The Magic of the Met Opera
Before arriving at the Metropolitan Opera, I had imagined romance and drama, and butterflies fluttering in my stomach as I climbed the red velvet staircases up to my seat. Those expectations were realized. I’d been to the opera multiple times in high school, but the Met represents all the glamour and elegance associated with New York high society. That night was the fulfillment of a 16-year-old fantasy informed by Hollywood romanticism.
I was there to see “La Boheme.” The cultural setting of the show’s time period, the height of of the Victorian era, is key to understanding this opera. With no aristocracy left after the upheaval of the French Revolution, the bourgeoisie patronized the arts. But artists of the time felt that they were superior to the new middle class, especially in terms of sexual conventions. ”La Boheme” centers on the lives of poor artists in post-revolutionary France.
Ignoring the subtitles, I closed my eyes as Mimi, the female lead, sang her first aria to her lover, Rodolfo. The sound of her voice was enough to induce tears. I couldn’t understand the words, but the song was intimately familiar to me, as though she was singing directly to me, that her love story was somehow my own.
I chose to watch the rest of the show mostly without the subtitles. Instead, I focused primarily on the music itself and, after reading the program, was mostly able to piece together the plot.“La Boheme” is a joyful piece. I found myself laughing often, despite the sad ending I knew was coming. You don’t have to be an educated member of the elite classes to enjoy this opera — the themes and emotions of “La Boheme” translate universally — and that was liberating. Going to the opera — especially alone — is a freeing experience. It’s an opportunity to lose yourself in drama, in an epic story.
In my experience, “La Boheme” relies on the beauty and drama of its music rather than the plot. The songs exist outside of the set and the scene. Plot can be a heavy handed tool — movies, musical theatre, plays all depend on it — but in opera you can abandon yourself to the music. Sitting alone in my empty row, I let the sounds envelope me. All the history and grandeur of the Met filled that unoccupied space next to me. The chandelier, the red velvet staircases, the costumes, the sets and the songs all joined together to immerse me in the full operatic experience.
Dream and reality seemed to fuse when I walked up the back-lit steps at Lincoln Center, and stood under the giant chandelier in the lobby. I enjoyed the music based on the merits of its composition rather than because culture compels me to. Going to the Met bashed all my preconceptions of the experience — but that wasn’t a let down. In place of all the fake constructions I had created I was given an experience much more complete and enjoyable than the fantasy.