what he did was seriously misguided.

I was performance manager at Met in the 1980s. Part of my job was responsibility for front-of-house operations and everything affecting the audience. In 1988, I cancelled a matinee performance (after consulting with Met general manager Bruce Crawford) following the death of an audience member. One cannot move a dead body without going through certain procedures involving the police, so it was necessary to end the performance. We also had to set up for an evening performance of another opera for which some 4000 people held tickets.

This was a live radio broadcast and a complication occurred when on-air host Peter Allen, in trying to find the appropriate words without causing undue alarm, said that an audience member had taken ill. This led to hundreds of calls to the switchboard from relatives of audience members as well as journalists who were listening to the broadcast. 

Thankfully, the recent situation was much more contained (there was no live broadcast and no one was ill or worse) yet still it was dramatic, in part because now social media and smartphones can create instantaneous spread of information and, at times, misinformation that can cause unforeseen problems.

On Saturday, I watched Met security and safety staff go into action during the second intermission in their discreet and highly professional way so that the audience experienced no alarm. They did everything right and have my great admiration. The same can be said for the emergency responders who arrived quickly.

As such situations do, it prompted some mordant humor. A veteran Met singer said that, when his time comes, he does not want his ashes scattered in one of his places of employment. An audience member said that if she wanted to be at the Met for all eternity she would buy a ticket for Die Meistersinger. And I seem to be the only one who has wondered whether these two Rossini operas were the right ones for spreading ashes. Wouldn’t have La Cenerentola been more appropriate?

When humor is not enough, the best approach might be to turn to music. Marianna Pizzolato, who was to have sung the title role in L’Italiana in Algeri, came on Lincoln Center plaza and stood in front of the shuttered opera house to sing a portion of “Cruda Sorte” (“Bad Luck”), Isabella’s aria of determined resolve when things go wrong.


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Comments [26]

Jim from Pennsylvania

Would a sponsorship or recognition help in some way? For instance, where "X is the official piano of the Metropolitan Opera", then "Y is the official columbarium..." A real fundraising opportunity.

Dec. 24 2016 05:31 PM

I was on the M66 crosstown bus heading east on the day that the matinee was disrupted. (I had just been at a free concert at the Library for the Performing Arts.) A gal I spoke with had only kind things to say about the way the Met handled it (and this was before the revelation about the sprinkling/disposal of ashes).

Congrats Metropolitan Opera, and thank you!


Nov. 08 2016 12:38 AM
Rosanna from NYC

IMHO, the guy who dumped ashes into the Met's orchestra pit should be charged at least with disorderly conduct. He is a total self-absorbed jerk, regardless of whatever he promised his deceased friend or mentor. If everyone made such a stupid promise, performing arts venues would become free-for-alls. Besides, orchestra musicians invest a lot in their instruments and should not have to worry about random acts from audience members disturbing them during intermission or at any other time on the theater premises! As for Mr. Fischbein blaming this incident on a "far left Mayor", his comment is totally outrageous, and he should stay in Virginia 365/365 with his precious guns if he feels so insecure visiting NYC!!!!!!

Nov. 03 2016 09:27 PM
Floria from NYC

Aaah, Mr. Fischbone, I fear you have too much time on your hands. I would suggest you stop watching and listening to the news on TV and spend more time listening to opera CD's.

Nov. 03 2016 01:27 PM
Hendrik Sadi from Yonkers, NY

It wasn't a total loss. We got to see and hear Marianna Pizzolato sing Cruda Sorte outdoors. What a voice and what facial expressions. Just great!

Nov. 03 2016 12:54 PM
Fred Plotkin from Washington DC

Roger Kaiser, who sprinkled ashes in the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera on October 29, has written a letter to Peter Gelb and, by extension, the entire opera community. His entire letter can be found in Michael Cooper's article in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/03/arts/music/opera-fan-apologizes-for-scattering-ashes-at-metropolitan-opera.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

Nov. 02 2016 03:37 PM
Gary Fountain from Hamden, CT

Thoughtful and wise, Fred. Thanks!

