At the end, there will be a beginning. New Year’s Eve heralds the premiere of a new production of Donizetti’s largely forgotten work, “Maria Stuarda” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The lead role of Mary, Queen of Scots will be performed by the well known mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato. I can imagine what it will be like: the vast auditorium in Lincoln Centre will darken, the crystal chandeliers will rise as their light diminishes. The transfixed audience will be a varied bunch: their attire will range from jeans to black tie. Perhaps on a night as auspicious as New Years Eve and a premiere, those in formal dress will be in greater numbers than usual.
Once the light fades, the orange text on 3,000 miniature LED screens embedded in the seat backs will read “Act I”. The conductor will enter the orchestra pit and take a brief bow as the audience applauds. He will turn to his colleagues and then raise his baton. The music will begin. After the overture, Ms. DiDonato’s voice will augment the instruments. Her recent album, entitled “Drama Queens”, showed how impressive she can be. In particular, her performance of Giacomelli’s aria “Sposa, son disprezzata” from the opera “Merope” was stunning. No doubt she will rise to this occasion with something just as splendid.
But the opera is so much more than just the music; I was privileged to get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes a few days before Christmas.
My parents go quite often, and their continued patronage does confer certain privileges. They had mentioned the possibility that I could go backstage prior to the holidays; as I’m an aficionado of classical music, I was excited by the prospect. My parents made the arrangements.
My other half and I followed a familiar route to get there from my parents’ suburban home; we took the train into Manhattan. The station was blasted by winter gusts, there was a hint of icy damp in the air which suggested snow might be on the way. I smiled; I recalled similar scenes from my youth when my father and I would wait prior to embarking on an adventure. One time, we went into Manhattan to have dinner and see an ice hockey match between the New York Islanders (my team) and their arch rivals the New York Rangers. I ate more steak than I thought possible; the Islanders won, my father had to calm me down lest we were roughed up by enraged Ranger fans. We made a hasty escape via Penn Station. Most importantly, my father and I implanted memories which we discuss more than thirty years after the fact.
My sense of nostalgia was heightened when the train finally arrived. It was an aged commuter model from the 1970’s; I remembered how it seemed out of date even when it was new. The seats, upholstered with an incongruous mix of red and blue vinyl, were shiny, perhaps polished involuntarily by so many commuters in wool trousers sitting on them. The wood veneer on the panels was as fake and tacky as ever; never mind, for one brief moment I was ten again and my father towered above me carrying a newspaper and smelling like Polo Ralph Lauren aftershave. My other half squeezed my hand; the gesture drew my thoughts back into the present.
Things have moved on: as a female conductor proceeded down the carriage, checking tickets, I recalled how conductors used to all be male and mostly paunchy. Their belts merely acted as a demarcation point of the middle of their bodies; their bellies frequently encroached over the border. The female conductor pleasantly requested the travellers’ tickets; I remembered how her predecessors had a tendency to wheeze out similar, less well mannered demands.
After she moved on, I looked out the window at Queens. It didn’t appear to be much affected by the recent ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Cynics would no doubt state that it would be difficult to tell if it had. Nevertheless, compared to my last visit, there seemed to be more going on; the people on the train seemed more cheerful. This perception may have been due to the bonhomie of the holidays or a reflection of my own good mood. It may also have been attributable to the year’s labours, including the election, being largely over: catharsis perhaps was the ultimate result.
The train eventually slid into a tunnel; after a few minutes, we arrived at Penn Station. A subway ride eventually led us to Lincoln Centre; upon seeing its white modern buildings, I smiled again. I recalled an occasion in 1988 when my father was away on a business trip and left behind a ticket for a performance of “La Bohème” which starred Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni; I went with my mother. I remember how Pavarotti’s voice reverberated throughout the auditorium as he sang “Che gelida manina” and how tenderly Freni responded with “Sì, Mi chiamano Mimì”.
I took a deep breath; my girlfriend and I went inside and met our tour guide, a well dressed elderly woman who I believe was doing this as a hobby. We were also accompanied by a grey haired gentleman in glasses and his grandson; the grandson told the tour guide that he was studying towards a degree in set design.
Our guide took us through the staff entrance. She informed us that the opera house was finished in 1966, the acoustics were devised by the same man who restored “lost” sounds to the White House tapes which had been so damaging to President Nixon. There had been a predecessor building, however it simply didn’t have the box seats that New York’s leading families required. Furthermore, the new building was intended to have all the facilities to construct and stage any opera they cared to put on.
The result is the most complex edifice I’ve ever visited. It’s also the strangest because it’s simultaneously the messiest yet the most efficient. We were led down winding corridor after winding corridor to various workshops: one area was devoted to carpenters putting together massive sets for forthcoming operas. Another was set aside for metal work, yet another for painting. Costumes had their own department; the clothes for “Maria Stuarda” hung on racks in the hallways. We were advised not to touch them as the oils from human hands might affect their sheen; this was a particular issue, we were told, because of the advent of high definition broadcasts. I had assumed that period costumes were something that could be rented, albeit at great expense; I was wrong. Each costume was designed and sewed by in-house specialists.
The Metropolitan Opera also has its own rehearsal facilities. Our little group passed by a room in which the understudies were practicing; there was a moment of high drama, the mezzo-soprano acting the part of the unhappy Queen of Scots looking suitably distressed. We were assured by our guide that the effort was not in vain: each understudy would get at least one performance.
None of this, however, prepares one for the stage: it is not just vast, it is comprised of a series of spaces, it is also a rotating tableau, and has giant elevating platforms. It’s all designed so large scenes can slide in and out relatively quickly. It also means that preparations for a grand opera like Aïda are quite complex. Our group encountered a gentleman named, appropriately enough, Verdi, who was responsible for the pyrotechnics: he was planning some suitable explosions for that evening’s performance of “Don Giovanni”.
The final stop on the tour was the auditorium. As we settled into the seats, our guide told us some facts about the interior. It features a reddish wood panelling which all comes from one African redwood tree. This particular wood was chosen for its acoustic properties. The tree was 100 feet tall and apparently 30 feet in diameter.
Our guide also informed us that the Metropolitan Opera is a union shop: it has no less than 15 working there at present. The building was constructed with union labour: the guide said this proved to be handy as the design of the interior called for sculpted plaster which demanded curves. The problem was in the 1960’s that no one was utilising curves, so the union managed to persuade retirees to come back into service.
The tour ended. My father had tickets for “Aïda” in a couple of days time; knowing more about what went into such a production made it all the more exciting. At the same time, I knew that having seen all this and considered the expense involved, some might ask “Why? What is it for?” Surely, some would argue, opera is an art form that is the sole province of a removed elite, not there nor intended for mass consumption. The Prussian king Frederick the Great didn’t think so: when he built an opera house for his people in Potsdam, it was there to act as a symbol of enlightenment. Perhaps Frederick’s wisdom is what should endure: the reason opera survives despite all the slings and arrows that the mass media and its marketing minions can throw at it is because it still is a beacon. It represents a supreme achievement in the arts, music, writing, set building, costume making and lighting; it is an even elegant riposte to the idea that unions are out of date. Its place in our culture’s continuity is perhaps symbolised by the fact that a significant premiere is happening at the very point in time at which we swap the old year for a new one.
I have made the journey home from the opera many times; usually the hour is quite late by the time I arrive. I am conscious that by the time the bow tie is off and the shoes are removed and the jacket is hung away that I am in a strange minority, I belong to the select group whose eyes are still open. This acute lateness is much like New Year’s Eve: after midnight, many weary souls will make their way home, remove their finery or dross, reflect on what has been, then go to bed, sleep, and perhaps dream of times to come.