I FEEL JUST LIKE RODOLFO, willing the words to spill forth: “This pen is abominable!” he declares as he points his instrument of expression at the painter, Marcello. The painter responds glumly: “So’s my brush.”
But instead of frustration at lack of inspiration, I am floating on air, still searching for the right words to describe my first trip to the Met Opera. “Overwhelmed” is a good word.
I am privileged to have been one of several lucky staff members from the world’s premier opera training institution, the Academy of Vocal Arts, selected to travel to arguably the world’s greatest opera stage, the Metropolitan Opera, and to have been able to go backstage as well – how’s that for a first trip to the Met?
Our trip didn’t start out feeling too lucky, however – in fact, due to a highly volatile combination of heavy traffic and a faulty GPS, we nearly missed the first act. There were seven minutes till curtain and we had just emerged from the depths of the Lincoln Tunnel. “How can we possibly catch it in time?” I lamented regretfully to myself (Snapchat story proves this).
But I had mourned prematurely; my phone read 7:26pm and the Met’s entrance was still swarming with people getting to their seats for 8pm curtain. Our party raced off the bus and I tempo-ran between the magnificent columns of the entrance, relief flooding my body as I stepped across the threshold of the international opera house. I’m sure I looked like a cartoon as I stared in open-mouthed wonder, my eyes drinking in the entrance hall.
Inside imagine: all red velvet and blinding chandeliers, cascading royal red carpets, wide glass windows soaking in the light from outside. Look up and the three or four starbursts of glass chandeliers that seemed to be made out of light itself meet your eye. It took me about a beat to realize the great light fixture was made entirely of Swarovski crystals.
Continue looking up, past the chandeliers and your reality of sight seems to multiply: there are levels upon levels of red floors swarming with people. Several times I found myself fin danger of losing my group because I was so immersed in the beauty of the splendor around me.
My phone read 7:29pm and there wasn’t any time to waste. We entered the theater and found our seats quickly – the red velvet of the entrance followed us in too and once the chatter and busyness of the crowds fell away and I stopped checking the rows for my seat, I found my eyes trailing upward…
Very little can prepare you for seeing a true wonder. Sure, we’ve all seen the Great Wall of China’s patchwork of bricks or the vastness of the Grand Canyon’s gaping mouth in pictures, but when you’re actually there, seeing the Wall’s graphic and strange beauty or the Grand Canyon’s endless, empty space and surprising array of colors, you fulfill a little bit of yourself in some way.
That’s how I felt drinking in the sight of the red and gold ageless ceiling of the Metropolitan Opera House, with its seemingly never-ending levels of seats towering up into the sky– dang, the opera hadn’t even begun yet and I was already without words, much like Rodolfo (he and I are beginning to have a lot in common).
I settled into my seat (not without taking a bunch of pictures) and almost immediately the lights from the Swarovski crystal chandelier dimmed. The murmur of the crowd ceased and Maestro Dan Ettinger walked into the orchestra pit to uproarious applause. The orchestra quieted, an electricity of anticipation sweeping the theater row by row. I inched forward in my seat like a kid at a movie theater for the first time and held my breath as the curtains parted. The orchestra sprang to life.
Act I opened and time rewound itself.
We were no longer in 2016 New York, 70 degrees outside, but 1830s Paris, 20 degrees and falling. I was looking into the home of two artists, two bohemians as they joyfully lamented their lack of monetary means. The orchestra was beautiful, loud and moved as one musical beast. When listening to the vocalists, I had to keep reminding myself that no mics were in use, that the vocalists’ were able to carry their notes effortlessly over the orchestra. This is, of course, one of the many factors that makes opera mind-bogglingly impressive.
Rodolfo, sung by AVA graduate, Bryan Hymel, sang of burning his precious drama to fuel the fire to maintain warmth in the cold apartment. More characters entered and exited the scene until the orchestra filtered itself to just a few violin strings and a knock sounded on Rodolfo’s door. A new character was arriving.
“They call me Mimí,” says a seamstress as Rodolfo lights her candle for warmth.
Perhaps one of the most well-known scenes in one of the most well-known operas, Rodolfo answers Mimí and in true Bohemian (and operatic) fashion, declares his love for her in a glorious aria. At the end of Rodolfo’s aria, to my surprise, the singers froze onstage, locked in each other’s gazes as the house erupted in applause, claps echoing around the theater like heavy rain. I was slightly taken aback – I’d thought it wasn’t acceptable to clap in between arias, but apparently that’s not the case here. Some audience members even stood up and shouted “Bravo!” (for good reason of course – there’s a reason Bryan Hymel is one of the world’s leading tenors, the evidence of which is still humming in my ears).
An aside – Is it just American audiences that applaud, interrupting the work? I’m told this is common in Europe too and incidentally, as I searched for my seat before the performance began, I heard snippets of languages around me that made me feel as though we were in Europe – but I digress.
