Last night I went to the opera.
Opera has at least as many clichés as New York City, namely this one:
When you ask someone under 30, maybe even 40 what they think of opera the average response? A “yuck” face or “I’d rather listen to the screeching of subway breaks” or “haha yeah right I’m not breaking the bank to go see that”.
Well my night at the opera contained no “yuck” faces, no fat ladies, no viking horns, not even a maxed out credit card.
It was quite an affair. We’re talking the Metropolitan Opera. This “is the most widely heard and known opera company in the world” (source: http://metropolitanopera.com/). 4,000 seating capacity and it is packed on a Thursday. World class. La creme de la creme. This is it.
I walk up the steps of Lincoln Center at 7:40, perfectly early, and get swept up in the droves of people entering the sparkling building. While the average age is probably close to 50, there is representation across the board from children to college students, young couples, little old ladies, other couples who have probably had season tickets for all 50 years of their marriage, gossipy party girls in tight cocktail dresses, gay men in jeans, tourists touting fanny packs, four matching fur coats it alarming succession, overdressed ladies in princess-esque ballgowns. Needless to say I don’t feel out of place but I wonder how the hell am I going to find my date among the masses? Oh right, it is the 21st century, cell phones exist. Duh. Though it’s easy to forget that when you step through the glass doors of the Met. There is such a feeling of tradition and nostalgic romance. The structure feels as though it has changed very little over its 125 years with lavish red carpeting, sweeping staircases, towering ceilings, gold elevator doors, and polished wood bars where beverages are served in actual glass or ceramic.
I have no trouble finding my roommate, my opera-virgin Met partner in crime, and together we make our way to the entrance where ushers scan our tickets (ah another reminder that it’s 2008) and direct us “to the left, four floors up.” Four floors up. We tackle the stairs which is the only way to go when you’re on a teeny tiny budget that doesn’t include a gym membership. And yet this same budget allows for opera tickets? Come again? It happens to be one of the best deals in the city, on par with the other Met (the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art share this shorthand, which can be confusing) with its “suggested donation” where one can view four floors of world class art for the cost of pocket change, a sneer from ticket sales, and a little guilt that you only paid 73 cents (yes, it’s been done) when $20 is suggested. Here at this Met one can view four floors of opera for 15 bucks. There are movie tickets that cost more.
Our seats are in the section Parisians call “Paradise” due to its proximity to the heavens and Americans call “the Nose Bleed Section” due to their lack of poetry and love of violence and gore. We’re looking down at it all- no neck strain from craning to see the glittering crystal chandeliers or the dozens of boxes that line the sides.
Later I overhear a man pointing at our section say knowingly to his companion, “Those are the best seats in the house. The acoustics are fabulous.” He’s right. The sound bounces off the ceiling right down to us and the listening experience is unlike any other theater I’ve ever been in. I can hear the whispers between the people next to me as clearly as if I was meant to be part of the conversation, shuffling and murmurs four rows in front, and every single cough anyone in the audience makes during pianissimo moments. Which might be annoying but I find it really cool, incredible even. The house is gigantic yet nothing is mic’ed. Opera stars, for that you undeniably put Broadway to shame.
The lights go down, the orchestra tunes, and the personalized subtitle screen in front of each seat (another notable change from 1883) reads For English, press button, for German press again, for… Button pressed. La Traviata Act I. The gold curtain rises on a gorgeously detailed 19th century drawing room. Performers enter and I feel like I’m looking inside a doll house or a museum diorama.
The altitude means details are lost, faces are blurred, and I’m already planning to steal a pair of binoculars from my mother (who, as an avid birdwatcher and opera enthusiast, has multiple sets) when I’m home for Christmas. But in spite of this miniature quality I still greatly enjoy the show. It’s a classic opera, Boy loves Girl, Girl has terminal disease so she won’t allow herself to love, Boy wins Girl over, obstacle keeps Boy and Girl apart and in the end when all is resolved and they could live happily ever after she instead dies of TB in his arms (and unlike in Rent there is no ridiculous resurrection). The music is breathtaking, moving and brings me back to my high school days where I was a “chorus girl”, a singer much more than an actor, and the several music classes I took in college. I still may not listen to classical music in my free time but I most definitely appreciate it.
Two intermissions, numerous arias, and one tragic finale later the curtain closes. The audience irrupts into applause and bravas! as confetti (the 21st century’s pathetic substitute for roses) rains down on the singers taking bows. Wow, what a night and wow do I feel cultured.
We travel down the staircases, out into the chilly November air, and head for the subway. It’s been a long day and opera demands active listening, so we are both exhausted and greatly looking forward to sleep as we board the subway. 35 minutes later the end is insight, we’ve got one stop to go. My roommate’s preparing for the outside cold by putting on extra socks and the man sitting across from us is adjusting his pants. Maybe you know where this is going, but it takes me a lot longer: “Haha, subway riders are funny. We put on make up, we change socks, we shed layers. We tuck our shirts in. Which this guy across from us seems to be having trouble accomplishing..Wait..no…NO..NO HE CANNOT DOING THAT! FUCK! HIS PANTS ARE AT HIS ANKLES! FUCK! FUCK! COULD SUDDEN MOVES BE DANGEROUS? FUCK!” We dash to the next car EW EW EW hoping the train is about to stop and doors open quickly. Fortunately that series of events pans out and the other scenario- where the big scary man chases after us, his pants around his ankles, penis in hand- is left to haunt me only in nightmares. Well the night just went from awesome/beautiful to disgusting/can’t get any worse, and thank god it doesn’t. Our other roommate has just gotten off work and he picks us up with in moments. We recount our tale of woe and his reply is, “Well yeah, you live in New York City and take the subway. It was gonna happen sometime.” And through the disgust and violation I can’t yet wipe off my face (major “yuck” face) or shake from my body, I laugh. Could the night have been anymore contrasting and New York cliché?