You don’t have to be a diva to visit the Met

Backstage tours offer insider’s glimpse of Opera House

My wife has had walk-on roles in two local operas. Now she calls herself a diva.

It was no surprise, then, that she insisted on a backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera, the mother ship of divas everywhere, during a recent getaway to New York. In the interest of marital harmony, I tagged along. (In truth, I find behind-the-scenes tours fascinating – even if I prefer them to be at, say, a brewery.)

That’s how we found ourselves in the capable hands of Carol Borelli, a guide for the daily tours run by volunteers from the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

Our group of 10 included folks from Australia, Germany, Sweden and Ukraine – a marker of the Met’s international acclaim thanks not only to programming but also an embrace of radio (weekly broadcasts since 1933) and cinema (live satellite performances since 2006).

Right from its opening performance – featuring Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson, among the celebrated singers of her era – the Met has attracted just about every warbler worth seeing: Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Enrico Caruso . . . .

No wonder Carol said, “Take a moment to think about all the performers to go through this stage door before you.” That door, it turns out, is in a corner of an underground garage, a harbinger of the building’s unadorned, cramped and utilitarian parts concertgoers usually don’t see. But before we visited those unfancy bits, Carol talked history.

New York City already had an opera house by the time the nouveau riche, such as the Vanderbilts and Morgans, rose to prominence in the mid-1800s. The old-time elites, however, had booked all its seats. So the new industrialists did what money is there for: they built the Met. It opened in 1883. In just a few years it put the original house out of business.

In 1966, the Met moved to its current location at the Lincoln Center complex, the work of architect Wallace K. Harrison, who also designed Rockefeller Center and the United Nations Plaza. The new home may not be as ornate as older European opera houses, but it’s stunning nonetheless.

Its sweeping grand staircase was erected first; then the rest of the building was built around it. Chandeliers, made with Swarovski crystals and measuring up to five metres in diameter, are a gift from the Vienna State Opera. The theatre boasts nearly 4,000 plush red chairs, making its seating the largest in the opera world. The ceiling is covered with gold leaf, the walls with African rosewood. The orchestra pit accommodates 110.

But we were there to go backstage. Walking down narrow corridors with white cinderblock walls, we passed windowless cubbyhole offices, mops and buckets in the hallway, and carts of theatrical props parked everywhere. There are even factory-style time clocks for employees to punch.

We saw the dignitaries’ entrance – which is also the door for performing animals. “That’s right,” Carol said. “President Obama would come in the same door as the animals.” And she noted the latter, which audition for both lead and understudy roles, are specially fed to avoid “problems” during a performance.

We saw the elaborate stage close up. It’s divided into six parts that rise and fall, and has 50-plus hatch doors through which people and objects can be raised and lowered. Scenery is lowered from 91 overhead pipes. Because productions change daily, three shifts of stagehands are needed to switch scenery.

The tour included visits to the tailor shop, where costumes are built. (They’re recycled for 25 years.) We saw the construction centre, where scenery is made with aluminum and covered with wood or with rubber painted to look like wood. That makes it lightweight and easy to move.

We visited the props room, and got to see for ourselves just how fake – but realistic – some of those props are. We saw the lead tenor’s dressing room, surprisingly small and unornamented, though kitted out with a humidifier to hydrate the singer’s voice.

And we saw a rehearsal, in which the chorus, in T-shirts and jeans, practised a piece from Strauss’s Der Fledermaus – as rivetingly sweet as if it had been in full costume on stage. It was a moment that made me forget I was in the bowels of a building with all the charm of a church basement.

Perhaps the most memorable tidbit concerns the assistant conductor. He’s the prompter, standing in the orchestra pit and hissing the tempo at the singers who can’t see the conductor. “He has to know the score for every opera in every language,” Carol said.

My wife, the diva, has a way to go.

IF YOU GO

The Met is part of the Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, between West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. Tours, scheduled during the performance season from September through June, depart daily at 3 p.m. (on Sundays, at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.). Tickets, at $22US, must be reserved in advance at www.metguild.org.

For those wanting a more comprehensive tour of the Lincoln Center, visit http://lc.lincolncenter.org/visitor-guide/tours.

Backstage tours are offered by other New York entertainment venues too:

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