10/09/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Flashback to the Old Met

September 24 marked the kickoff of the new Metropolitan Opera season, with opening night featuring Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore.
While reading through the reviews, my mind couldn't help but drift back to a much earlier production of L'Elisir, at the beloved "old Met" at 1411 Broadway.

The year was 1962, four years before the Met Opera moved to its new, splashier digs at Lincoln Center. The old Met, built in 1883, was demolished in 1966 to make way for an office building.

Back then, the Met was not only home to one of the world's leading opera companies, but to The Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School, directed by the great teacher and choreographer Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske, a "Cecchetti pioneer." This is where I spent my days, after school and on weekends, taking ballet class and as a "supernumerary" in operas, among them L'Elisir, La Giaconda, Faust and Parsifal.


The "Old" Met - Photo Courtesy Metropolitan Opera Archive

Here's a look back:

Dancers, stars, chorus and staff all entered the building from a stage door on West 40th street. The door opened into a tiny reception room, where there was a guard at a small desk. You could hear the stars vocalizing in their dressing rooms just a few steps away from the entrance. Dozens of floral bouquets were delivered, piled high on the floor next to the guard, for presentation at curtain calls.

Smack ahead of the entrance was a big iron door, the "stage door" itself -- only 10 steps from the street entrance. Things were tight -- so tight, that at intermission the stage hands would drag the scenery onto 39th street and along Broadway, because there was no room even to keep the scenery in the house between acts.

To the left of the entrance hall was the elevator -- a tiny lift, with an elevator man and a chain door which would bring you to the ballet studios upstairs, and down from the dressing rooms for the performances. The chorus would ride that elevator down to the stage with me, all of us in costume, pancake makeup and period hair, joking, vocalizing, laughing. What a scene it was!

The old Met was tight on space -- so tight that the children in the performances used a storage closet as a dressing room. We'd squeeze into the closet for makeup and hair, have a "dresser" help us into costume, and then our costumed "stage mother" would arrive to escort us down.


In costume backstage at the Old Met - L'Elisir d'Amore

Some memorable moments of L'Elisir at the old Met include the night Nicolai Gedda, in his role as Nemorino, peeled an apple on stage while singing, cut his hand, and was bleeding all over his costume! He continued singing, holding his hand behind him, while those in the wings waved handkerchiefs and bandages -- if only he could get off stage! During a small pause he did get off to the wings, wrapped his hand in a cloth, and flew back on the stage to continue on - no one the wiser.

And how can I forget the time Nathaniel Merrill, then director of "L'Elisir," singled me out at dress rehearsal, in front of a full stage of opera stars and chorus to say, "Who did your makeup? Why aren't you wearing lipstick?" I told him the makeup lady said, "Little girls don't wear lipstick." And then the 100 + cast and chorus, including the great Mirella Freni, burst into laughter. Mr. Merrill responded, "Well you tell her from me that you have to wear lipstick!"

Do you know to this day I never walk out the door without it?

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