Parsifal Pilgrimage

2012-2013 Met Season poster downstairs on the way to the stage door

2012-2013 Met Season poster downstairs on the way to the stage door

This time last week, I was coming home to Durham after an amazing trip to New York. It’s taken me until now to have time to blog about it, but the trip has never been out of my thoughts for the past week. What an amazing time Susan Martin and I had!

It began last year with the 2012-13 season announcement for the Met Opera. The highlight for me was a new production of Parsifal with a brilliant cast. We had to go! (The poster on the right was already up when I visited the Met in May last year.)

Tickets were ordered, plans were made, rooms at the YMCA West Side hostel were booked (months in advance!) and finally the great day came. We flew up to to New York on Tuesday, 26 February and arrived at JFK. We took our usual $7.25 train+subway journey to Columbus Circle (really you can’t beat that price, especially if it’s not rush hour–we could sit down the entire journey). A quick walk up Broadway and we were checking in at the Y. I’ve written before about the Y: it’s not the most elegant place, in fact it’s downright institutional, but where else can you come out of Lincoln Center at midnight and be in your bed in 15 minutes?–and it costs $125/night!

The plan: to see four operas in four days. We went up a day early in case of snow, and left on Sunday.


We stocked up on supplies like bottled water and fruit at the nearby Duane Reade, I turned in my first ever request to “be on the list” for a singer (it was unsuccessful) at the office area behind the stage door at the Met, and I bought librettos for Don Carlo and Il Trovatore (future study for this summer).

The highlight of the day was dinner at Bar Boulud, directly across from the Met. I have to admit I cared less about the food and more about the view, although the food was fine. (I think Susan liked her entree better than I did mine. It was a schnitzel but not as I know it. Susan pointed out it didn’t say “Wiener” schnitzel, to which I grumped well really is there any other? Next time I’ll have fish or some of the charcuterie, for which they are famed.)

I sat facing out onto Lincoln Center Plaza and watched the sun go down and all the lights and chandeliers in the Met come on as we ate. I was not so much of a rube as to take a photo, but the images remain in my heart. It was just beautiful and represented the whole reason for the trip. *sniff* We were lucky to get in to the restaurant early and I had great fun imagining stories about all the smart New Yorkers (and some not so smartly dressed) as they arrived alone, waiting for someone, or in pairs. Watching them order drinks, trying to sneak a peek at their entrees…doesn’t everyone do this? New York is the world’s greatest city for people watching, from the woman slumped coma-like in front of us on the train in from JFK to the women who somehow negotiate walking in 6-inch Louboutin heels.

My standard breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien. You can't see all the bread in the basket beneath the croissant!

My standard breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien. You can’t see all the bread in the basket beneath the croissant!

Wednesday was Parsifal day and we were pretty excited! After breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien (every morning–why not, it’s vacation?) we walked to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stumbled upon the fabulous Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity exhibition. It’s a joint exhibit with the Musée d’Orsay, the Chicago Institute of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and what a perfect fit for the Met because in addition to wonderful galleries of Impressionist paintings, there were many contemporary gowns (and a small selection of men’s clothing) that they could add from their collection. I could have spent HOURS looking at it and actually we did spend most of our time there! Imagine my surprise to round a corner and see a large painting that I like so much I have a print over my fireplace, loaned from the Chicago Art Institute:

Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

The catalog is beautiful, full of fascinating articles, loaded with color pictures–and a steal at $40 although it weighs a ton! So despite the fact that I’ve sworn off exhibit catalogs I had to have this one. Lunch in the Museum’s cafeteria, then walked back to the Y (we took a shortcut through Central Park) for a little preparatory rest and more hydration before Parsifal with the early start time of 6pm.

I’m not going to talk about Parsifal–it deserves a blog post of its own, so I’ll skip over it now. Suffice it to say, I was simply overwhelmed in row D!! We met up with Lucy Barnhouse during the intervals and talked and talked–and celebrated with Prosecco too!

How great was this production of Parsifal? Thursday morning Susan and I walked almost 40 blocks (really?) downtown to Birch Coffee on 27th St to meet Lucy–we sat and discussed the opera and the production for an hour and a half! (I can always count on Lucy to suggest a cool coffeehouse meeting place that makes me feel like I’m in college again) It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been inspired to sit and discuss a work of art with friends. It felt good!

We then walked (almost 40 blocks? really?) back uptown and had possibly the most delicious hamburger I’ve ever had (yes I liked it better than Durham’s famous Only Burger) at Shake Shack.


Uh oh. I can’t remember what I did that afternoon. Boo. Nap? I know I was VERY full after that burger and very tired after all that walking. Don Carlo was the opera that evening, with a start time of 7pm so we had an early supper at PJ Clarke’s across the street from the Met. There is nothing special about that place to me, but it is convenient and quick.

