First Night at the Met

Looking at night into the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, by Paul Masck – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons.

I am blessed to have numerous interests and to have been able to sample many of them so far in my life.  For instance, while I’m no ballerina, I did get to take ballet lessons and to see Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake.  My French and Italian have notable flaws, but I’ve been fortunate to have visited France, to have traveled in Italy twice, and to have had happy adventures in both places.  I’m no singer, but I do get to be in a church choir, have had season tickets to the Delaware and Philadelphia Operas, and have been in the audience at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, a handful of times.  This story tells about some of the adventures surrounding and during my first opera at the Met, twenty years ago this month.  I hope the story inspires you to revisit your own special times.

The health-food-store[1] lentil soup is memorable for its setting on the Upper West Side.  The only grumpy person I will cross paths with in New York is the middle-aged woman at the check-out counter.  She is in an area that serves also as a juice bar.  At first she tells me I can’t pay at her register, but I say my tea is from the juice bar, so can I pay her, after all?  She grunts.  I ask if she said yes.  She grunts.  I pay her.

As my companions, Tina and Alice, and I finish our lunch on a wide island in the middle of Broadway just south of 90th Street, I sense myself apart, of the city but separate from it, observing.  I am with Tina and Alice but also alone with my own thoughts and the images passing in front of me.  A heavy-set woman in running shoes sits down next to me on the bench, but we never acknowledge each other or look each other in the face.

While Alice was driving us to the hotel, she was repeatedly frustrated in efforts to turn a corner by the pedestrians crossing the street.  But when we exchange driving for walking, we become part of the ruling pedestrian tyranny, forging across the street with the light, or before it, watching out only for taxis who don’t care if we have the right-of-way.

Having finished our lunch, we walk down Broadway, stopping at Zabar’s to explore what must be the world’s most complete selection of kitchenware.  It makes me think that cooking might not be too bad.  I like the colored vases and glasses made in Italy, the hot mitts with puppet faces sewn onto them, and the huge copper kettles.  On the first floor, the rich smell of cheese almost overcomes the odor of raw fish.  A child in a stroller squalls as his mother tries to push him through the narrow, crowded aisles.  “We’ll go home right after this.  I promise,” she tells him.

Back on the street, children pass in Halloween costumes, a tiny girl in a long organdy dress, a little boy dressed as an unidentifiable (to me) cartoon superhero.  A woman walking with her elementary-school-aged son and daughter talks on a cell phone:  “I’ll take Ella to her music lesson, and you can take. . . .”  The dogs are the most interesting of all.  No one in New York has a dull-looking dog.

An elderly homeless man sleeps in a doorway with his head on one of the run-down Nikes he’s removed.  Other homeless men ask for money.  One man I will wish later I had helped is both old and frail.  I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing.

We walk about fifteen blocks south of our hotel and then return so that Tina and Alice can change their shoes.  Fortunately, we have to be at the restaurant, Josephina,[2] at 5:00, so we can’t waste time in the hotel.  After a quick return stop at the health-food store to buy dessert for later, we hustle down Broadway and make it to Josephina exactly on time.  Alice called for reservations after we finished eating lunch and was told that all the reservations for times we could come were filled, but that if we come right at 5:00 and leave by 6:15, we can probably get in.  That’s what we do.

On the way to the restaurant, we pass Giuseppe Verdi Square, a pleasant little elongated rectangle of ivy and trees, but on some of the trees a sign has been tacked: “Rat poison in use in the area.”  Down closer to Josephina and Lincoln Center, we find Richard Tucker Park (with no mention of rats).

Josephina has a clean, open, peaceful, and well-polished feel.  On two of the walls are large, colorful murals of Italy, done in a Cézanne-like style and emphasizing hills and cypresses, houses with red-tiled roofs, and people having fun in outdoor cafés.  On another wall is a mural of Cézanne-like fruit.  A large and pretty portrait of the real Josephina, someone’s grandmother, hangs over the bar, and on a post is a huge photograph of her wedding in a crowded village church.  The wedding couple and their guests were intensely alive then.  Now their day has passed and we are trying to live our lives.

For dinner, I have St. Peter’s fish, which I have never heard of before but which is about the best fish I ever ate.  I can enjoy the meal because the opera will not start until eight, and all we have to do is cross the street.  Walking down the block ending with Josephina, we passed Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera to our right—a dream, a mirage become real.

After dinner, Tina and Alice want to sit on the wall around the fountain, but I can’t be that close and not go in.  In the Met store I find—and buy—the copy of the original La Bohème poster that I’ve wanted since I first saw a photo of it on the Internet, a box of notecards that have prints of several old opera posters, and Christmas cards that show a painting of the Met from the perspective of a balcony looking out over the chandeliers in the entrance and a Christmas tree outside.  The inscription talks about singing.  Simply to be in the shop thrills me.  I can pass up the pretty cloth purses made from the fabric of old Met costumes—and sold for high prices—but seeing all the CDs and videos of operas and singers makes me feel like a mouse loose in a cheese shop.

