Tosca in Times Square, or, the Piazza di Nuova York

11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The weather last night could scarcely have been more perfect for the Metropolitan Opera's opening night broadcast in Times Square. Between the music -- Tosca -- the pleasant temperature, the multilingual crowd, and the absence of cars, Times Square felt as much like a piazza as it is ever likely to feel again. Having gone just to witness the scene, I stayed for the second and third acts, foraging for some pizza and Pellegrino at one of the intermissions to complete the Italian effect.

It was amazing to see how many huge advertising screens the Met had been able to co-opt for the broadcast -- I counted six but there could have been more. In nearly whichever direction you looked, there was Karita Mattila, twenty feet tall and as ample of voice as ten ordinary sopranos. The same tall buildings that make Times Square a wind tunnel on a blustery day also make it an unlikely natural concert hall.

Some passersby, including me, were confused at first that the 2000-seat area in the middle of the square, ringed by a red carpet and staffed by ushers, was simply free and open to the public. Even when a quarter of the seats were empty, many continued to stand outside the enclosure and watch from the sidewalk. Even tourists are suspicious of getting something good in New York for free. And indeed, this kind of largesse is found in few places outside the enchanted domain of Peter Gelb's Met.

I was so taken by it all that I wrote Mr. Gelb a short letter, which I reproduce here at the risk of being thought slightly sycophantic, because it sums up my feelings about this event:

Dear Mr. Gelb:

The Met's opening night broadcast in Times Square was a huge pleasure, and I hope such events will continue in the future.

Not only were the performances superb, the Times Square acoustics surprisingly good, and the many details of the seating, the red carpet, the sound, and the broadcast itself well-conceived. But there was also something very exciting to one's ideals in seeing so much of Times Square taken up by an artistic work. I was reminded, if this is not too base a comparison, of the Absolut ad in which all of the billboards in Times Square are replaced by Cezannes, Delaunays, Picassos etc. But how much greater the effect when music is added, and Tosca at that!

I also thought you would have been pleased to see what an incredible diversity of people was present, proving decisively that anyone can enjoy opera if given the opportunity to see it and hear it.


etc. etc.

The only disappointment of the night was hearing the crowd at the Met booing the new production by the Swiss director Luc Bondy, which replaces the classic Franco Zeffirelli staging. Not having seen the Zeffirelli version, and thus being relatively unjaded, I enjoyed the new staging in its own right, as I think did most others at the outdoor broadcast. In fact, some of the details that have been most criticized in the press, such as the presence of the loose women attending to Scarpia in Act Two, were those that most delighted much of the audience. Criticism is one thing, but must it go to such lengths to spoil other people's pleasure? I hope Mr. Bondy and Mr. Gelb are able to tune out this racket and realize that, elsewhere, people are grateful.