How the Metropolitan Opera Works

The audience gives a standing ovation for the Metropolitan Opera's closing night performance of the opera "Tosca" by Giacomo Puccini, in New York City, on May 11, 2002.
The audience gives a standing ovation for the Metropolitan Opera's closing night performance of the opera "Tosca" by Giacomo Puccini, in New York City, on May 11, 2002.
AP Photo/John-Marshall Mantel

The Metropolitan Opera, or the Met as it's often called, is a staple of the performing arts, theater and culture in America. Established more than 100 years ago, the Met has grown to become one of the most sought after artistic establishments of not only New York City, but throughout the world. The Met's beginnings can't quite be considered humble, but the opera house's founders and its performers worked hard in the early years to establish the Met among New York City's artistic society.

The Metropolitan Opera consists of opera singers, performers, dancers, orchestras, choruses, costume designers, set builders and conductors all working together to create living pieces of art. Composers, musicians, and choreographers from countries all over the world come to work at the Met to use their talents in the name of art. In its early years, the opera hosted talent such as Christine Nilsson, Marcella Sembrich, Rosa Ponselle and more recent famous names include the late Luciano Pavarotti.

Advertisement

The Metropolitan Opera hosts more than 200 performances each season and brings in an attendance of 800,000 to the opera house each year. Through the Met's commitment to expanding opera presence, millions of people all over the world experience performances through radio and television broadcasts as well as over the Internet. The Metropolitan Opera has credited itself for bringing opera into areas of America where opera had little or no presence in the past.

On the next few pages we'll take a look at the details and changes in the Metropolitan Opera House, take a look back at how the Met got its start and discover all the ways the Met has used technology throughout the years to bring opera performances to countries all over the world.

Metropolitan Opera House

This undated image shows the Old Metropolitan Opera, on Broadway between 39th and 40th streets, in New York City.
This undated image shows the Old Metropolitan Opera, on Broadway between 39th and 40th streets, in New York City.
AP Photo

Over the years, the Metropolitan Opera has had several homes, although each building's foundation has always been poured in New York City. The first opera house built for the Met was in 1883 on Broadway and 39th Street. A design competition was held for the construction of the first building, a designer hired and the building completed in just three years.

The original building included box seats on every tier except for the highest level. Opera goers who couldn't afford the more expensive tickets, could purchase seats at the top level of the theater for only $5, but had to enter the seating area (called the Family Circle) from a different entrance. These seats didn't have access to the main part of the building, so socializing with the other attendees was nearly impossible [source: The Metropolitan Opera]. In 1892, a fire broke out in the paint shop of the theater and spread to the backstage area and the main auditorium. The remaining performances for that year were canceled while the opera house was rebuilt.

Advertisement

During the 1890s the opera house was owned entirely by 35 box-holders who made up the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company. Through the purchase of permanent box seats, the owners were able to attend any performances at any time and were guaranteed seats. The ownership of the opera house allowed the Metropolitan Opera to focus solely on the opera performances, without having to manage the operations of the building. In 1903, the auditorium was redecorated in red and gold, the now-signature look of the Metropolitan Opera House.

In 1940, after 50 years of box holders owning the opera house, the Met bought back the building from the box holders and managed both the performing arts and the building for the first time. The auditorium was rebuilt again during this year, and the Grand Tier box seats were removed and replaced with seating for the Metropolitan Opera Guild Members -- members who contributed to the opera company regularly through dues. The renovation also made room for a radio booth to be built.

The opera house made its final move in 1966 when the Met opened at the Lincoln Center in New York City. The opera company opened its world premiere of the new building with Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra," and introduced nine new performances that season. The opera house currently attracts about 800,000 attendees each year and offers free access through a series of open house dress rehearsals. Through its performances, the opera house continues its focus on art and high quality performances today.

Up next, learn how the Metropolitan Opera got its start and eventually became one of the best-known performing arts communities.

History of the Metropolitan Opera

In this April 9, 2010 photo, Renee Fleming, center, performs the title role during the final dress rehearsal of Gioachino Rossini's "Armida" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
In this April 9, 2010 photo, Renee Fleming, center, performs the title role during the final dress rehearsal of Gioachino Rossini's "Armida" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The Metropolitan Opera got its start after a group of New York City millionaires had a difficult time trying to secure box seat tickets at New York's Academy of Music. The millionaires, wanting good seats to the latest theater and performing arts, decided to start their own opera house in New York City. Their intention was to make a bigger and better performing arts alternative than what was already offered at the Academy of Music. During a time when America was growing and full of innovation, the group of millionaire entrepreneurs started what would become one of the most well-known opera houses in the world.

