To combat quarantine’s monotony and compensating for an inability to stage live music, the Metropolitan Opera has been streaming archival “The Met: Live in HD” productions. Recently, it featured the 2013 rendition of Puccini’s Tosca. The broadcast was a reminder not only of the tenor Roberto Alagna’s mastery of the role of Mario Cavaradossi, but also of the minimalist, beige abomination that replaced Franco Zeffirelli’s vaunted production (1985-2009), to the public’s consternation. For me, however, it was a trip down memory lane, and a chance to watch that show as if sitting in the audience.
As maestro Ricardo Frizza entered the pit that night, I was standing backstage, dressed in black church robes and a scrolled hat, awaiting my cue. Tosca was my second production at the Met, that night my fifteenth performance—not bad for a ten-year-old. One might be wondering, “There are children in Tosca?” or even, “There are children in opera?” The answer arrives in Act I, when a swarm of rowdy choristers enters with the sacristan (John Del Carlo) to sing the Te Deum. Act III begins with a haunting shepherd’s song, a child’s (Seth Ewing-Crystal) solo. Indeed, if one looks closely at many of the Met’s productions, there are children all over the set.
For most artists, performing at the Met is the dream of a lifetime: it takes talent, decades of practice, and luck to get there. For me, it took singing “Happy Birthday” and a set of pitch exercises. I exaggerate of course, but so begin all careers with the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. An audition with the director, Anthony Piccolo, consists of those two exercises followed by a series of questions, the last being, “Do you like to sing?” If one responds “Yes,” (he has had children say “No”), and if the rendition of “Happy Birthday” shows promise, one can expect to receive an invitation to enter the Beginners’ Class.
I joined the program in 2012 as a rising third-grader. For an hour every Tuesday and Thursday, I took the subway down to Lincoln Center. Room 210 was nondescript: white cinder-block walls, a curtain across the back, mirrors along the opposite wall, a baby grand piano, two tables, a desk, and a few gold-colored folding chairs. Yet it was our home: a chain of paper rings outlined a curtain on the mirrors, and an old playbill of Carmen adorning another wall completed the ambience. I spent countless hours in this room over the years: rehearsing, trying on costumes, waiting for calls to the stage, celebrating successful shows, playing cards with my fellow choristers, doing homework during breaks, and talking to my school friends as they went about their regular lives.
At the start, we breathed. Breathing is the basis of singing and necessary for projecting one’s voice through the vast hall of the Met. We learned to “lean” onto our diaphragms, giving a solid base for our voice. Only when we accomplished this were we allowed to start singing. The next weeks were spent practicing various types of scales—straight, skipping, staccato, alternated rhythms, etc.—sung with strange diction, something along the lines of, “Di meh nah poh tu la bey.” Around a month later, I moved into the Intermediate class. There, things were much the same, but this time, the group was smaller—about ten people. These fellow choristers became my closest friends. We trained together, waited together, and hoped together that one day we would be accepted into the Advanced class. And on April 7, 2013, it happened.
The Advanced class had fifty children, ranging in age from ten to seventeen. It was intimidating, but the excitement of being allowed to audition for productions overwhelmed that fear. In the spring, we were working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, our first production of the 2013–14 season. We returned from summer break in August to learn all the repertoire for that year, nine operas’ worth. At the end of the month, we auditioned for them.
Auditions were terrifying: four choristers at a time, standing around the piano, singing a randomly selected portion of the opera. There were two chances, on Friday and Saturday, and one received the results later that afternoon. The first day, I did not sing well. Friday was awful, and I was sure that I would not be accepted. On Saturday, though, I was much happier with myself. That afternoon, a call came—a telemarketer. But the next ring was Mr. Piccolo, telling me that I had been given a role.
Then began the rehearsals. I spent all day in the Orchestra and Ballet rooms, deep in the Met’s third basement, learning staging and choreography, practicing with the soloists and orchestra. We were fitted for costumes: high heels, tutus, wings, and headdresses, as are customary for fairies. In the final weeks, we began to rehearse on the main stage. It was an impressive transition, but not overwhelming. Looking out towards the seats, one saw only a large, dark abyss—the stage directors bustling about and yelling instructions were much more absorbing.
The first time I stepped in front of a full house, however, I quickly changed my tune. I remember walking down to the backstage door that night, hyperventilating. For performances, the backstage is a silent void: only small flashlights and whispers are permitted. We stood in line behind the stage managers’ desk, watching the house lights fly up, when we heard the call, “Maestro to the pit,” and the ensuing roar of applause. The orchestra drew the first chords, the curtain pulled away, and I heard a sharply whispered, “Go!” I was instantly awestruck.
Thousands of rapt faces stared up at me. As the music washed through the space, I was transported to another world, the land of ancient Athens and of Oberon, Titania, Puck, and Bottom. I did not know what was real—all I felt was disembodied amazement. Walking off afterwards was a shock: it was as if I had come down from a high. The attention of the crowd, the power of the music, the emotions—it was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
I was addicted. I loved every single time I went out on that stage, and the magic of the performance never waned. Even after my fifth year, my thirteenth production, and my one hundred-fiftieth performance, it remained incredible. Each night brought some new experience: having a star soprano (I will not name her) throw a fit over a red light, or getting to know Sophie Koch and Jonas Kaufmann in Werther (two very nice people). I ate chocolate cake and ice cream onstage (yes, the food is real—Kentucky Fried Chicken was even featured in La Bohème), nearly got run over by a horse, rode the hydraulic sets, sang from the “domes” (an area hidden in the ceiling of the house), stepped in to solo at the last minute, and soloed in two operas. Amazing as those moments were, however, it was the joy of performing that kept me coming back.
It is for this reason that I regret the closure of the Metropolitan Opera due to the virus. While many people lament the Met’s inability to hold live performances, to stage new productions, to hear the stars perform, the underlying systems that support the institution are going unnoticed. A child’s career, especially a boy’s, is brief. It is a microcosm of the entire opera industry: if there are no performances, there will be no opportunity to showcase the music, to introduce it to younger audiences. Not only that, but there will be no way to train the next generation of singers, leaving an irrevocable gap in the art. Though I have been assured by Mr. Piccolo that there is no significant danger to the future of the chorus (he did not wish to venture unsubstantiated comments about the organization as a whole), I am still worried for the future of this art form. It is hard for me to stand by and watch opera fall by the wayside, knowing, as I do firsthand, its beauty and power. Let us hope, therefore, that it returns soon.
Thomas White is a former Editorial Intern at The New Criterion.