Tag Archives: The Metropolitan Opera

DANCING AT THE OLD MET

20 Jun

The year was 1962, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway between 39th and 40th street was an amazing place. From its opening in 1883, the Met has always been regarded as one of the world’s leading opera companies.

And this overwhelming, historic building was also home to The Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School, directed by the great Antony Tudor who teamed with Margaret Craske, a “Cecchetti pioneer.” This is where I spent my days, after school and on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, a world very much apart from my Brooklyn home. Not only was I there for class, but I was also in residence for performances on many evenings and matinees as a “super” in operas including La Giaconda, Faust, L’Elisir d’Amore and Parsifal.

The “Old” Met – Photo Courtesy Metropolitan Opera Archive

The world of the old Met, which disappeared in 1966 with the opening of the “new” Met at Lincoln Center, is just a memory, but is very dear to me. So here’s a peek at that behind the scenes world from the eyes of a little girl in ballet shoes:

Dancers, stars, chorus, staff, all entered the building from a tiny stage door on West 40th street. Outside the door was a fruit stand, owned by an old man who sold the most enormous and delicious oranges and grapefruits. I used to call him the grapefruit man. We’d buy one to bring in, peeling it the dressing room and eating the grapefruit sections before class.

You would enter through the stage door into an old and tiny reception room, with a guard sitting at a desk and the opera stars dressing rooms only about four steps from the entrance. Before performances you could hear them in their dressing rooms, vocalizing while piles of floral bouquets were delivered and piled high on the floor next to the guard, waiting to be presented at curtain calls.

Ahead of you was a big iron door, the “stage door” itself – literally 10 steps from the front entrance. Things were tight – so tight, that at intermission the stage hands would drag the scenery onto 39th street, even along Broadway, because there was no room to place the scenery in the house between acts. And to the back left of the entrance hall was the elevator – a tiny lift, with an elevator man and a chain door he would pull open and closed. Two memories of that elevator – one, it would bring you to the glorious ballet classes upstairs, and two, it was the elevator that brought the chorus down to the performances – and I would be with them in that elevator, with their vocalizing, joking, faces covered in pancake makeup, all of us wearing full costumes and period hair – what a scene it was!

The old Met was so tight on space that the children in the operas used a “dressing room” that was really a costume storage closet, with Met Opera ballet dancers in their cramped dressing room across the way. You’d squeeze in to the closet for makeup, have a dresser, and then have your costumed stage mother escort you down that elevator with other members of the chorus. I remember my first peek at the professional dancers – how immodest they were, parading around naked, and squealing when they heard the ballet “boys” were coming up for a party after the Christmas Eve performance. I wished I could have stayed for that party.

The kids in all performances were under the supervision of a lady named “Spyri” – everyone loved Spyri, especially the guys. I always remember hearing Spyri was married to a stagehand, and everyone would stare at her – she always wore a buttoned down shirt, unbuttoned really, with her big breasts popping out of the top. She was a legend. I ran into Ernesta Corvino recently, and even then, we were amazed and laughing at how well we remembered Spyri! (Ernesta’s father was Ballet Master at the Met Opera Ballet Co.)

Some particularly memorable moments of my stage time at The Met include the night Nicolai Gedda, the famous opera star, was peeling an apple as part of his role as Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore” and while singing badly cut his hand and was bleeding all over his costume and floor. He held his hand behind his back and continued singing while everyone in the wings were waving handkerchiefs and bandages for him – if only he could get off stage, even for a moment! During a small pause he did get off to the wings, wrapped his hand in a cloth, and flew back on the stage to continue on with the scene. No one in the audience was the wiser.

Or the time there was a scare, a big scare, that a stagehand came down with meningitis, and according to doctors we were all exposed! My mother was terrified, didn’t want me to go back, but I did and thankfully no one caught it.

And who can forget the time Nathaniel Merrill, the stage director of “L’Elisir,” singled me out at the dress rehearsal, with a stage full of opera stars, chorus and extras in place, to say, “Who did your makeup? Why aren’t you wearing lipstick?” I told him the makeup lady said, “little girls don’t wear lipstick” and the 100+ people on stage, including the great soprano Mirella Freni, started laughing out loud! Then Mr. Merrill said, “Well you tell her from me that you have to wear lipstick!”

Do you know to this day I never walk out the door without it?