The Met first purchased land in 1880 and within three years, singers and an orchestra had been hired, sets were built, costumes were designed and the general management and building designers had been hired. In 1883, the opening night performance was Gounod's "Faust," an Italian opera performed by an entirely Italian opera company, with the exception of two Americans. Everything was performed that night in Italian. All the music was sung in Italian, costumes were imported from the country and even the two American singers used Italian stage names. In its first season, the Met faced stiff competition from the Academy of Music and lost almost half a million dollars. However, after being open for only three years, the Metropolitan Opera put the New York Academy of Music out of business in 1886.

Advertisement

The Met faced additional competition from 1906 to 1910 during Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera performances. To combat Hammerstein, the Met formed two companies and performed 361 performances in just seven months, successfully eliminating the competition [source: The Metropolitan Opera]. During the early years of the 20th century, the Met went through a number of changes, including several transitions between Italian, German and French operas, before finally settling on performing operas in its own native language. In 1910, the Metropolitan Opera was the first opera house to debut an American opera, "The Pipe of Desire," and this marked the first time an opera was performed in English at the Met [source: The Metropolitan Opera].

Before America's Great Depression, the Metropolitan Opera had established itself as a focus of art and talent among New York City's high society. Although the Met weathered a few economic challenges, its innovation has helped keep it alive for more than 100 years.

Go on to the next page to read how the Metropolitan Opera has used broadcast radio, television and even the Internet to keep the performing arts alive.

Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts

Merlin H. Aylesworth (standing), President of NBC, and Paul D. Cravath (sitting), President of the Metropolitan Opera Company, listening to the opera on the radio after making their introductory remarks on Christmas Day in 1931.
Merlin H. Aylesworth (standing), President of NBC, and Paul D. Cravath (sitting), President of the Metropolitan Opera Company, listening to the opera on the radio after making their introductory remarks on Christmas Day in 1931.
AP Photo

The Metropolitan Opera has had a long history of utilizing technology to expand the reach of the performing arts. Between 1901 and 1903, the Met recorded some of the first live recordings by using an Edison cylinder machine to record performances from high above the main stage. Although these early recordings were done years before the Met began broadcasts of its performances, it helped set the tone for future uses of technology at the Met.

The first full Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast was on Christmas Day in 1931 and was the first step in what has become a tradition for the opera house. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) paid the opera company $5,000 for each broadcast, which, at the time, was about $800 more than what the Met earned for each performance in ticket sales [source: The Metropolitan Opera]. The broadcasts became a popular program for NBC and the Met, and in 1940 the opera sent a small group of performers to Radio City in New York to produce an hour-long television broadcast. As mentioned on the previous page, in that same year, the opera house remodeled the auditorium and built a radio booth to expand the theater and permanently bring the art of opera into the homes of the American public.

Advertisement

1940 continued to be an important year in broadcasting for the Met, when Texaco began sponsoring a Saturday matinee broadcast of the opera. The partnership began with a performance of Mozart's "Nozze de Figaro" and ended 64 years later in 2004. However, the Saturday matinees weren't the only broadcasts. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) began a series called "Live from the Met" in 1977 that brought live, televised broadcasts to millions of television sets. In reality, only the first few performances were simulcast live. The others were taped in front of a live audience and then aired at a later date. The Met later worked with PBS on a series called "The Metropolitan Opera Presents," which made about 80 opera performances available to public audiences all over the world.

The Met's radio broadcasts are currently heard in 42 countries and their series is the longest running classical music series in American broadcast history. For the 2006 to 2007 season, the Met introduced its "Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD" program that brought live, high definition theater performances into movie theaters throughout the world and into the classrooms of New York City schools through a partnership with city's education department. The Metropolitan Opera also has its own station on satellite radio that broadcasts both live and rare performances.

So the Met continues to innovate and evolve as the years pass. From Edison's cylinder machines in 1901 to today's satellite radio broadcasts, the use of cutting-edge technology helps keep the art of opera in front of not only the American public, but also a worldwide audience. It's a strategy that's worked for the Metropolitan Opera for more than 100 years.

For more information about the Metropolitan Opera and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Internet Movie Database, The. "Live from the Metropolitan Opera (1977)." (April 16, 2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335704/
  • Metropolitan Opera, The. "Our Story." February 2008. (April 12, 2010) http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/about/ourstory.aspx
  • Metropolitan Opera, The. "Timeline." (April 13, 2010) http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/history/sights/timeline.aspx
  • Rockwell, John. "Music: The Met on Radio And Its Impact On American Taste." Nov. 26, 1989. (April 16, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/26/arts/music-the-met-on-radio-and-its-impact-on-american-taste.html