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.
So 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.
What 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.
I’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.