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Thursday, 10 December 2009 21:28

Feature: A Backstage Tour of The Metropolitan Opera

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The Metropolitan Opera
The interior of The Metropolitan Opera

If you have never had the pleasure of attending a performance at The Metropolitan Opera you are missing a rich and elegant treat.  I recently attended a blogger event that included a backstage tour of the Opera’s home at Lincoln Center.  Having worked in theatre my entire adult life I have had the pleasure of being in many beautiful theatres all over the country in the past twenty-five years.  However, when I was offered the chance to get a tour of The Metropolitan Opera I jumped at the chance, despite the fact that I traditionally only cover Broadway.

The Metropolitan Opera
The ceiling of The Metropolitan Opera House

The Metropolitan Opera was opened on March 16, 1966.  It took four years to build and was designed by the renowned architect Wallace K. Harrison.  As we entered the theatre the crew was busy setting the stage for The Marriage of Figaro.  The theatre was dim and had mostly work-lights and basic house-lights on.  As we were given a brief presentation by one of the volunteer guides the large chandelier overhead came to life.  Granted, it was in its up position (yes, it has positions) but spectacular none the less.  The Opera seats 3,800 and has standing room for another 195.  The seats are a lush crushed red velvet and the paneling throughout the theatre was created from a single rosewood tree from Kenya.

The Metropolitan Opera
Backstage at The Metropolitan Opera

The acoustics are so good in the hall that neither the singers nor the orchestra are miked (except perhaps for off-stage voices).  Renowned acoustician, Cyril M. Harris consulted on the acoustics of the space.  The hall was designed with no right angles to aid in enhancing the acoustics.  Cyril M. Harris was later brought in to testify in the Watergate hearings regarding the 18 minutes of missing audio “accidentally” deleted from the White House tapes.

On the back of the seat in front of each seat is a digital display that presents each attendee with the option of viewing multiple language translations of the opera.  The screens are designed such that you can’t view (i.e., aren’t distracted by) the screens around you.  As you look at the them you notice that they aren’t evenly spaced along the back of the seats.  This was done intentionally because each screen is positioned off the center line of the stage (the Pavarotti point as they call it).

The Metropolitan Opera
A prop in the making for The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Armida

We headed backstage to get a look behind the proscenium.  As we walked the long hallway to the stage door I noticed an office with a name on the door and the initials R.N. after it.  The Metropolitan Opera has a full-time nurse on staff.  Let’s face it, it’s theatre and in theatre people get hurt on stage.  If you consider that each show has between 100 and 150 stage hands alone working on any given show, an equal number of cast members and other personal and you are quickly in the hundreds.  You begin to understand why having a nurse on full-time is a necessity.

Once backstage we stepped into a beehive of activity as stage-hands pulled pieces of scenery out of storage for that night’s production.  Since the Met performs in repertory they change the set daily.  This is accomplished using large elevators on either side of the stage.  Scenery can be stored on three levels below stage level and those elevators get it there.  In addition, there are seven hydraulic elevators that run from upstage to downstage where pieces of scenery can appear and disappear.  The deck of the stage also includes 50 traps that can be used for various purposes (e.g., raising and lowering scenery,  actors and even animals).

The Metropolitan Opera
The stage manager's console at The Metropolitan Opera

From the stage we went to the scene shop where each of the shows is originally built.  The  room has 27 foot high ceilings to accommodate the large size of the sets they’re building.  The Met produces 28 productions a season with eight being new productions.  In order to secure the necessary talent for particular productions, their productions are planned four years in advance.  Approximately one year before a show they test the set design by creating “piece parts.”  These create a mock-up of the set which is then put on stage under light to ensure the design of the production.

The staff at the Met refers to their home at Lincoln Center as a city unto itself and it certainly is.  If you would like to take your own tour of The Metropolitan Opera, visit The Guild site for details.  Stop back next week when I’ll be reviewing The Metropolitan Opera’s holiday production of Hansel and Gretel



Last modified on Saturday, 19 December 2009 15:00