Iam a fan of tours when visiting a new city. Whether by foot, trolley, bus, or boat, tours are a great way to see the major sites in a short time. New York’s double-decker sightseeing buses are fun and worthwhile, but seasoned visitors won’t want to do it more than once or twice (unless those relatives from the Midwest need a chaperone).
For return visitors, New York offers a bevy of smaller, specialized tours ranging from the offbeat (“The Sopranos” tour) to the staid (The Federal Reserve Bank tour). One that’s both unusual and illuminating — not just for opera fans but for all theater geeks — is the Metropolitan Opera Backstage tours. Run by the Met Opera Guild, these tours are led by volunteers who bring their own knowledge of and enthusiasm for opera, whether providing tidbits about new and classic productions, ducking into isolated wings, or greeting friends in the carpentry or wig construction rooms.
My most recent backstage tour was conducted by Bob Greene, 81, an opera buff since he saw “La Traviata” at the Met in 1944 and who has been guiding backstage tours for 15 years.
Like all tour guides, Greene adds a personal touch to the one-hour visit inside the grand house. (Since tours take place during opera season, some parts of the house may be off-limits at certain times, so no two tours are quite the same.) We began in the 4,000 seat auditorium, with its legendary curtain and acoustics. On the vast stage, crews were breaking down the “Pagliacci” set after the matinee performance while on another of the Met’s four massive stages, a crew was preparing for that night’s performance, “Aida.”
Greene gave a brief history of the Metropolitan Opera, which was founded in 1883. Its first opera house, on Broadway and 39th Street, was built by a group of wealthy businessmen who wanted their own theater. But the facilities were inadequate for huge opera sets, so for years the company sought a new site. Once the Met joined with other New York institutions in forming Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, plans for a new building started to gel. Back in 1955, the area that’s now Lincoln Center was considered a slum (it’s the same neighborhood depicted in “West Side Story”), so the choice was controversial at the time. The massive construction project began in 1959, and the state-of-the-art Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center opened in September 1966.
Armed with this background — also illustrated in numerous photographs that line the backstage walls — we headed to various floors and departments backstage. As many as five operas can be in rehearsal in different sections of the theater at one time. Visitors may be prohibited from rehearsal rooms in use by performers, but not from peering into windows or listening outside as baritones and sopranos run scales. In the buzzing scene shops, stagehands build and move massive sets — the towering columns of the impressive “Aida” sets are paper-mache (yes, I touched them). The statues used in “Pagliacci” are being repainted; Greene points out that the green dress that Patricia Racette wore just two hours earlier in her “Pagliacci” performance now hangs in the sewing shop and is being tended to by seamstresses. In the hall outside, opulent costumes from “Ernani” are awaiting steam cleaning. Greene greets the head carpenter, who is assembling an oversize bed. “He can build anything,” notes Greene, with a nod to a prop of a large bird with fur from a recent staging of “The Rake’s Progress.”
Tours begin and end in the Met lobby and are held during the Met’s performance season on most weekdays at 3 p.m. and some Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and/or 1:30 p.m.
METROPOLITAN OPERA GUILD
BACKSTAGE TOURS Reservations $25, $23 for Guild Members, $20 for students and groups of 10 or more. Lincoln Center, between West 62d and 65th streets and Columbus and Amsterdam avenues. 212-769-7028, www.metguild.org