Nov. 02 2016 09:53 AM
Beverly Kleiman from USA

Indeed our group of Rossini lovers outside the Met was stunned. Now that we have some perspective, it might be good to think of the perpetrator in the following way. He is like the neighbor in your huge apartment building who falls asleep smoking in bed. A fire starts and neighbors are forced from their home, Nobody injured, but all inconvenienced and suffering loss. Is he an evil person? No. Did he intend for this to happen? No. But there have to be consequences for actions, and you can be sure the smoker will experience them. The ash-thrower should have faced consequences, too. Otherwise the next person who contemplates suvh a thing will think it's no big deal. Viva Rossini...

Nov. 02 2016 08:59 AM
Gev from The Jersey Shore

To Fred Plotkin: Okay. Thank you!

Nov. 02 2016 08:09 AM
joshua from Boston

Charles, please stop.

Nov. 02 2016 07:17 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

Mary, America is bigger than New York, re "stay local" I did not remember hearing that plea when Virginia sent Fairfax and Warren County search and rescues teams into the state after 9/11, or after Super Storm Sandy. As far as I recall New Yorkers welcomed rescue personnel and first responders from Virginia, and allover the United States. Stop living in a shielded ghetto mentality.
You should have also asked Renee Fleming to stay LOCAL when she started her career singing with The Virginia Opera.
Your mentality is rather obscure.

Nov. 01 2016 12:06 PM
Mary Jane Hodge from Melville, Long Island

Mr. Fischbein, please try to cap your opinions. Virginia is a beautiful state. You are neither civil, on topic or brief Stay local.

Nov. 01 2016 11:12 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

Fred, I know you are well traveled, however when one spends twenty years in Middle East war zones like I have you get a feel for security. While I am sure the Met has a security director with excellent law enforcement credentials you cannot say that the orchestra pit is secured during intermissions, and their first line of defense are mostly elderly ushers. When I sit in Orchestra seats, although I prefer Dress Circle, I stretch my bad back and walk towards the pit during intermissions. There is never anyone securing the pit from the front of A row, while there may be personnel backstage that does not prevent a maniac from gaining quick access.
I am simply quoting the exact words of the two security personnel I interacted with when dealing with seat jumpers, I have not polygraphed them.
My point is that security experts today agree that large venues need a mix of visible and covert security to properly protect attendees. It is obvious the Met does not have a sufficient amount of visible security, what goes on covertly I doubt if even you are aware of. I am sure we are both sincere when we say that security and safety is a paramount issue especially in today's environment and while there must be balance with shows of force, some degree of noticeable security is a deterrent against attacks by either mentally ill people or those with a more sinister agenda.
At George Mason's 2000 seat Center for the Performing Arts there are at least six uniformed campus police and Fairfax County police outside the house and in the lobby. I have never seen police anywhere inside the Met and I have been attending annually since 1972.
See u'all in December. Good Music

Nov. 01 2016 11:08 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To Charles: Look around when you are next at the Met. Do you really think there are only 4 security people? To Gev: I don't go into much detail about what occurred during my time at the Met regarding security issues (or even since then) because it is important to respect various practices. Just take my word that the Met does this stuff really well and that, even though no place is perfect and all kinds of things can happen anywhere in our world. But if I genuinely felt that they were not on top of things I would not go there.

Nov. 01 2016 10:22 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

Well said Fred, for a change. I was simply responding to attacks re carry permits for public venues.
As far as the National Anthem, while the Met orchestra is excellent, Have you ever heard the West Point Orchestra and singers perform it? I doubt you could find it done better anywhere.
Re Met security about four years ago while attending a performance I was sitting in the Dress Circle. It was a mid week performance and there were several empty seats in from of us. During intermission two folks came down from Family Circle to occupy the seats.
I mentioned this to an usher who did nothing. I asked again and about five minutes later two gentleman who looked like there were were over 60 approached the pair and esorted them either out of the house, or back to their original seats.
I asked if there was additional security in the house to prevent this and they said they had a total of only four security personnel in the house.
There are ususally one or two police officers in the square, however in todays atmosphere that is far to few to provide adequate protection.
While that may have changed in the past few years and there may be unseen measures of security in the house, the light bag screening seems inadequate.
A show of force is the best protection for large numbers of people in a confined loction and that is missing at the Met.
Let us not forget the disruptions on opening night several years ago when even with a large outside police force there were disruptions in the house.
While no venue can proide 100% safety, from having traveled the world as a Middle East correspondent and seeing top level security the Met seems lacking in that department.'Lets pray for a safe season at the Met and throughout the rest of America so we can all enjoy the cultural events we love.
Enough said, now back to beautiful music and an uneventful trip for my next Met performances in December. Happy Holidays to all.

