Maria Callas and Mario del Monaco stared at me from a wall in a corridor. I locked eyes with the celebrated singers, their portraits on canvas were the first of various theatrical encounters when I toured the hidden halls of the famed Metropolitan Opera House earlier this year.
It had been decades since I last visited the theater that turns 50 on September 16. What better way to get reacquainted than to observe firsthand the productivity that happens beyond the main stage?
Backstage is a veritable hoarder’s house of history and memorabilia that satisfied the curiosity of both die-hards and lapsed theater-goers like me. History lessons came early in the tour, in the form of poster-sized photographs lining another long hallway. One black-and-white image features a truck packed with stage sets that drivers delivered from off-site storage to the original theater that opened at Broadway and 39th Street in 1883.
“The old opera house had no backstage to store sets,” our guide informed us.
Another image captured conductor Thomas Schippers standing before an audience in the newly-constructed opera house during the opening night performance of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra on September 16, 1966.
On the second floor, we passed a glass-encased wig that soprano Renata Scotto wore in Madama Butterfly on her Met Opera debut in 1965, the year before the current theater opened at Lincoln Center. In its wig department, workers can spend up to 35 hours weaving together just one piece of custom-fitted locks. For a sense of scale, our guide also noted that the costume department produces as many as 2,000 garments annually.
While walking through the carpentry shop, our group feasted eyes on the mechanical beating heart of the Met—everything from table saws to oversized clamps are employed to create sets and props, and vertically stacked sheets of plywood and drywall conjured visions of Home Depot shopping aisles.
I’ve only attended one opera, Bizet’s Carmen at a theater in Roanoke, Virginia. And my only trip to the Met was to watch a dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, in 1986. As the tour continued, though, and I observed more of the theater’s multifaceted production, I started to entertain thoughts of a return trip.
Immediately backstage, floor-to-ceiling shelves are stuffed with everything from used costumes stored in plastic containers to dusty, yellowed newspapers. I was wowed by the immense size of the main stage, easily two basketball courts, and its hydraulics and other mechanics that rotate, raise and lower its multiple sections. Dozens of stagehands were busy building a set for a production of Turnadot that evening. Later, they would break it down to set up for La Bohème the next day.
“Both are very big, physical sets,” our guide said of the Puccini-composed operas.
As we threaded through a maze of more corridors, the sounds of a violinist tuning up and a baritone exercising his vocal cords in preparation for the night’s performance came from behind dressing room doors.
This is very much a working opera house, I thought, with scores of people in various departments producing behind the scenes to seamlessly stage 200 performances during each September-to-May opera season.
Finally relaxing among the 3,800 plush seats inside the five-tiered, burgundy-and-gold auditorium, our group admired the wall veneers made of a 100-foot London rosewood; the gold leaf ceiling and the suspended chandeliers—a gift from the Austrian government for the liberation of Europe during World War II.
Before departing, our group got to observe the depths of the orchestra pit. It can hold up to 100 musicians and also rise, if needed, to extend the stage. I imagined it alive again, as it was on my last visit thirty years ago.
The scale of the theater’s productive activities, seen and unseen, had piqued my interest enough to finally want to watch an opera come to life on this grand New York stage.|