For the past month, 24 children, including me, and 24 women have been singing their hearts out in Wagner’s Parsifal from the very top of the Met in a place called “the dome”. That is 48 people singing in full voice, and yet the sound still sounds like it is coming from very, very far away in the heavens. Why?
To get to the dome, one has to make it up to the very top of the Met, either by elevator or stairs. The children’s chorus makes it up by stairs. The children’s chorus studio is on the second floor of the Met building, two floors above the main stage. We take the stairs all the way up to the sixth floor, passing costumes for this season and even next season. We finally make it up to the sixth floor where it smells like whatever the Grand Tier and Met Cafeteria are eating that day. The walk down the hallway has windows where one can have a great view of Damrosch Park and West 62nd Street. Then, we go inside the dome…
The Met is beautiful in most of its venues, but since the dome is rarely used, I do not think it has been able to catch that beauty. It looks like a storage room. You enter the dome and see the motors of the chandeliers on your right. We walk on a little catwalk made of metal and take a couple of steps down. The stairs have gridded squares in the flooring, making it possible to stare down into the abyss of the Met below. We step on the floor, which is not made out of the sturdiest material, and find our places. About seven rows of benches, two on each side, are placed in the dome for the children’s chorus and women’s chorus to sit on. That is still not enough. Most of the children’s chorus ends up squeezing into the narrow spots between the benches and sitting on the dusty floor. The conductor stands on the stairs and the children’s chorus director sits at a tiny keyboard to play our first notes. The conductor has a television monitor to see Maestro Gatti’s beats clearly.
The dome is lit well enough with some lights in the back and front. The gridded parts of the floor are put in the back of the dome and the front, while the choruses sit in the middle. That way, none of us can be terrorized with the thought of falling to our deaths. One woman during a rehearsal, however, did drop her score over the edge of the dome. The ceiling placed between the dome and the orchestra pit far below was able to catch it. A stagehand was able to climb down and retrieve the score. Near the spot where the score was dropped, I discovered that there is a tiny hole in the ceiling where I believe I saw the light of the conductor’s stand. It was such a bright light that I could not imagine what else it could be.
Photo: Scene from Act 1 of the Met’s new Parsifal. I cannot see this because I am far above the stage!
The chorus sits and listens to the end of Act 1 Scene 1 of Parsifal, where Gurnemanz is leading Parsifal to the holy ceremony. Everyone is able to hear the music clearly because of speakers placed in the dome. We listen to the rich music of the transition and then the scene changes. The chorus has five entrances, the first of which is “Der glaube lebt”, in which there is absolutely no orchestral accompaniment. It’s all on us. We sing that entrance and have to wait for the conductor to tell us to sit down. The microphones which assist in amplifying our sound are turned on and off at certain points in the music. We have to wait until they are shut off, because having 48 people get up and sit down sounds as loud as a herd of cattle stomping. After we sit down, we can listen to Titurel, who is only a hundred feet from us. For the audience, he sounds like a voice that is very, very far away, but for us, he is next door!
Now we have ten minutes until our next entrance: “Nehmet hin mein blut”. Some people spend it watching movies on their laptops (with headphones), playing Words with Friends, knitting, or talking softly. I always follow the score and watch the chromatics go by. I have also fallen in love with Peter Mattei’s portrayal of the pain-stricken Amfortas. His “Erbarmen” scene is so moving, and watching the music and text is simply fascinating. Our next entrance comes after an incredible set of A flat major arpeggios, and we sit again.
Our next three entrances: “Wein und brot des letzten Mahles”, and the two “Selig im glauben”s come very close together. We hear Titurel closely a couple of more times. We finally hear the alto voice close to the end of the act. She is in another dome or offstage somewhere, because she does not sound close to us. We sing our last line “Selig im glauben” and end on a beautiful C Major triad. The act ends, and we all “sshh” the people applauding at the end of Act 1, because all of us know that Wagner wanted complete silence at the end of that act. All of us gather our belongings, me taking my score, and we make the return journey climbing down four, long flights of stairs.
It has been a special opportunity for me to sing in the dome of the Metropolitan Opera. It is rarely used and I am incredibly excited to be performing in one of the few operas that use it. It is a magical experience because of how eery and holy the result sounds a long way down in the actual opera house, and listening to and singing the holy music from Wagner’s Parsifal.
Photo: The Siena Cathedral, on which Wagner’s idea for the staging of Act I Scene 2 was based. The “Knaben”, or children’s chorus, would be placed up high in the dome of the cathedral.