Nov. 01 2016 09:06 AM
Gev from The Jersey Shore

To Fred Plotkin: You had some interesting times there. About that 1988 incident: was that during "Macbeth?" And what about September '86 and the disruption of the opening night of the Moiseyev Dance Company? Somebody protested the company by tossing a canister of tear gas down the center aisle. We were never reimbursed for that cancelled performance . . . and I had to pay for the emergency-room treatment of tear gas in my eyes. The insurance company considered the incident "act of war" and didn't cover acts of war. At least the latest event was . . . not malicious. Misguided, yes, but . . . it sounds like the Met responded brilliantly.

Nov. 01 2016 08:41 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To Mr. Fischbein and others: I am going to ask that you avoid partisan sparring and to keep your comments limited to the topic I address in this article. And please be civil. I will just mention one thing, in the interest of clarity and accuracy--On the opening night of every Met season the orchestra plays the Star Spangled Banner and the entire audience rises and almost all of them sing. And those few who chose not to are perfectly entitled to do so or they might be from out of the country and don't know the song. This year the vigorous and lyrical performance of the National Anthem was led by Sir Simon Rattle. I have heard many of the world's greatest conductors, including Armiliato, Gergiev, Levine, Nezet-Seguin, conduct it better than you will hear anywhere else and I am always glad to hear it.

Nov. 01 2016 12:21 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

Re comments on carry permits. Unknown to MOST New Yorkers (and I was born in Manhattan 72 years ago)Virginia requires a full FBI background check, and a cadre of firearm safety courses on and off a range before issuing a carry permit for a personal firearm.
FYI, if just one person on the Orlando gay nightclub had carried a firearm the shooter could easily and been brought down during the seconds it took from him to replace a clip in a semi automatic rifle.
Re Black Lives Matter, when they walk down a New York street chanting "What do we want. Dead Cops Now" it leaves little to the imagination.
The murder rate in New York City has increased greatly since the new Mayor took office and stop and frisk was stopped.
I will admit New York City is safer than Chicago, however when I come up to New York six or more times a year for the Met I stay at a hotel at 80th St. and Riverside Drive.
I always walk to and from Lincoln Center and I can tell you when walking back to the hotel after an evening performance I see a major increase in people gathering on street corners and begging for spare change in front of coffee shops etc at night.
As I mentioned I would not even think of carrying my firearm in New York City as I follow the law, however the idea of personal protection is alive and well in Virginia.
FYI theee weeks ago I attended a performance of The Virginia Opera and right after the conductor came out the orchestra played a stunning rendition of The National Anthem. Everyome in the 2000 seat George Mason University Performing Art's Center stood, no one took a knee.
At least there are still some areas in America where a patriot can feel proud of his country.
I doubt if Gelb and his upper West Side Board of Directors would allow the National Anthem to be played before a performance.

Oct. 31 2016 06:45 PM
Daniel from Montreal

While he may be sorry, there's no amount of sorry that can make up for the lost revenue, wages, etc. Maybe this enthusiastic yet ultimately profoundly ignorant opera fan should dedicate some serious time to setting up an endowment, do a fundraiser, ...something.

Oct. 31 2016 04:15 PM
Nardo Poy from New York City

Wow. Charles Fischbein, first you need to get your facts straight about the crime situation here in New York City. It is statistically the safest large city in the US. You are apparently getting your "facts" from some far-right nonsensical "news" source. Also, your calling such organizations as Black Lives Matter speaks to your not understanding what the organization is about (to put it kindly). Maybe you can also tell us who these "ultra-liberal terrorist groups" are and what terrorist activities they were involved in. I would be more worried about people such as you being allowed to carry a fully-loaded firearm into a public theater than anyone you're describing. If you did bring such a firearm into the Met, you SHOULD be jailed. The security staff at the Met are very professional, not "elderly" (did you get that "fact" from your same "news" source?) and should not be armed. As for the incident, it was unfortunate, but what "order" in the house are you referring to? Comparing what needs to be done at the Met to what needs to be done at Madison Square Garden is a very strange comparison. I think that doesn't need explaining, as the reasons are self-evident.

