Worldness on the Move: The World in the Met
The facade of the Met looks deceptively permeable: windows that span the house’s whole height gives anyone out on the plaza a full view of the four-tiered layer cake that is the Met lobby, from the sweeping staircases to the dangling chandeliers to the towering Picassos to the people, like ants in evening dress, moving up and down the stairs. Behind these grand windows that give so freely of the grand lobby, the inner sanctum of the house itself remains selectively opaque: a black box for the work of opera, that transmits its contents to the outside world on a handful of dates in a season. But the accessibility of the lobby is deceptive, visual only — you need a ticket to ride, either in your seat or on the stairs.
Disruption at the Met, then, can take many different forms on many different stages. Here are some examples of breaking and entering at the Met — on the plaza, in the lobby, on the stage, and on the air:
2015: Protest shares a stage with Anna Netrebko
In 2015, a production of Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta, a one-act sharing billing with Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, was the site of protestors critical of star Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev’s connections to Vladimir Putin and other key figures in Russia’s policies towards Ukraine and Crimea. A rally organized by the group Arts Against Aggression included protestors dressed up as Netrebko and as Oleg Tsarev, the pro-Russia Ukrainian separatist politician with whom she had been photographed some months earlier, handing over an oversized check for 1 million rubles and holding up a flag used by pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine, at a charity event. On the plaza, the protesters picketed and staged mock press conferences with the satirical Netrebko and Tsarev. Inside the lobby, they took photos and handed out fake rubles to operagoers.
One protester, Roman Torgavistsky, the founder of an organization called Wounded Warrier Ukraine trespassed further, breaking and entering the heavily guarded space that is the Met Opera stage itself; during the curtain call for Iolanta, Trogavistsky snuck onstage and stood for several seconds in front of the lighted scrim separating the singers from the audience, holding a banner comparing Putin to Hitler. His trespass of the barrier separating the (implicitly apolitical) stage from the outside world and its politics reveals the ways in which artists like Netrebko have themselves already crossed back and forth between the worlds of the political and the artistic — and the work that institutions like the Met put into eliding their stars' passages.
2014: The Death of Klinghoffer loses its broadcast
In 2014, the Met drew protest when it staged John Adam’s 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera depicts the hijacking of the ocean liner Achille Lauro, en route from Alexandria, Egypt to Ashdod, Israel, by four men representing the Palestinian Liberation front, and the hijacker’s murder of passenger Leon Klinghoffer, a 69 year old Jewish-American and a wheelchair user. Protestors, who the New York Times reported as coming from “smaller Jewish groups and conservative religious organizations” objected to the opera’s humanizing of the terrorists and their motives, a move read by protestors as justifying or glorifying the hijacking.
Protestors filled Lincoln Center Plaza all the way down to Columbus Avenue, forcing opera-goers to navigate through a maze of police barricades to reach their destination. The protests breached the barricades and broke into the house in the form of scattered boos and two major disruptions: a man who, before intermission, shouted “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven,” and a woman who, according to the New York Times “cried out a vulgarity” after the character of Leon Klinghoffer was murdered in the second half. Both were escorted out.
“There are obviously some people who came here to be heard, and unfortunately they’re disrupting the performance, but we were prepared for worse, I think.” (Peter Gelb, quoted in the New York Times)
By far the most significant disruption of all, however, was a breach of broadcast — Peter Gelb and the Anti-Defamation League agreed that the New York performances of Klinghoffer would proceed as scheduled, but a planned HD broadcast of the opera would be scrapped. In breaking into the Met, the anti-Klinghoffer protestors' greatest achievement was, ironically, locking the doors behind them and keeping the opera from breaking out.
2011: Occupy Satyagraha
In 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a demonstration took place in Lincoln Square Plaza following a performance of the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha. Opera-goers were instructed by police at the scene to exit the house by side-exits, but many chose instead to cross police barriers and mingle with the protesters.
Celebrity opera-lovers Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson crossed from the barriers to address the crowd only after (more notably) Philip Glass himself had done so. Glass recited, unamplified but for the “human microphone” of the Occupy crowd, the closing lines of Satyagraha, which come from the Bhagavad Gita: “When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again."
The Occupy demonstration was in a Plaza-only event; as its issue was more with the fact of the Met’s existence than any specific operatic programming, it did not seek to disrupt the performance itself. However, Seth Colter Walls, covering the protest for The Awl credits the Occupy protesters with a disruption more spatial and auditory than temporal:
“If at first it seemed depressing to realize that one could not attend both “events” on the same evening, the crowd did its best to erase that inside/outside distinction by repeating Glass’s excerpt several times, in the by-now well-storied “mic check” fashion, with waves of sound fanning out over the expanse of Lincoln Center Plaza. To occupy with a physical presence is only one method. Sound can occupy, too.”
In a way, all protest that seeks to trespass onto art’s property must reckon with that inside/outside distinction: the Met vehemently protects the image of a barrier between opera and politics as tall and impenetrable as the face of the opera house. To storm the stage or to shout from the balcony is to force a crack in that wall, a crack that threatens to reveal its flimsy, constructed nature — that Anna Netrebko presenting checks to extremists was already political, that operas about terrorists are already political, that maybe, just maybe, art and politics were never inside/outside to begin with.
1993: Parterre Box slips in
Opera has long been associated with queer culture, but the spaces that explicitly celebrate and foreground that connection are actually — surprisingly — few. Enter Parterre Box, a publication that is now a blog but got its start as a queer opera zine, for primarily gay men, put out by James Jorden, an opera fan, sometime director, and now critic for The Observer.
Parterre writers are now credentialed reviewers at the Met, but in its early days, the publication was distributed by Jorden alone, and primarily via breaking and entering. He would scatter copies of the zine in the men’s bathroom at the Met. When he escalated to stuffing them inside of the schedules and brochures in the Met lobby, a warrant went out on his head — one night, as he was placing copies of Parterre inside of brochures before a performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome, security guards caught him, took his ticket, and escorted him out of the house.
The issues of Parterre tucked into subscription brochures are as unexpectedly confrontational as the crowds after Satyagraha are unexpectedly disruptive: sometimes the show need never pause to have been trespassed upon.
“It was a very activist time in the gay community, in terms of fighting back against AIDS,” he said. “And I view Parterre Box as part of that bigger cultural trend. It wasn’t afraid to be in your face or confrontational or angry. I felt it was therapeutic.”