The Bohemian Life: Behind The Scenes at The NYC Met
I’d never imagined that one day, I would be standing here, on centre stage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House (The Met), but here I am, tonight. No, I am not about to make my debut as Mimi, in La Boheme, but rather, I am the guest of a person who is arguably one of the biggest characters of the behind-the-scene’s world of New York’s Met. You haven’t heard of him? Well, that’s the way it’s going to stay, as he is part of a group of the most dedicated unsung professionals in Opera who make The Met what it is today. All the greats from Pavarotti to Domingo, Sutherland to Kauffman and Levine know who I am talking about. In fact, I’ll hazard a statement as bold as saying, there probably isn’t one of the big names who has stepped on this hallowed stage over the last 35 years who hasn’t been touched by the warm heart, booming bass voice and jovial character that is Mr G. So resonant and distinct is his deep bass voice, that on more than one occasion the great Placido Domingo, in all seriousness, encouraged him to join him on the other side of the curtain.
Mr G. is the patriarchal link in what is a multi-generational, multi-talented family, whose name is synonymous with making The Met what it is. He started life at The Met in 1979, the year his father died. Fresh out of High School and after what he describes was a half-hearted attempt at attending College, he rang a colleague of his father’s, with whom his father had worked with for years, and was invited to come down to The Met for an interview. He jests that the interview consisted of the question, When can you start? , but it was that first step, which saw Mr G. become an intimate and integral part of The Met’s backstage life. One might say that it was predestined, as his family name is generationally and familially woven into the very seams and fabric of backstage New York. Mr G’s father, was at The Metropolitan Opera House when it was still located on 39th Street and finished his working life as management in the most powerful entertainment union in New York. Mr G’s two uncles were also part of The Met having worked there their entire working lives.
With one of his uncles, the harmony of behind the scenes collaboration was unified when he married a Hollywood Movies costume designer, who today, at 85 years of age, is considered to be one of the most prolific and innovative costume designers in the business. With an Oscar, Tony and BAFTA awards sitting on the shelf in her modest family home, she is anointed behind-the-scenes royalty.
It wasn’t just Mr G’s father and uncles who left their mark on The Met; it was also his colourful cousins who followed their fathers into the business. In fact, Mr G’s family is one of three family names that you may never know, who over the last sixty years, have established a legitimate claim to a familial dynasty that has left an indelible mark on The Met. Mr G, however, is now the last of his generation. He is a testament to the level of commitment and hard work that goes into being a part of The Met’s backstage crew. In fact, an 80-hour week at The Met is standard for Mr G, with some weeks, dependent on the shows playing, requiring well over 100 hours of work.
Why the intensity? Because the stage at The Metropolitan Opera is a living, breathing, entity. Unlike your normal Broadway shows that run for years with the same sets and routine scene changes, The Met is subject to a hugely diverse range of operas, concerts, shows, rehearsals and presentations, all of which require hundreds of tons of scenes, equipment and lighting to be picked up, moved and arranged, fifty different ways, in any given day. It is the most dynamic of theatrical environments. What you don’t see backstage, is that even before the performers have taken their final curtain calls, the instant the golden veil falls, Mr G. and the crew are already moving tons of the show’s set, as it is hydraulically lifted, prodded and pushed into storage, while literally, the upcoming sets from stage right and left are simultaneously being moved into place for the following day’s rehearsal.
So little is the time and so precisely is it measured to the incremental minute for the next event, that The Met, true to the adage of The City That Never Sleeps, is a 24-hour non-stop symphony of well composed and conducted showbiz tradespeople, working around the clock to keep everything seamlessly in place. In fact, tonight, I witnessed what was arguably one of the most spectacular feats of teamwork I have ever seen. Within four minutes of the end of Act I of La Boheme, the stage was reset, from Rudolfo’s small apartment room to the grandeur of 1830s Paris.
The City of Lights and its Age of Romanticism came back to life, when a four-ton platform stage, holding literally over 230 chorus members and extras, dressed in exquisite period costume, were prestigiously pulled into place, without the audience suspecting a thing. The skill with which these men and women work, Mr G. among them, is something that is now emblazoned in awe on my psyche.
For all his faux indignation at the long hours, from speaking with Mr G. you immediately get the sense that it is not work for him in the true meaning of the word, but rather a passion that he gets paid to indulge. His face and deeply resonant voice are animated and projected throughout the entire theatre, as he explains just how much he loves the diversity this stage has seen. In his time at The Met, Mr G. has enjoyed everything from the most classical of operas and concertos, to Chinese acrobatic troupes, Russian folk dancers, and has even seen the stage of The Met turned into a giant ice rink. In fact, he shared with me that a certain ice-dancing troupe were responsible for the only time during his tenure that The Met missed a performance, due to the ice not freezing in time. The Met has even taken Mr G. to the other side of the world, when it was invited to tour Japan, visiting the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kyoto in both 1988 and 1996.
After 35 years and having outlived and outworked all of his familial peers and ancestors, the torch is slowly but transitionally being handed down to the next generation of Gs at The Metropolitan Opera. Among them are Mr G’s nephews and his own 26-year-old son. Mr G. is somewhat sceptical, however, about whether they will last the distance, as this next generation’s avant-garde approach to showing up to work, doesn’t necessarily fit the work ethic required to keep the show on the road. This generation has vastly different values…more personally motivated and perhaps all for the better, Mr G. shares, as he relates that both his father, as well as his two uncles and cousins, died well before their golden years. Mr G’s not quite done yet, however. With his wife, they have a young family, which should keep Mr G. treading lightly on the boards of The Met… at least for the next few years.
We could, however, be seeing the subtle changing of the Old Guard and the Ancien Régime as Mr G’s daughters are themselves taking on the family legacy as they take their first steps into the world of showbiz. As they embark on their own budding careers, perhaps the family name, will finally be seen from the front of stage.
Back in my seat, I watch as La Boheme roars to an end, Mimi lifeless on the stage and Rudolfo inconsolable beside her. I can feel a humming deep inside of me, one that is almost equivalent to a hive, the workers, labouring, protecting and supporting one another beneath the regal gaze of their queen: this magnificent opera house.