A night at the opera

On Friday night I had the incredible experience of attending Bizet’s Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York. It was an absolutely magnificent affair.

There’s so much to say about an event like this that I’m not even sure where to start. Everything there was so beautiful—the crystal chandeliers, the plush red carpet, the grand staircase, the wall of windows looking out over the warmly lit fountain. Clearly, the Lincoln Center was built to showcase the elegance and grandeur of opera itself—one of the finest of the performing arts. It is, in a way, a temple to sung drama.

The patrons at the opera are even more interesting than the building itself. There are women in long furs and glittering jewelry, men in flawless tuxedos with long white scarves and charcoal car coats. A stream of attendees steps out of limousines and taxis and even a few rickshaws, all crowding and pressing and climbing into the glorious space of the theatre itself, waiting for the curtain to rise.

In the boxes, silent conversations murmur all around you. Behind you, someone insists to his date for the evening that the mezzo singing the lead and the soprano singing the secondary role should have been switched. (He was wrong.) In front of you, someone’s large fur hat presents a visual obstruction, and he whispers to his (significantly younger) companion that the night before, they had sung the opera in English instead of French. (You wonder if perhaps he brings a different woman to the opera—and blocks others’ views—every night.) People peer at each other through opera glasses across the wide arch of the grand tier, and you know that there must be countless regulars who know the Van Pelts or the Hiltons or the Weinsteins when they see them.

One of the fascinating effects of the opera, though, is that when everyone is elegant, everyone is mysterious. If you wonder who that couple is three boxes over, they may be looking at your tuxedo or beautiful evening gown and wondering the same about you. At the opera, everyone gets a chance to be the unknown.

Then, finally, the curtain rises, and what sights and sounds meet your eyes! The stage is so large that a chorus of hundreds of adults and children can stand upon it without making it appear full. Large, elaborately constructed ruins tower upwards into the air. Rotating stage pieces allow a new world to be created before your eyes in mere seconds. Lighting and shadows combine to evoke moods and imagery, while smoke and rose petals and other physical elements occasionally fill the air. We see a barracks, a town square, a gypsy tavern, a mountain hideaway, a colosseum, all emerging with a quick drop of the curtain—and sometimes even without one.

Of course, no description of the evening would be complete without discussion of the singers themselves. How they could sing! The training undergone by these performers must be immense. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to truly evoke a character on stage—to capture the attitude, the gestures, the walk, the inner thoughts of a character, and all while singing at the top of one’s lungs. How can she sing in a whisper loud enough to be heard at the back of the theatre? How can he project while flat on his back? The raw talent on stage was truly mind-blowing, and I feel lucky to have seen such performers in action. The tragedy and passion of the drama itself are beautiful, but the ability of these singers is almost otherwordly.

Then, seemingly almost as soon as the curtain was raised, it falls again for the final time. The stars take their bows. The audience rises and cheers. Four hours have gone by, but it felt like much less time. Suddenly the shimmering façade of the opera has dissolved into the very real struggle to capture an empty taxi on a cold winter’s night, and we are whisked back to the hotel, leaving the dream behind for another day.

My friend tells me that I have a tendency to underreact when I enjoy things—that I don’t show amazement or excitement on the outside even when I’m feeling it on the inside. She wonders what word I might use to describe something that so completely pleases me that there is nothing left but enjoyment: no criticism possible, no reservations kept—in fact, an evening like this. What would I say of this evening at the opera?

I would say it was magical.

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