So Don Carlo. This is now a favorite Verdi opera although I’ve only seen it livestreamed from Munich.  I was still under the Parsifal spell–only something as serious as Don Carlo would do! Imagine my surprise when I realized the production is the same one I’ll see at the Royal Opera House in May. With two of the same singers! Anyway I’d already read reviews and comments complaining about the conductor Lorin Maazel’s super slow tempi. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared, but I did find my eyelids drooping on a number of occasions. Let’s blame it on lots of walking and late nights. Barbara Frittoli (Elisabetta), Anna Smirnova (Eboli), Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Posa), and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Filippo II) sang the leading roles and Erik Halfvarson was the Grand Inquisitor. I was pretty excited to see Hvorostovsky, Furlanetto, and Halfvarson live for the first time. I love low voices!

There was excitement in the first act though! This takes place in the Forest of Fontainebleau outside Paris. The production calls for Don Carlo to build a small stylish (in this production!) fire. I just assumed it was natural gas as most of these things (I thought) are. But no! Evidently unbeknownst to us (and the singers) the fire got a little out of control and right in the middle of the singing a stagehand in t-shirt & khakis came onstage from the wings with a large fire-extinguisher and blasted the stage fire! It was a real one! The audience laughed and Ramon Vargas, who was singing Don Carlo, couldn’t help it and laughed despite it being a serious and sad moment in the story. He turned his back to the audience but we were sitting on the side and could see him working hard not to laugh. Anyway, I enjoyed the production and it’s good experience for when I see it next. Another late night though.

Friday already? Friday was Carmen night. It didn’t begin until 8pm so that gave us plenty of time to be indecisive. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast, catch up on email, Twitter, and Facebook in the Y lobby… Living the Upper West Side life in the YMCA! Yes, let’s wander up to The Cloisters. Well this is all my fault: I suggested we take a bus so that we could actually see something, and we did. Unfortunately the bus took much longer than I remembered! We finally got to The Cloisters at lunchtime and there wasn’t any place to eat inside. Also, for whatever reason I was completely and totally exhausted. I really didn’t know if I was going to make it just walking from the bus stop into the museum! Not to mention looking at this treasure chest of medieval art. Well, we were there so we looked around as much as we could (Unicorn Tapestries! Amazing carved ivory items! Entire pieces of buildings hauled away from France and reconstructed in Manhattan!), then walked down the hill to the New Leaf Cafe for a very elegant lunch. We took the subway to get back to the Y.

There are so many beautiful things at The Cloisters. I want to go back with fresh legs!!

There are so many beautiful things at The Cloisters. I want to go back with fresh legs!!

I walked over the Met Opera to turn in my second “list” request (also unsuccessful) and to check in with one of the women working in the Met Opera Shop. She’s from Chapel Hill and we’d chatted when she ran my credit card on Tuesday and saw I was from Durham. I cannot help it, there’s something about New York that MAKES me strike up conversations with perfect strangers. I’d already had a conversation the previous day with a woman whose shoes I admired! (I thought if this elegant lady can slip on these stylish but comfortable looking shoes to go out for coffee I’d like to get some–they were Merrells, but unfortunately I couldn’t find them online so they’re probably discontinued.)

That evening we went to my favorite restaurant, Il Violino. Of course we’d forgotten about Friday night and had no reservation, but we were able to sit at the bar and have a really tasty meal. And chat with the other folks at the bar. Yum!

View from my favorite seat in Il Violino. You can watch the world go by on Columbus Ave & 68th St!

View from my favorite seat in Il Violino. You can watch the world go by on Columbus Ave & 68th St!

Carmen, like Don Carlo, was a revival of an older production which I liked although I know others don’t. It makes full use of the height of the Met stage, but as was pointed out to me, somewhat like the Lepage Ring Cycle the singers are pushed into a narrow area at the front of the stage. I’d been hoping to see Andrew Richards’ debut as Don José, but he was ill so José Cura stepped in (literally the day before–he had flown in because he’s singing Otello later). Anita Rachvelishvili (Carmen), Ekaterina Scherbachenko (Micaëla), and Dwayne Croft (Escamillo) were the rest of the principals. Here’s my interval Twitter review: Cura is a good actor. Rachvelishvili has a loud voice. I like the production & it’s fun to sit on row B #polite

My thoughts really didn’t change much after that. Eva Maria Westbroek and family came in after the interval and sat behind us. She was Sieglinde in Die Walküre for the DVD & version I saw live last year! They gave a collegial standing ovation at the end and left before the house lights came up. I smiled at her but left them in peace, of course.

Ah, Saturday. Our last opera, our last Parsifal, our last day in New York. The matinee started at noon, so the plan was to get sandwiches from Épicerie Boulud (Lovely place with NICE sandwiches, conveniently right across the street from the Met. Although expensive, much nicer than the $14 sandwiches available inside the Met), then go to the Met early for another highlight: Susan and I met up with Melanie Spector, a young woman who was singing her last performances with the Children’s Chorus of the Met in this Parsifal production. Melanie is a very talented young singer and horn player who has aged out of the Children’s Chorus (of which she’s been a member since 2007) and now has her applications in for Juilliard Pre-College and other similar programs. She’s also an excellent blogger and I look forward to watching her talents develop. Melanie invited us in the stage door to the central waiting area. While we chatted we saw musicians and singers arrive. Since I’m always interested in backstage and the practicalities of a big organization it was fun to see them go into a separate door that led to the dressing rooms. I’d been hoping to catch up with Melanie’s mother too, Susan Spector, who is second oboist in the Met opera orchestra, but she was ill and wasn’t playing that day. (I met both Melanie and Susan via Twitter; we’d already met in person at the Jonas Kaufmann recital in Princeton.)