By Adolfo Hohenstein – Allposters, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

When I’ve temporarily had my fill, I go back out to Tina and Alice.  They share their chocolate cupcake between them, and I eat half my cookie while we watch the gathering crowd and a couple of men trying to interest passers-by in their tickets.  Just indoors, Chagall murals on musical themes hang on either side of the opera house as an integral part of the Met’s facade.

Tina and Alice want to see the store, so I happily go back in with them.  Franco Corelli is singing Puccini over the loudspeakers, and the store is crowded now.  We join the line waiting to go into the theater itself.  We see a couple of beautiful sequined tops, but many people are dressed as we are and could have come right from the office to the opera.  The somewhat chaotic line of waiting people is happy, excited, or maybe I am so happy and excited that everyone else looks that way, too.  One older couple cuts in line, as if waiting an extra thirty seconds after the ticket-takers let us past would be too much.

“All the way up,” the man who takes our tickets tells us.  I don’t mind being very used to hearing, “All the way up,” in concert halls and opera houses.  The Met carpets and seats are red, as they should be.  Our seats are on stage left in the fourth row of the highest section, which goes on to slope gradually upward, far above us.  We love our seats, although no sequins make it up that high.

As we wait for the curtain to rise, the chandeliers float above us like masses of delicate, sparkling Christmas stars suspended below the gold ceiling.  The house begins to darken and the still-lighted small chandeliers that have been below our line of sight rise slowly to the ceiling.  “I’m going to cry,” says Alice, overcome by the beauty.  I feel the same way.

The overture to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro—and among the peak evenings of my life—begins.  How can I describe perfection of sound?  Some of the voices are perfect, and others are beyond perfection to celestial:  Susan Graham’s as Cherubino and Hei Kyung Hong’s as the Countess.  I think to myself, “For the rest of my life, I want to listen to music like this without pause.”

Except for the applause and bravos, the audience is quiet and attentive—no candy-wrapper rattlers—and I don’t see any empty seats.  Instead of being projected over or beside the stage, the translations are on a small screen on the back of each seat; one can engage them or not.  I love the system—no getting behind, as occasionally happens at OperaDelaware, no trying to look up at the titles and down at the action simultaneously.  Some of the words to Le Nozze di Figaro are delightfully humorous.

During the second intermission, my friends and I buy $3 glasses of mineral water to quench our thirst from the salty dinner.  After each act, I am happy that more is to come.  But then the opera ends.  Although I am tired from not enough sleep and too much walking, I would gladly watch the opera through again immediately, and then again, and then again.  Even in the Met, some people rush out during the applause.  I have a passing urge to trip them.

If it didn’t mean my first evening at the Met is over, I would love being in the milling crowd making its way downstairs.  Outside, a row of limousines waits.  It is midnight as we walk a few blocks to the Mozart Café,[3] for which Alice has seen an ad mentioning live classical music.  The live music turns out to be jazz tonight, but the place is open until 3 a.m. and serves unsweetened apple pie, which Tina and Alice order.  I choose a pot of passion-fruit-and-peppermint tea, which turns out to be about the best herbal tea I ever tasted.  The crowd is nearly all young.  At a table near us, a handsome couple spends as much time gazing at each other as talking or eating.  Another nearby table is full of wholesome-looking young people who remind me of the music students at West Chester University, where I work.

We leave the restaurant around one in the morning and walk all the way home—about thirty blocks—although we could have taken the M104 bus, which seems to run all night.  I am a little nervous walking in some of the quieter spots, although we are far from the only folks out tonight.  Alice says a few times, “You’re going too fast.”

Two boys on bicycles aim their bikes right at Alice and me.  A young man passes us as he talks—or pretends to talk—on a cell phone in a frighteningly crazed rush of words.  After these encounters, we speed up and Alice doesn’t seem to think we’re going too fast at all.  I am glad to see the hotel.  It has been one of those times when I’ve heard but haven’t heeded my better judgment, thinking that I don’t want to be difficult and that probably, possibly, everything will be okay.  Fortunately, for the three of us this night, it is.

Alice is quick in the bathroom, and then it is my turn.  I cannot go to sleep while someone else is stirring in the room, and back and forth Tina goes, back and forth, back and forth.  I think, this time will be it, but then the back and forth repeats.  Finally Tina goes to bed.  I fall deeply asleep.


[1] The store we visited is Gary Null’s Uptown Whole Foods.

[2] The restaurant was wonderful and the site of many memories for me, but it has since closed.

[3] This restaurant is also permanently closed.

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