My floor plan is a map of movement, built out of my many paths through the Met — from box office to bathroom, from the Family Circle nosebleeds down to the outlet by the secret rooms on the parterre level where I like to charge my phone. Up the central stair, with a pause to take a photo with the statue of a woman that kneels at the stairs’ first arc, or of the chandelier. Down the side stair, my heels wobbling on plush red carpet below me, my fingers trailing on the plush red carpet walls beside me.The Met is full of movement. Stage action is movement. Audience ebb and flow is movement. Money moves across the plexiglass box office windows and the gift shop counters. Singers move across the world to land on the Met stage for a few weeks, a few nights. Every night, the ritual of the opera begins with the slow upwards movement of the Sputnik chandeliers that hang above the heads of the orchestra seating and rise all the way up to the ceiling before every performance, just before the house lights dim.
The chandeliers' rise is an iconic enough piece of Met choreography that it has crossed from pre-show to stage movement — in Thomas Adès' opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the surrealist 1962 Buñuel film of the same title, a group of wealthy guests arrive for a lavish dinner party. Minutes later, for no apparent reason, they arrive all over again, repeating much of the same dialogue. In Tom Cairns' 2017 Met staging, this repetition is paired with the rise, quiet descent, and re-rise of the house chandeliers. An entrance, another entrance, the chandeliers, the chandeliers again; to reset and repeat this particular movement is to make the strongest possible statement that something has gone wrong in the natural time-flow of a night at the opera.
There is also movement — sanctioned and unsanctioned, permitted and disruptive — across the barrier of the grand glass windows that face onto Lincoln Plaza. Increasingly, what moves out of the Metropolitan Opera is the performances themselves, live-broadcast in cinematographic angles and sparkling High Definition to movie theaters in 73 countries. Since 2006, the Met Live in HD series, which now simulcasts around 10 out of the 24 operas in a given Met season, has been the hugely successful project of Met General Manager Peter Gelb. Like all things about Gelb’s tenure, it has also been contentious. There is fear and anxiety around the Met Live in HD — fear about the Hollywood-ization of opera, the commercialization of opera.
Opera on the cinema screen, for many operaphiles, seems to be a step too far — something, they fear, has happened to opera as it has moved out of the velvet-and-gold box of the Metropolitan Opera House and onto hundreds and thousands of screens. But what is it that has happened to opera?