We chatted for a good long time, but at 11:45 it was time to take our seats for Parsifal. Again, I was simply knocked out. This production was the perfect combination of music, cast, director, choreography, and staging that really moved me. I would have seen it all seven times if I could have! And I’m STILL thinking about it. But I’ll have more to say in my next blog post which will be devoted to me spouting off about Parsifal.

Afterwards Susan and I went back to Il Violino (did I mention I love that place?) and had a nice table with a fine view of Columbus Ave and 68th St. And we continued our conversation about Parsifal which had been an ongoing topic since Wednesday evening when we saw it the first time!

As a splurge and to make up for the depressing fact that we had to leave New York and get back to reality, we took a taxi to JFK the next morning. And that’s it! Trip to New York, 2013 is now just a memory but there were so many unforgettable moments…

But we’re already planning Trip to New York, 2014! Stay tuned…

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10 Responses to Parsifal Pilgrimage

  1. tworivers58 says:

    Love it! What a great trip you two had!

  2. OK – I don’t mind admitting *I’m a rube. What does it mean to be on a singer’s list?

    • Ivis says:

      Singers have lists made up of people they will see backstage (after shower, etc) before they go out the stage door. You leave a note with a request to be added to this list, then after the opera you go to a particular door in the house where a security man is standing with the lists for all the singers. If your name is on it, you can go through the door to (I’m guessing) a lounge where you wait for the singers to appear. I have to say the guards were extremely nice both times, asking my name, how it was spelled, and in one case actually showing me the list to be sure I wasn’t on it. Both times they seemed surprised I wasn’t! If it was an act, at least it made me feel better. 😉

      Actually I observed something amusing at the matinee: before I went to ask, two ladies went to the same door and attempted to go in (I recognized one of them so I knew what was coming) but were stopped by the guard. Tall Blonde Lady 😉 said, “We’re with the artists” but the guard said, “Well I have to ask for ID” and was blustering a bit when Tall Blonde Lady said, “I’m Mrs Kaufmann and this is Mrs Mattei…” They were let in.

  3. Sarah says:

    If you’re on the list, you’re admitted to a rather long hallway where a guard keeps you waiting for a few minutes until the Appointed Time when you’re all allowed to go around the corner to the dressing room area. There’s a smallish lounge area (often containing baked goods…) and dressing rooms going off it in both directions, so you can either bowl right up to the dressing room itself or mill about and wait.
    Funny that the ladies didn’t just wave their passes: each artist gets one VIP pass (yes, I have kept both of mine…they’re only valid for a season but smugness is for life!) to give to a person of their choice, which precludes the need to put them on the list. (It also means you can use the bathrooms backstage during the intermission rather than facing the Queue of Death!) And I’m sure your friendly guards were genuinely surprised: generally speaking, if you’re asking about the list, it’s because you’ve got a reasonable expectation of being on it.

    • Ivis says:

      Awww, thanks Sarah! I’m sure your description is the closest I’ll ever get to it, although you know now I’m going to try to get on Stuart’s list the next time he sings at the Met! 😉 If he has too many important people, I’ll stagedoor for him! (I guess this list must be a secret-handshake thing although I first learned about it on an opera discussion group seemingly a century ago. Had some helpful suggestions on my attempt, but *shrug* ) Great point about the VIP pass… And yes, keep it forever!

      • Sarah says:

        There’s no secret handshake: basically you’re put on the list by a singer or, as I’ve learnt through Opera Teen’s fortunate exploits, their agent. So believe me, if and when we’re back in NYC (she says, remaining studiously vague) you’ll be on it. No question.
        Pretty much all opera houses run backstage lists, though not all patrol them as rigorously as the Met. In the UK and Europe, it’s often enough just to look like you know where you’re going! Not sure whether that’s a good thing or not…

  4. Ivis says:

    Thank you Sarah! I will vaguely look forward to it! 🙂

  5. Laurie says:

    ANYONE can walk into the stage door at La Scala….it’s a little creepy!

    • Ivis says:

      Yikes! Mind you that’s not the only scary thing I’ve heard about La Scala this week–but then I do still take things read on the internet with a grain of salt… And you are too busy (or too wise) to comment!

      • Laurie says:

        well, there are lots of reasons for what is going on…. I can only speak personally for the Stage Management and Stage Crew here at the Fenice, which is phenomenal, and of course in my home company, Teatro Regio Torino… also a fine crew and excellent stage managers… As we know, all of this filters down from the very top…. enough said!

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