I've been going to the opera since I was a girl, at both the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Center. But few years ago I stopped going to the Met, I didn't know why. Though I continued to listen to the Met's Saturday live radio broadcasts. In Ireland, where I have a house, my evening bath is built around them. There's nothing nicer than sitting in the tub, imagining patrons caressing champagne flutes at the Grand Tier bar.
Then along came Macbeth, an opera I'd never seen, and I had to go. As I settled into my seat, everything seemed comfortably the same. But as the house lights dimmed and the crystal chandeliers rose upward, my heart rose with them.
Tilting my head back to follow the chandeliers till they disappeared, it dawned on me that their journey was also my journey. The chandeliers became my madeleine, and memories flooded back. For you see, when I was a girl, I spent every Friday night at the Met, graduating from the 'old' house on Broadway, to the 'new' house at Lincoln Center.
I come from an Irish immigrant family. By a little bit of luck, I attended a 'good' school, where my best friend's parents, sister and grandmama went to the Met every Friday night. Picturing them there, all dressed up and smoking cigarettes, it seemed so glamorous I wanted to go, too. But the only drop of opera knowledge I had came from the Ed Sullivan Show where I'd seen Callas kill Scarpia.
Then one day, Grandmama's subscription suddenly became mine. And all because I had the wits to call an ambulance when she dropped dead at the kitchen table while we were discussing whether Laurence Olivier was a better screen than stage actor. A week later I took her seat with a savoir faire known only to opera buffs who swore they'd seen Flagstad sing Isolde five times.
Running from the subway clutching a Milky Way, I proudly approached the main entrance. I took a tear sheet to see what was playing next week. Then I made my way across the lobby to a cage-like elevator manned by an old guy who looked like he'd seen it all. His job: to deliver this mere mortal to the Family Circle to climb the steepest stairs up to 'the gods', where she hoped to affect a smidgen of knowledge amidst grownups who called Joan Sutherland, 'Joan'.
I'd no idea what I was in for. Though the Sullivan Show featured opera regularly - pretty stuff like 'Musetta's waltz' - sweetness was not to be mine. Mine was a baptism of fire called Woyzeck. The following week was Rosenkavalier, and I understood neither. To survive I brought along two Milky Ways. But the third week was Dutchman, and from the first ominous notes of the overture, opera was mine forever.
So there I am at Macbeth, looking back at that girl at Woyzeck wondering why everyone seemed to be interested in a grim story, with not so much as a wheeze of a tune. Snapshots of that girl began to shuffle through my memory, and I realized every significant moment of my youth was tied up in some way to the Met.
That girl commenced an affair with one of her professors on a February night, then rapidly fled his apartment, so as not to miss one note of Rosenkavalier, that by now she sort of liked. That girl's mother died in the street one morning, yet she went to the Met that night to see Boheme, because now opera was a comfort to her.
At Macbeth's intermission, as I lined up to take a sip of water from an Ezio Pinza fountain (that still uses Dixie Cups), there was that girl doing the same thing, desperately hoping to catch someone's eye for a chat.
It hit me that with so much knowledge around her, that girl must have felt out of place. It must be why she affected a pretentious attitude to make herself feel better - like being unforgiving to opera goers who nodded off. She'd never do that. Then again she was twenty and they were sixty. Now she snoozes herself.
But maybe people aren't really snoozing. Maybe they're enveloped in personal reverie. Maybe a piece of music has transported a man back to a time when he felt he was Siegfried, much as that girl, mooning over a portrait of her own Dutchman, was Senta.
Was it fear of old memories that had kept me away? Possibly. Surely, the Met must be a fulcrum of memory. And to think, all this came flooding back to me at an Ezio Pinza water fountain.
The Met is less somber now. All around me I see grande dames mixing with little girls in velvet dresses and bright young things holding champagne flutes. And so must I. After all, this is a homecoming of sorts.
Raising my own champagne flute, I'm ready to toast memories of my la vie d'boheme in this building. This is why the Metropolitan Opera House is indispensable. Long may she live! Now I'm on to Meistersinger!