The Metropolitan Opera, formed in 1880 and the standard bearer of the art form in the United States, is in negotiations with 15 unions whose contracts expire July 31. Some of these represent the stagehands, chorus and soloists and the orchestra -- the backbone of the organization.
Much has been written from the position of both sides of the arguments, in op-eds, full-page ads, and more. As a matter of disclosure I have sung leading roles at the Met since 1989 and am scheduled to be back this fall. My purpose is not to take sides but to share what it is like to work with the people there.
I have sung all over the world for 34 years. When people ask me where my favorite place to sing is, I always say the Met. When they ask why, I say because it is a family and because the standards are so high. One constant in a career is change -- change of language, weather, culture, colleagues...
The Met is one of the more high-pressure places to perform. It is a large space with a discerning audience. We soloists are only as good as our colleagues so when you have a world-class chorus, orchestra and crew, you tend to push yourself to meet that level. (When I say "crew" I include the wardrobe, dressers, makeup and wig departments as well as the stage managers and assistants.)
When singing at the Met, there is an efficiency of rehearsal time, magnitude of preparation, and there are high artistic standards.
When onstage, under pressure the stagehands are a source of comfort in that they are not only polite and respectful but also love to work there and love the art form. I trust them with my safety and although there have been mishaps through the years I think they are few considering that amount of rehearsals and performances that have occurred. In an opera, one is dealing with many factors. I made my Met debut in 1989 without a rehearsal on the set. That evening a crew member handed me a bent nail used to secure scenery, for good luck. I still have that nail. It meant so much to me.
Let me say a word about the stagehands. That moniker does not in the least explain their special skills. One needs only to look at a time-lapse video from the Met stage of the work they do. Not only is it dangerous, it is also specialized. Some guys are working on a catwalk way over the stage, others are physically lifting heavy pieces of scenery and others are putting down the ground cover or dance floor that goes over the bare floor, being sure that all wrinkles are out, that is is nailed down safely and ready for a performance or act. Props people assure that everything is either on the set or in the wings and is indeed in working order. Others adjust and focus the lighting fixtures and gels. I am not even mentioning the talented folks who build the scenic aspects of opera. That takes a whole other skill set. Making something to be seen and look real from afar takes a special skill. Some of these sets arrive in many, many semi-trucks. We are talking a lot of stuff. Crews will build them and take them down night after night rotating to the next opera in time for the rehearsal on stage the next morning.
The stage managers help assure that the rehearsals and performances on stage work like a well-oiled clock, but I always know that if I am in trouble, something is going haywire -- which it has for me in the past whether it be a costume issue or losing my voice -- these publicly unseen faces are a safety net. A stage manager has an eye on things at all times from many angles. If they see something out of the ordinary they are on it. Other assistants communicate and are seeing that the performers enter at the proper time.
Let me also say a word about wardrobe and costumers. These talented, calming people make sure the costume fits the singer, not the other way around. Somehow this equation has gotten a bit off track, I assume from the prevalence of more modern settings and therefore a more contemporary look to the costumes. However, as I said, to wear something for many hours under hot lights, be able to look like it is your own, move comfortably, and project a voice without a mic, the costume needs to fit the singer. And when it does, it is magic for us and one less thing to worry about. We can do our jobs much better when we are comfortable and are happy with how we appear. Same goes for the wigs and makeup. These aspects enhance our characters adding yet another dimension. The Met's staff in this area are top-rate. Dressers assure that we make quick changes, have our favorite robe and have water at hand.
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra are the best of the best. I saw a post that the opera chorus is harder to get into than Stanford. I bet the average reader has no idea just how much these people work during the season. They not only perform in the evening and presto they are done, but they have many rehearsals in preparation, including many early morning rehearsals that sometimes last until mid afternoon before turning around and performing at night. They may have to deal with one style, period of music, etc. in the morning and another at night.
And like all performers, one's job does not stop the minute one leaves the stage door. There is practicing to be done, and the constant challenge to maintain one's health because if any of them are ill they cannot do what they are called to do. Repetitive strain injury is quite a hazard when singing or playing as much as these artists and musicians do.
Much has been made in the press about what these folks earn. Let me just say that people choose to work in the non-profit arts for a living. They work hard for the money. There is no slouching. Truly. The irony is that because it is a non-profit for whom they work, they do not see any of the profits that one would see in popular music. They get little time off for weeks on end (Sundays used to be sacred and off-limits for rehearsal but apparently this is not longer the case.) There are seven performances a week for 8-9 months of not just one opera but 24 of them. Technical preparation and rehearsals begin in the summer. Sometimes there are performances on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's (an often, fun event backstage with potluck dinners and collection of Toys for Tots).
In reality these folks also have to pay bills and, in the case of a place like the Met, live in or near New York City -- not necessarily a cheap proposition. They are not doing it for the fame. They are not front and center like the soloists are and rarely get the individual accolades. Many times they are viewed as groups rather than individuals. If you have seen Twenty Feet from Stardom which is about back-up singers for popular music, you can get an idea of the dedication of anyone who believes in the power of music. The so-called "stars" at the Met cannot function without everyone.
Although I have not been at the Met since 2009, I am quite thrilled to be back for a family reunion of sorts and to make music with these incredible colleagues. I am an independent contractor and this year my fee is much lower than it used to be but that is fine. My career has been one of good fortune so I can afford to do this. The impasse between the management and the employees breaks my heart.
I have seen it written somewhere that many of us we would not think twice about paying a workman nicely to work on nights and weekends if needed but we come up short when we consider musicians and performers. Both are highly skilled and both are often union members. Something to think about. I understand that producing opera is expensive and that changes should be made to bring in an audience, to make it more affordable, to keep the art form alive.
My hope is that the general public, the audience and donors will think of all of the above. Mind you, I have not mentioned the ever-welcoming stage door staff, the security guards, box office and house staff, musical support staff, cafeteria workers, custodial crew, artist liaisons, PR, development... as I said, it is a family. At risk of sounding corny, I suppose it takes a highly specialized village to make the Metropolitan Opera work on all cylinders. New York has already lost one opera company. We do not need to lose another.