Mimí unfreezes, smiles shyly at Rodolfo and Act I continues. In between the first and second act, the curtain comes down and a brief pause is indicated on the subtitles screen on the back of the seat in front of me. I start to contemplate the ability of 3,800 people in one setting to be silent and still, when the curtains part again.
QUICK QUESTION: Have you ever heard a theater full of people gasp in unison? I have. Here’s why:
The curtains part to reveal new scene set before us. Now we are on the streets of Café Momus on a hilly and bustling street in the Latin Quarter of Paris, crowds are milling about, shop keepers and peddlers skip in between the SNOW THAT’S FALLING. (GUYS, THERE’S SNOW FALLING ONSTAGE!) Also, there were children running around through the streets (so many kids that I thought, “gosh, they should really be in bed and not outside in the cold,” before catching myself). At one point during Act II, a military parade marches by under a giant Tricolore and an actual HORSE is ushered past through the crowd. Musetta enters, AVA graduate, Ailyn Pérez, her voice warm and luscious, ringing throughout the theater, dazzling the crowds at Café Momus with her charm, much to Marcello’s discomfort. After much teasing between the two former lovers, Musetta falls back into Marcello’s arms and the act closes.
It is worth pointing out that this production is, in fact, 35-years-old. Franco Zeffirelli, famed director and producer of operas, staged La Bohème at the Met in 1981. He designed most of the scenery himself and to this day, the splendor and magnificence of the sets remain onstage and still evoke powerful reactions from audiences.
The opera carries on. Mimí confesses to Marcello that she believes she and Rodolfo are on the cusp of separating. Unaware that Mimí has hidden nearby, Rodolfo enters the scene and shares with Marcello that Mimi’s worsening illness is becoming too much for him to bear and that parting with her may be the only solution. Mimí bursts forth from her hiding place and the two reminisce about their past happiness together while in the background, Marcello and Musetta quarrel and hurl insults at each other.
The final act opens with Rodolfo and Marcello reflecting on their mutual loneliness; both have since separated from their lovers and reflect together on lost love. Their friends Colline and Schaunard enter and join them for a meager meal. Suddenly, Musetta arrives at the garret and declares that Mimí is outside but too weak to come upstairs. As Rodolfo rushes to help her, Musetta informs Colline, Schaunard and Marcello that Mimí had asked to be brought to Rodolfo’s side to die. Mimí enters the garret and is made a comfortable bed. She and Rodolfo recall their first meeting and happier moments together as Mimí slowly drifts into unconsciousness and dies. The opera closes to thunderous applause and a well-deserved curtain call.
As if the poignancy and pain of La bohème combined with the architectural beauty of the Metropolitan Opera House aren’t enough, our party was invited backstage to meet with AVA’s alumni after the performance (be still my heart!!). Meeting two of the stars of the opera we had just seen onstage was incredibly thrilling. The entire time I could barely breathe for my excitement. Bryan Hymel and Ailyn Pérez could not have been more personable and generous with their time.
THE BUS RIDE HOME
… was long, dark and reflective.
“Dark” in the sense that we drove late into the night and didn’t get back into Philadelphia until 2am!
“Reflective” in the sense that I had a luxurious amount of time to mediate on the work I’d just seen. I came to a few conclusions:
1. Puccini’s music is lyrical, poignant and tugs at your heartstrings. From a musical standpoint, the melodic structure of the opera contacts sudden increases or decreases in tempo, orchestration and melodies. For me, this musical quickness and suddenness illustrates the speed of emotion and how quickly these characters fall in and out of love with one another, which demonstrates the carefreeness of Bohemian life. The music is a character too: “Musetta’s waltz” is nostalgic, syrupy and bittersweet whereas the “streets of Paris” theme is upbeat and celebratory. Even after the orchestra has played its final chord, the music doesn’t leave your body.
2. The deeper messages of the opera. “Mono no aware” is a Japanese phrase that expresses a gentle sadness about the passing of something beautiful (example: fallen cherry blossoms on the ground). For me, this was a continuous theme in the opera and the character of Mimí is the personification of this phrase; she is young and gorgeous, yet sick and spends most of the opera near death. She loves the springtime and as part of her occupation as seamstress, she embroiders flowers (which, are in turn, an imitation of a season she won’t live to see). It is no accident that she dies in the cruel cold of winter. Her death serves as a reminder of the fleetingness of beauty and the fragility of life, that it is because of life’s uncertainly that we are able to appreciate the most precious things life offers us.
3. Opera is art and art is supposed to make you feel stuff. Theater, galleries, orchestral concerts and various other forms of performance/ non-performance art that I’m forgetting help to forge the creative expression with the human existence. All of these experiences open us up to our deeper emotions and reiterations of the human experience, but opera, for me is the most complete: it combines theatrics, music, lyrics and drama in ways that allow stories to come to life onstage. Opera gets inside your body and explores the abilities of the human voice, and in doing so, invites you to look at the world through different perspectives.
There’s a reason Puccini has been around for centuries: the work is timeless. If you are fortunate enough to see a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, be it Puccini, Verdi or any composer mastermind, sit back, as they say, relax and enjoy the show.