Met tour is something to sing about

Visitors on the backstage tour get a glimpse of the many props, costumes and sets.
NEW YORK -- As the tour group snaked around a corner crowded with props and costumes, one teen-ager slumped against a wall and rested her strawberry-blond head against the closed door.
She folded her arms and sighed heavily.
When she rolled her eyes, even veteran tour guide John Strahan looked disconcerted and stumbled a little in his talk about the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps he made a mental note to suggest that only adults be allowed on the tour.
Then, without lifting her head from the door, the teen waved her brother over.
"God, listen to this," she said, flattening her ear against the door. "I think it's Patricia Racette."
And that's what you can expect on a backstage Metropolitan Opera tour -- the unexpected, like a teen-ager who can identify a soprano through a closed rehearsal door. (Note: The backstage tours are temporarily suspended because of heightened security, but they are expected to return in 2002.)
Non-experts welcome: What most people know about opera would fit on a Diet Coke flip top -- three tenors, a Magic Flute and a gal named A & iuml;da. But you don't have to like opera to like this backstage opera tour.
Even if you don't know Don Carlo from Don Giovanni, the 90-minute walking tour is an intriguing look behind the scenes at the clutter, chaos and creativity that collide to create one of the world's most impressive productions.
The show is for the "front of the house." It's for the more than 800,000 people who attend the more than 200 performances each season.
Contrasts: The daily tours show the other side. Starting each day at 3:45 p.m. (after rehearsal), the tours practically sneak into the place, coming in through the stage door. The nearly 1,000 performers, stagehands and musicians involved in every production enter through a dingy underground garage that's nothing like the rich red carpeting, sweeping staircases and chandeliers that welcome the audience.
The dressing rooms for the opera's "stars" are so modest, they'd make even a B-list Hollywood type whine.
The prop master's area looks like a dozen picked-over tag sales. Its bins -- of fake swords and scepters, fake flower arrangements, pretend musical instruments, cabinets groaning with pitchers, glasses, ashtrays, hatboxes and wall sconces -- overflow their containers.
The wig shop, one of the largest in the world, is crammed floor to ceiling with boxes of hairpieces made from humanlike yak hair.
The cinder-block hallways are lined with rolling costume racks, straining under yards and yards of velvet, satin and brocade.
"In the old, early days of opera, singers often provided their own costumes," Strahan said of the days before $80 seats. These days, opera is an elaborately staged cultural offering.
"For every person you see on stage, there are 10 behind the scenes who got them there," Strahan said during a tour last spring.
Scenery: Also behind the scenes is a rich m & eacute;lange of towering bits of scenery -- the glittering ornate Paris gambling salon from "Manon" or the stony solidity of the Temple of Solomon for "Nabucco." From the audience, they look real enough to touch, but stacked like groceries backstage, they are little more than pretty plywood, Styrofoam and faux brick.
Even though the Met has the world's largest theater elevator (about half the size of a basketball court), which comes in handy for moving scenery, there's still not enough space to store everything. The opera has 55 complete sets stored in warehouses in the Bronx or New Jersey.
"The sets are very sturdy. They were made to last many years," Strahan said as the tour makes it way through the scenery workshops. "Creating scenery here is a luxury. In the old Metropolitan Opera, it was done off premises and brought in."
Previous site: The "old" Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883, was at Broadway and 39th Street. Its current location, in Lincoln Center on the upper West Side, was pasture land in those days. A much smaller venue, the former Met lives on in opera memory as the house where Arturo Toscanini made his debut in 1908, and it was the place that had two seasons where the playbills included both Toscanini and Gustav Mahler on the conducting roster.
From the start, the first opera house was considered too small and awkward, but it took more than 80 years to open the new house at Lincoln Center. Home to the opera as well as the American Ballet Theatre, the theater seats from 2,500 to 2,800, depending on the production.
Given the number of seats and sheer size of the theater, the following fact is particularly impressive -- the opera singers do not use microphones.

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