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FORTY-FIVE YEARS AND COUNTING

14 Jun

There were ten years of my life that didn’t include ballet – birth to five years old, and 12 to 17 years old, the latter being the years that allow you to meld a career.  So, I’ve danced for 45 years and am not a dancer. But ballet has fashioned me, formed me (and by all means not supported me). It’s my passion, my guiding force, my delight.

As a little girl in Brooklyn, New York (before Brooklyn was cool), I went to “Miss Lorraine’s Dancing School” where I was often singled out to be the star of the “recital.”  In those days the recital was often presented at The Brooklyn Academy of Music (before it was “BAM,” and before it was cool). My parents early on realized my “potential” and following the advice of Miss Lorraine  had me try out for and enroll in The Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, located in The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City at 1411 Broadway.

The building, which was overwhelming to me, occupied the whole block between West 39th Street and West 40th street in midtown Manhattan. And there I was, graduating from one to two, and then three to four to five ballet classes a week! My mother would take me there on the subway, or sometimes we’d drive – she’d wait in the lobby with the other moms or in the cafeteria across the street, waiting, waiting, while I took class upon class.

The school was under the direction of Antony Tudor (and later Dame Alicia Markova) and Margaret Craske – ballet luminaries – something I didn’t understand. Who knew Antony Tudor was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, along with Balanchine, Robbins and Ashton? And who knew “Miss Trask,” as I called her, was a pupil of Enrico Cecchetti, the great Italian ballet pedagogue, and was teacher to ballet greats Melissa Hayden, Hugh Laing, Nora Kaye, Paul Taylor and Sallie Wilson? Oh my!

So there I was, wearing regulation black leotard with little short sleeves and my name embroidered on the front and back as requested. (My mother wasn’t much of a sewer – my name was stitched on in an embarrassingly crooked way and looked positively awful). In addition to my uniform of black leotard and pink tights, I had to wear a wide white headband – the ugliest thing– stretchy and quilted, like a bandana over the front of your head, tied with string at the nape of the neck. The year was 1962.

I remember smiling once at “Miss Trask” and she yelled at me, that I shouldn’t smile at her, what, am I trying to get on her good side? She was frightening, and always seemed angry. I remember in the middle of class she made us walk, walk, walk in a circle, toe to foot, just walk to the music, parading in a circle. So odd, thinking back.

People came to observe class, more than once. I heard they were selecting children to be “supernumeraries” in operas – Verdi’s Falstaff  for one. Many of my fellow students were selected to be “supers” in that opera – and I wasn’t picked. My mother took me home one day after class and said not to be sad, to understand that “I probably wasn’t the right type.” But not long after that I was selected – to be a little girl in Act One of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore  – a “bigger part.” Only two girls were selected for that opera, and instead of being one of many children in a crowded scene in Falstaff, I was on stage for most Act I in L’Elisir as one of the only children. I guess I was the right type.

Being on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House as a little girl – do you ever recover from something like that? After L’Elisir there were roles in La Giaconda, Parsifal, Faust and even Falstaff… I was like a rat pressing the bar for food – more class, more shows, more loving every minute. So, what happened to my career? My parents didn’t want to bring me to NYC five days a week, didn’t want me to have “the life of a dancer.” During those formative years between 12 and 17 I was pulled out of ballet school, no longer financed, no longer transported to 43rd street and Broadway and the “new” Met at Lincoln Center. Can you believe I auditioned for School of American Ballet – Balanchine’s school – and got in? But no, they’d had it. It was over!

It was over, but life went on. This Brooklyn girl returned to dance while studying English at New York University, taking class at The Joffrey Ballet School in Greenwich Village purely because I liked it – it was FUN. And then I continued on, taking class whenever possible, still doing so after all these years. Ballet is my comfort zone, my passion, that thing I do – it puts order in my life.  Lincoln Center will always be my home away from home.

And so I begin this blog – not as a professional dancer, but as a passionate unprofessional who in recent years had the good fortune to work with American Ballet Theatre as event coordinator for their Dancer Reunion (how about meeting ever dancer you’ve ever adored in your life?) and blessed with continuing on as an archivist and social media diva for The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust (a gig that evolved after coordinating their Tudor Centennial at The Juilliard School).

So I’m here to share my thoughts on ballet and give an inside peek behind the wings – past and present. Stay tuned… lots to come… merde!


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