Report 6: Opera Season
The definitive guide to the New York opera experience.
Opera season has ended. After attending seven productions over the course of eight months, the itinerary I painstakingly put together on the back of a dinner napkin one evening toward the end of summer last year is complete. Here is my report.
For me, an evening at the opera starts on the east side of the city. I say evening because, unlike a matinee at the cinema — which is an excellent way to spend a mid-to-late afternoon — I can’t imagine participating in what I’m about to tell you in the bright light of day.
I can’t imagine participating in what I’m about to tell you in the bright light of day.
The Lincoln Center is on the west side of the city, but the east side is just better for engaging with the opera’s history as entertainment for the aristocrat. And perhaps nothing exudes the upper east more than the area of 59th Street and 5th Avenue, where the Grand Army Plaza stretches to connect two of New York’s greatest hotels, The Pierre and The Plaza, with Bergdorf Goodman and the Pulitzer Fountain that Scott Fitzgerald drunkenly took a dip in one night* standing between the two.
Everyone should go to The Plaza Hotel at least once, and perhaps I’ll file something later on its many charms, but as a regular destination for the purposes of pre-gaming the Lincoln Center it’s not ideal. The Plaza’s lobby and lounge are far too busy, its staff always seem frenzied by relentless foot traffic for regular, impromptu visits.
Despite its rich history and 550ft spire that towers over Central Park, The Pierre amazingly goes unnoticed by the types of people you don’t want to be in company with. Beautiful. You can go there at any time of day, any day of the week and its lavishly relaxed atmosphere never wavers. I’ve never not been there and not felt like I had the place to myself.
The Pierre. This is where my nights at the opera begin, with a dry martini, and some oysters with bread and butter, at Perrine, the restaurant toward the back of the hotel. Yum. After dinner, I’ll take a slow and deliberate walk back through the hotel to visit all my favorite parts of it.
Through the over-the-top Rotunda that the architect Daniel Romualdez returned to its rococo splendor in 2016. Into the long thin lobby to see the large black and white photos by Ron Galella, a constant fixture of the hotel until his death in 2022, of just a few of the notable people and moments captured within The Pierre. And out the hotel’s gold framed front doors.
With the coming spring, and the longer days that arrive with it, you can walk through Central Park to Lincoln Center just as the sun is getting ready to set. People are still splendoring in the grass as I cut a path directly from The Pierre, through my favorite portion of the park, where idyllic ponds, winding pathways, bridges, and tunnels collide with 59th Street’s impressive skyline.
A hint of dusk greets me as I approach the Josie Robertson plaza, a long promenade that connects Lincoln Center’s sixteen acre complex of buildings. Light from the iconic centerpiece fountain is perfectly balanced against a slightly darkened sky, but I don’t linger long. Instead, I head straight into the opera house and up its red and white colored, velvet cake like lobby, passing under the Chagall paintings that tower behind huge cathedral shaped, asymmetrically wainscoted, glass windows that lead up to my favored balcony level.
I preorder soda water with lemon. During the performance, it will be placed at the side of the bar with my name on a card beside them, one for each upcoming intermission of which there are usually two. Then I head into the auditorium, down a small flight of steps where I pull back a thick velvet curtain that keeps the din of the theater hushed from a discreet hallway that runs along the sides of the house where the balcony level boxes are accessed. Quiet goes full volume as I enter the crowd by opening the door to the two-seat box I specially selected for opera season. Box 11. The tuning of the orchestra signals the Met’s iconic chandeliers to begin climbing their way up into the ceiling so they don’t block anyone’s view. The lights dim. The show begins.
I pick up my waiting soda, spike it with Tanqueray from the metal flask in my jacket pocket, and head to the area overlooking the Grand Tier Restaurant. This the spot most favored by devout opera goers as a discreet area for snacking.
Food & drink of any kind isn’t allowed in the auditorium, but the door staff are quite forgiving when it comes to bringing items in for consumption in the lobby. The pros, who are almost always alone, stand about in this area, eating sandwiches and chocolates, while everyone else is either still in line for Champagne, embroiled in the best possible camera angle for a photo, or dining in the Grand Tier below, where parties of up to twenty will return to their tables throughout the performance. I always enjoy watching the Grand Tier’s jacketed wait staff pull away the tops of gleaming metal cloches to reveal delicacies that have been waiting for their intended members of the audience.
When I get back to my seat, I’m feeling pretty damn good. At the beginning of the later acts, when all the commotion of just getting to the Met is over with and you’ve settled in for the evening, opera takes hold of you. The stories unfolding on its stage are usually hundreds of years old and based on tales even older than that. Classic tropes of divinity and gods, of love lost and found, triumph and ruin, morality and evil, but most of all, opulence and beauty still manage to seep into the present. In the darkness, with the little golden LCD display flashing translated libretto in front of me, it’s not difficult to relate what I’m witnessing into some aspect of my own life. Tears often flow among the shadows and velvet.
The last act
Opera is long. It requires stamina and commitment, even as a spectator. By the second intermission everyone looks familiar and I’m privy to little vignettes playing out about the lobby. Couples that underestimated the length of the performance are making their way to the exits. The regulars have returned to our unofficial spot to stand in quiet contemplation while studying the crowd. I sip from my second Tanqueray and soda. My familiar but unknown comrades break out small thermoses of tea. At least that’s what it looks like, but it’s probably brandy. Diners in the Grand Tier are starting their desert course. And the outdoor balcony one floor down that runs across the length of the restaurant is near full. It’s always a bit of a party out there, because people are sneaking cigarettes and things just always seem more fun when you’re not really supposed to be doing it, especially when it delivers the kind of pleasure that can kill you.
Things just always seem more fun when you’re not really supposed to be doing it, especially when it delivers the kind of pleasure that can kill you.
An opera’s final moments are most often its shortest, but I don’t notice because it’s here that I’ve given myself over completely to the experience and I’m in no hurry to leave the opera house’s dark, plush, cocoon of make believe. But eventually someone wins, loses, dies, or falls in love. Whatever the case, by the time the show ends, someone has suffered in some way. Here, at the opera, triumph always comes at a cost.
John Updike wrote once that every true story has an anticlimax. When the house lights come on and everyone has left, I’ll often just sit there in the bright until the ushers demand my exit, forcing a plummeting return to reality with a trip home on the subway. But if it’s raining, I’ll charge for the exit just as the curtain touches the stage and the audience erupts in applause. I’ll run as fast as I can through the downpour, back across the plaza, to a waiting inventory of yellow cabs that will soon dwindle and a frenzy for the last ones will ensue. It’s a long ride home. There’s not much to do but watch the lights of the city refract through the beads of water on the car’s window.
*The story of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, swimming in the Bailey Fountain in front of The Plaza Hotel has been largely discounted, but the jazz age duo’s legend has become so defined by mythos of this nature it hardly matters. When you’re there, looking at the water, you can feel their presence.
Huge thank you to Annie Forrest for Report 6 photography
Preview of the Met’s next season
More about The Pierre and people that work there
The Pierre’s Rotunda in Architectural Digest