New York’s Metropolitan Opera has performed Puccini’s opera since 1900. Now you can see how it happens
By JAMES TARMY / Pics By BLOOMBERG
Arguably the best seat to see Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème at New York’s Metropolitan Opera is 30ft (9.14m) up, backstage, on a scaffold.
Perched on a small outcropping suspended over the stage, a viewer can simultaneously see the singers moving across Franco Zeffirelli’s 37-year-old set, even as the 80-odd stagehands behind the scenes are quietly performing a choreography of their own.
This production of La Bohème runs from Nov 29 to Dec 13, at which point the stage is packed into 53ft-long trailers and driven to a storage warehouse in New Jersey.
In the meantime though, for every performance, the set is built up, then broken down, in the span of about 10 hours. The company does not perform an opera twice in a row, so the sets are completely replaced each time.
La Bohème is a famous opera — its story of a poet who falls in love with a consumptive seamstress named Mimi is a cultural touchstone — but Zeffirelli’s set has become an institution unto itself.
After premiering in 1981, the mega-production, which involves 80 choristers, 100 extras, 30 children and 12 members of a marching band (and that’s not including the principal singers) has been performed with reassuring regularity.
Every time the stage is unpacked, a team comes to touch-up the paint. “Everything gets banged around,” says Eric Miller, who does electric maintenance throughout the building.
The Zeffirelli set takes up all three of the set’s “wagons”, which is what Met technicians call the massive, stage-sized floors waiting in the wings of the stage to be pulled in for each act. These wagons are sealed off from the stage by two colossal, insulated doors.
While the opera is taking place, behind both doors, crews are either assembling, or disassembling, whatever set goes on next.
Step inside and you’ll hear drills, hammers and people calling back and forth; step outside and you’ll hear the lush sounds of the Met orchestra accompanying Ailyn Pérez, who plays Mimi in the production which started in late November.
Every part of the set, Miller says, is on what he calls “bent 20s”, meaning a nail bent at a 90 degree angle, or on hinges.
Sets can be assembled merely by lining up various parts and dropping in a pin to hold them together. “It’s like a Lego set,” Miller says of their modular design.
After sets are taken offstage (or when a curtain comes down), technicians can detach key pieces and take the set apart in astonishing speed. “Everyone can do this set in their sleep, because it’s been around so long,” he says.
Depending on timing, some of the first act’s set might be built in advance by what Miller calls the “night gang”, and the rest of the initial construction will be done when the main crew gets in.
“You’ll have (stagehands) come in at 3pm or 4pm, and the set will be ready by 7pm,” Miller says. The set for Act 2 is built in advance, so when the first act is over, the entire stage (wagon) is raised a foot and pulled offstage, while the second is pulled on.
“That’s why the time in between Act 1 and Act 2 only takes five minutes,” Miller explains. “It’s all built already.”
Then the next wagon will hurriedly be in the process of being set up for Act 3, and the next for Act 4.
The view from backstage is occasionally deflating — the cityscape of Paris is, it turns out, a mere foot or two high. In other instances though, the veracity of the production can be startling.
Real food, for instance, is consumed by the principals in Act 1 and Act 2 — that’s real bread, pastries, fried chicken, salad and even ice cream. (So much for starving artists.) There are even real chestnuts on the chestnut cart.
It’s the scale of the entire set, though, that’s only fully comprehensible once it’s being disassembled. “I tell my friends that I can’t explain it,” Miller says.
“You can’t tell anyone about it without them seeing it — and when they do, they realise oh my god, it’s huge. But if you’ve never been backstage, there’s no shot.” — Bloomberg