Trying as my summer was, August brought a major mental-health break: an open-air opera festival on the plaza at Lincoln Center. On the big screen mounted on the Metropolitan Opera House’s arched facade, the Met showed 10 of its Live in HD productions, previously broadcast to movie theaters worldwide and on PBS. I took advantage of the festival — free, no tickets required — to catch up with productions I had missed: Gounod’s “Faust” and a double dose of Rossini (“La Cenerentola” and “Le Comte Ory.”) I attended three nights in a row, three clear, warm summer nights perfect for sitting on metal chairs with a hardy, well-behaved band of New Yorkers, the ones who hadn’t fled the city, to enjoy the evening air and some glorious music.
Those nights triggered something of an opera binge, specifically the Met’s operas and entirely onscreen. Last winter in Vancouver, I used the HD broadcasts to keep in touch with home (A Morning at the Opera, Jan. 26). I wrote then that, heretical as it sounds, I was actually coming to prefer the HD broadcasts to seeing the performances live, and twice within the last week I’ve heard friends express the same view. Yet, rather than cutting into the Met’s audience, Peter Gelb’s brilliant innovation seems to have expanded it. At least one of my fellow ushers at the Vivian Beaumont Theater next door took a seat on the plaza to experience opera for the first time. Here’s hoping she’s a convert, and all those in the audience like her.
Not two weeks later came the biggest opera binge there is: Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle. This time the venue was my living room, courtesy of PBS. My trusty DVR captured all four operas, adding up to 16 hours of music.
Although it’s generally believed that the “Ring” is best experienced on four consecutive nights, I chose to spread it out. I did watch the prequel — “Wagner’s Dream,” a two-hour documentary on the making of Robert LePage’s new production — and the first installment, “Das Rheingold” as they were broadcast. I took a breather of several days before “Die Walkure,” and another before “Siegfried” (four and a half hours each). I wasn’t really planning to watch the five-hour grand finale, “Goetterdaemmerung,” since I had already seen the live broadcast in Vancouver and admittedly nodded off once or twice during the earlier installments. (If you’ve ever fallen asleep in the opera house, it’s even easier on a soft couch with a glass of wine.) But I did dip in and out while copying it onto DVD for my private archive.
I came to LePage’s production with some skepticism about the design. The concept is known as “the Machine,” 24 planks pivoting on an axis; with projections on the surface, it continually morphs from one set into another. I had seen nothing wrong with the Met production this one replaced — Otto Schenk’s more Romantic version, my first “Ring” sometime in the early 1990s — and been less than enchanted with painfully avant-garde ones since (a “Rheingold” at the Semper Opera in Dresden performed on rows of gold chairs facing upstage; the Mariinsky’s “Rheingold” and “Walkure” during the 2007 Lincoln Center Festival, where George Tsypin’s design was dominated by giant mummy-like figures hanging over the action). So the Machine in action was a pleasant surprise.
When I saw “Goetterdaemmerung” in Vancouver, I came away thinking yes, I get it, thank you very much: moving parts, projections on the slats, one set fits all. Then I watched “Wagner’s Dream,” which invoked Iceland — land of the Edda, the source of this saga of gods, heroes and scheming mortals — as the inspiration for the design. Suddenly I really got it: the broken surface of a landscape still forming, the red glow of lava, the geothermal mists rising through the cracks, the crevices inhabited by trolls, the low-roofed huts of the mortals, even the steeds of the Valkyrie. Mr. LePage, I approve.
I couldn’t help noticing how much Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Gutrune reminded me of Gudrun, my Icelandic student in Vancouver, who was so envious at my having snagged a ticket to the “Goetterdaemmerung” broadcast. Or how these “Ring” broadcasts represented a generational passing of the baton, from James Levine, who conducted the first two operas recorded during the 2010-11 season, to Fabio Luisi, who finished the cycle the following season after health issues forced Levine to withdraw.
I finished the “Ring” on Sunday, but the binge continued on Monday, a day that began with a visit to the new National Opera Center and ended back at the Met. On two floors of a building a few blocks south of Times Square, Opera America, the national service organization for opera, has opened a complex of rehearsal rooms, recording studios, a library and archive, a green room and the stunning cobalt-and-magenta Audition Recital Hall, all at the disposal of singers and opera companies, two of which had already held auditions there. Could this become the 890 Broadway — a rehearsal center for dance and musical theater — for opera?
That night, back to Lincoln Center for the Met’s opening night, on the plaza once again. (Even as an editor on The Times’s culture news desk, I was more likely to be back in the office working the event than in the opera house.) It was now late September, and in the jacket I had put on that morning, I was underdressed for the chill in the air — but so, I suspect, were the bare-shouldered celebrities and socialites entering the Met. (“Patti Smith!” exclaimed the soprano Deborah Voigt, last seen as Brunhilde, on red-carpet duty. “Rachel Dratch! Courtney Love!”) This being opening night, even the metal chairs were assigned seats requiring tickets, and the summer’s casual ambience — people coming and going at will, some with their dogs — gave way to an enclosure where Met ushers made sure the audience behaved.
No matter. Donizetti’s “Elisir d’Amore,” starring Anna Netrebko and Matthew Polenzani in roles I had last heard sung live by Kathleen Battle and Luciano Pavarotti, was as heady as the bottle of the wine at the center of the plot. It was fun to realize that the larger-than-life images on the screen were coming from not far behind it, and to watch the director, Bartlett Scher, take his curtain call, knowing I’d probably see him within the week at the Beaumont, where he is the resident director.
By 11 the next morning, the thousands of metal chairs had vanished from the plaza, as sure a sign that summer was over as the last batch of homemade pesto. As predicted, Bart Scher passed through the smoke ring at the Beaumont while I was working the Wednesday matinee. “Nice job the other night,” I told him. “Oh! Do you know the opera?” he asked. “Mezzo-mezzo,” I wanted to say, but didn’t. “Not as well as you do.”