I had an aunt who once gave me a child’s introduction to the Metropolitan Opera in the form of cassette tapes. I must have been about seven or eight, and though I knew absolutely nothing of opera, I thought it was such a glamorous present. After all, this aunt was from New York and if anyone knew what was glamorous, it had to be her. “People get all dressed up, in evening gowns and tuxedos,” she said. “The women wear beautiful jewelry and furs and there’s even a restaurant inside the opera house.”
My grandmother confirmed this. She was a woman who almost exclusively listened to opera as she prepared her face each morning—porcelain skin, not a wrinkle, with bright red lipstick that never smudged and curled cherry cola hair she kept in place with a satin ribbon— on a tiny tape recorder that sat next to her false eyelashes on the sink in the bathroom with the green wallpaper. She had lived part of her life as a great society belle, once attending a party wearing the same dress, but in a different color, as famed Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, only to waltz up to Graham and purr, “You have excellent taste.” She liked the operas Madame Butterfly and Die Fledermaus, and always chided me for not listening to it. “This is the greatest music in the world!” she’d admonish me. I didn’t disagree; I just preferred listening to The Beatles.
Even so, receiving these cassettes made my seven-or-eight year-old mind swirl. In my thoughts, gold lights danced overhead, women in long velvet gowns sauntered elegantly up and down stairs, their white-gloved hands draped over the arm of a dapper, refined gentleman, as my grandmother almost certainly had. As much as I thought this, though, I never listened to the tapes and remained almost completely bereft of classical music knowledge. Recently, however, the spirited SJT offered me an education in the opera, one I will not soon forget.
A well-mannered musicologist who uses the phrases “gentleman friend” and “adult film” without any trace of irony, SJT is happy to take even the most classically clueless under his tutelage, should they of course want to be taken. I did, in fact, want to be taken, to finally expose myself to a world my grandmother had always asked me to see. A few weeks ago it was my distinct pleasure to accompany SJT to the Metropolitan Opera to see Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. “It’s good to start with an opera where you already know the story,” he said knowingly. I was fully in his hands.
At 7:30 I arrived at the opera house at the Lincoln Center of Performing Arts, made up of the buildings for The Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, The New York City Ballet, and more, located between West 62nd and 66th Streets at Columbus Avenue. The Metropolitan Opera has been housed in this plaza since 1966 (before that it was a series of housing projects, in which the opening scenes for West Side Story were filmed). The Metropolitan Opera itself actually began in 1883, located at West 39th Street and Broadway until its 1960s departure. Each season the Met, as it is called, stages over 200 performances of a variety of operas, all featuring stars of the opera world and the Met’s own repertory company.
While waiting for SJT, I wandered inside the sumptuous building, its lush red carpets smooth under my feet, spiraling staircases curling up to a balcony on the second and third floors. Dressed in cocktail attire, I finally felt that the glamour I imagined upon receiving those cassette tapes was real. I heard my grandmother saying, “See, cupcake? I told you so. And you haven’t even seen the show yet!”
SJT arrived and I took his arm—“Well, doesn’t this complete the picture?” he smiled. We found our seats, wonderfully placed in the orchestra section courtesy of a student lottery. The stage was encrusted with gold tiles and spunky 1960s-style chandeliers hung above the orchestra seating. In front of us were the Met Titles, what SJT told me were quite the controversial addition to the opera house in 1995. A method of simultaneous translation for operas that are almost all in a foreign language, be it French, German, Russian, Italian, or what have you, the titles help audiences understand what the actors are singing. It was controversial because before this, people simply read the opera’s libretto; opera purists felt this was the only way to experience the opera and didn’t like having their eyes forced about. But, on the whole it’s said that the Met Titles make an opera experience more accessible. I know it certainly was for me.
I was a little nervous. I knew there were three hours of opera ahead of me, and didn’t really know how I would react. I only prayed that I wouldn’t be horribly rude and fall asleep. Though Roméo et Juliette was a bit slow at the beginning—“You know the French,” SJT tsked, “it takes them forever to get going”—but for the most part I was enthralled. The singers made sounds with their voices I don’t think I’ve ever heard before, beautiful notes cascading out of their mouths and wrapping around us like a cashmere scarf on a fall day. I knew I was in the presence of beauty.
At intermission, SJT and I walked about the opera house, seeing on the lower level headshots of all the great stars that had performed in the space, on the upper level the elegant restaurant with beige tablecloths and gold chairs where people dined before the show. Gorgeous crystal chandeliers hung suspended in space, twinkling the room with soft yellow light. It was just as much a feast for the eyes as the opera itself was for the ears. I should have listened to my grandmother earlier.
We continued inside to see the rest of the opera. No theatre or opera critic, I can only say I thought the show was beautiful, from the music and the singing to the minimalist sets and luxurious costumes. I was in the midst of high art, unlike that of any I had previously experienced. As I sat, entranced, with SJT on my left, I could only help but notice the seat on my right was empty. I know my grandmother was there, finally happy that I was listening.