Oct. 31 2016 04:09 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Nice foto of you Fred. Jolly Opera Maven.
Yes Keep Calm and listen to Rossini.
Best wishes

Oct. 31 2016 03:51 PM
David Schancupp from New Haven

Mr. Fischbein's comment is misguided. It would require a full body search, a-la TSA, to possibly discover a container of white powder on an attendee. The Met security staff does search satchels, tote bags and large packages at the entrances. While admittedly not as detailed a search as at the airport, in my view it is consistent with the nature of the audience and the threat level of a place like the Met. NOTHING can 100% protect a concert or opera audience, or attendees at a sporting event, or at a motion picture, from EVERY possible danger; it is part of living in our present society and in a city like New York. As a frequent visitor to the Met I, for one, would, not like to have to wait in an airport-type security line to gain entrance to the opera house. I am sorry if Mr. Fischbein's visit to New York was affected by the events of last Saturday, but trying to place the blame on the Met by casting unjustified calumny on its security staff is unwarranted and required a response.

Oct. 31 2016 03:36 PM
Sarah from Brooklyn, NY

You are much kinder to this man than I would be. I find his action incredibly selfish and ignorant. Anyone with the iq of a sand dollar would know you don't waltz into a theatre -- or any private space that isn't yours, or indeed any public space for that matter -- and spread something around. I don't care if it's dust or rose petals. You don't have that right, and he should have known better.

Oct. 31 2016 03:05 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I just LOVE Marianna Pizzolato, Torna pronto, Marianna!

Oct. 31 2016 01:48 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

The circumstances of the incident have received wide discussion,and there have been jokes made about where one's ashes should be spread.Ken Benson quipped that he would like his ashes to be spread at the Garnier.This misguided action halted a performance before one of the great moments in all of opera,Arnold's aria "Asile Hereditaire" and the cabaletta "Amis,amis" with 10 high "C's" as sung by Nicolai Gedda,who includes a portamento on the final "aux armes".Hymel only sings 9,but his is a worthy rendition.It is unfortunate that the attention was diverted from a chance to hear this opera in the original French for the first time at the MET,and relatively complete,with only 15 minutes of music cut,compared to the 30 minutes at the recent London production.

Oct. 31 2016 01:35 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

It is not a matter of what happens when an opera is cancelled. It is a matter of a general breakdown in law and order in New York City, and lax security at the Met.
I have been attending the Met since 1972 and travel from Virginia five plus times a year for performances. I cannot remember ever seeing any ushers or security around the orchestra pit during intermissions. Forget the fact that some musicians leave their expensive instruments unattended in the pit, but in today's environment with terror, and a New York Mayor who condones Black Live Matter and other ultra liberal terror groups the Met has a responsibility to back up the many elderly ushers with a visible security component.
NFL stadiums, Madison Sq. Garden et al have massive security force.
At a sell out performance the Met has nearly 4000 patrons in the house, plus staff and artists. It is a prime target with virtually NO real security.
Forget about the fact that many patrons travel long distances, pay for expensive New York hotel rooms, food, tickets etc, there is a responsibility to maintain order.
I hope many patrons who travelled from out of town file suit against The Met, as I would for not having a reasonable level of security to maintain order in the house.
With a rookie Police Commissioner and a far left Mayor it is up to Gelb and his cohorts to provide security at The Met, thank God no one was hurt with this insanity on Saturday, but lets think of what could have happened and what could happen in the future.
In Virginia I have a carry permit and take my gun with me 24/7 even to performances of The Virginia Opera, but in New York City I could be jailed if I brought it along and I, like everyone else in the house are at the mercy of a small mostly elderly unarmed security force. The pre check in bag inspections are a joke and cannot protect Met audiences and staff in today's environment.

Oct. 31 2016 01:31 PM

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