On being at the Met for the first time

The Metropolitan Opera looms pretty large in the consciousness of any North American opera goer though, I suspect, is not as big a deal as its management thinks elsewhere. I was very curious then to experience it for myself.  I see most of my opera in the comparatively intimate Four Seasons Centre (2100 seats) or even smaller spaces.  I’m almost used to getting kicked as a character writhes at my feet in a small space production.  I’ve been in larger houses too; neither the Coliseum nor Covent Garden are small.  That said, the first impression of the auditorium and stage at the Met is just how big it is.  We sat in the front row of the Balcony and the combined Balcony and Family Circlre stretched away behind us, apparently the size of a rugby field (probably a Welsh one given the slope).  I had not realized that the Family Circle is not really an additional “ring” but a backwards continuation of the Balcony.

met1So what does that do for the viewing/listening experience?  It puts a lot of people a long, long way from the action which probably explains the preference at the Met for spectacle over detail.  Opera glasses are a must.  The sound is pretty good.  Voices carry well and the acoustic is kind on orchestral climaxes albeit with a slightly odd effect that when the music got really loud it was clearly bouncing off the ceiling at me.  The whole sound stage shifted with volume.  This was disconcerting for a few seconds!  It must be hard on singers.  We had five big voices for Frau but they didn’t sound that big to my ears.  I guess one calibrates differently with practice.  I can see why a lot of very good, but not very loud, singers just don’t want to sing there.  One aspect of the experience that I didn’t much care for were the Met Titles.  Instead of surtitles over the proscenium the Met gives you the text in front of your seat on a little screen.  For someone like me who takes half a second to focus from distant vision to close vision (result of having slightly slow bionic eyes) this was very disconcerting and distracting though i suppose one gets used to it.

met2What about the house outside the auditorium?  It’s plush; red and gold and dark wood like an expensive steak house (but with incredible chandeliers).  Also very curvilinear.  For a comparatively new house it doesn’t feel modern at all.  It’s also very, very crowded.  It seems to take for ever to get all those people their interval champagne and cookies, not to mention the toffs finishing up dinner during the first interval.  The audience seems pretty much like any other opera audience (with one exception).  It’s mostly more or less casually dressed with a smattering of formality and there are the mandatory small groups of gay guys gossiping and discussing the singing in gruesome detail.  The excetion, it seems to me, is that there is still a stratum of black tie clad rich people who behave as if they own the place (they probably do).  It makes the Opéra de Paris c.1890 seem much more understandable.

met3I’m glad my introduction to the place was a “big” Strauss opera.  That really does seem to play to the houses’s strengths.  One day I’ll go and see Mozart there out of sheer curiosity because everything I saw feels wrong for Wolfgang; sort of like elephants dancing in tutus.

12 thoughts on “On being at the Met for the first time

  1. The trick to Met titles is to sit somewhere behind the front row and read over the shoulder of the person in front of you. I think they can’t put surtitles over the proscenium because of the size and shape of the auditorium — they’d be entirely in your face upstairs and the folks downstairs would need a trip to the chiropractor afterward.

    I believe the black tie people are a club that’s sort of like the homeless guys who live in the VA hospital — permanent fixtures, admin tolerates them but finds them faintly annoying. I don’t think they own anything but they have a squat in the building somewhere. I could be wrong, though. 🙂

  2. I’m pretty sure that the MET titles are a result of James Levine not wanting obtrusive surtitles placed over the stage. The MET held out for much longer after surtitles had been introduced just about everywhere else. Levine famously said something like “over my dead body” but I guess in the end compromised with the seat-title version. I know there are a few other opera houses that use them. In some ways, I find them better than surtitles in that you don’t have to constantly look up, then down and take your eyes off the stage as much. Surtitles are great if you’re higher up in an opera house, i.e. more at the level of the titles themselves. I’ve heard people complain bitterly about them if they’re sitting in the so-called best seats – orchestra level. I’m sure there are pluses and minuses to both systems though. One good thing about MET-type titles is that they can offer translations in several languages which is very cumbersome on a surtitle. I’ve seen it in Montreal where they project them in English and French – that’s a lot of text above the stage!

  3. I always thought the reason for the Met titles rather than surtitles was the wonderful sculpture over the stage. I am sure someone gave a big ass donation for the Met to hang that piece of junk over the stage. Balcony and FC are the best places to hear a performance. My first performance at the Met was a Bolshoi Boris in the mid-70s where I had FC standing room. I was so far away I probably would have been better off trying to watch from the roof of my house in Brooklyn.

  4. As someone who’s been going to the ‘new’ Met since it opened, I was fascinated to read your first impressions (steak house, yes, hah!). I think you’d be surprised how well a well-produced lighter voice can carry there, especially right to the heights of the Balcony/Family Circle. At the old Met, the FC was definitely another level, I think this configuration came in part from then-General Manger Rudolf Bing’s requirement that the conductor be visible from every seat in the new house, which maybe wasn’t possible up there otherwise. Sounds like a successful visit!

  5. Went to the Met three years ago, dressed up, best seats and a great opera! Loved it. I like your description though – all the things I didn’t think of as I was carried away with the occasion. You should make a trip to Melbourne for the Opera – surtitles nicely placed, good size stage and great acoustics. The Ring Cycle is on now and getting rave reviews – beach goers, feathers and Wotan on the couch!

    • I don’t really need an excuse to visit Melbourne as I have two kids in Canberra! That said I’ve done that flight more times than I can remember and it would take more than a chance to hang out with Pigmund the Rock Pig to get me to do it again in economy!

  6. The voices didn’t sound big to me either – it was strange. I’ve never had that impression before of large voices sounding small, or even smaller voices not carrying, in the Met’s hall. I couldn’t figure out if it was the opera itself, or being sick, or where I was sitting.

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