Opera for the Poor, Cheap and Masochistic

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08/16/2009

Metropolitan Opera, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

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I’m Number 28 in line for rush tickets at the Metropolitan Opera. Today there was a ripple in the curvature of the space-time continuum: they moved the rush ticket waiting line upstairs. Ongoing construction forced everybody out of the usual spot.

This means that instead of waiting in the hyperborean dungeon beneath the main level for $20 tickets, we are now corralled in a narrow maze of floor space divided by 6-foot lengths of retractable maroon belts and movable copper stanchions.

The herd is not happy. “I don’t understand this at all, there’s no space up here.” “I can’t stand like this until six o’clock!” “How can they do this to us?”

Problem solvers emerge.

Frail lady with dyed black hair: “There’s gotta be a better system! Why not hand out numbers?”

Elderly woman in beach chair next to her: “We’re already here, they’re people in the ticket office, I don’t see why we have to wait!”

Large middle-aged man with cane: “They ought to sell us tickets now so we can go home!”

I bite my lip. I’m tempted to intervene, “Look you nitwits! If tickets went on sale at 2 PM instead of 6 PM you’d have people beginning to line up at 8 AM instead of noon. This is New York for God’s sake. Anything cheap here involves misery. Anyway, nobody’s holding a gun to your head to wait here.” I remain mute.

I look around me. It’s mainly the same old collection of weirdos, eccentrics, and impecunious opera fans I’ve seen the two-dozen previous times I’ve done this since my first opera 16 months ago.

You’ve got the frail bag-of-bones who barely seems to have enough energy to draw a breath to speak let alone wait in the cold for four hours. You’ve got the spry-looking man in his 50s with a navel-reaching red beard conversing with the sophisticated German woman who always wears a fur coat. There are yarmulkes reading Torah passages in Hebrew, foreign students sitting cross-legged on the cold marble floor studying books, and today one young buck wearing a gray hoodie is being ogled by the older gals as he sports buffed blond-haired legs in Adidas shorts.

Bend your ear and you’ll hear a clutch of foreign languages: German, Italian, Turkish, Chinese, French, Serbian, Portuguese, Spanish. While many silently read books or stare into space, others drone endlessly on their cell phones or engage in passionate conversations about where the nearest spot around Lincoln Center is to get cheap food. (Answer: Nowhere.)

Listening to rush ticket people for hours on end can be mind-numbing. Around my small circle of space several conversations take place. A group of elderly folk discusses the eternal topic: the discomfort of waiting and the need of a new system. A dissertation on preservatives in pomegranate juice occurs between a Korean student and a shaky woman with dyed black hair who staggers every time she stands up from her rickety three-legged stool. There’s a tête-à-tête between a 50-something son who is stumbling through Russian, sounding out words with a Bronx accent, and his septuagenarian gray-haired father who's holding a textbook and correcting his long sentences.»

My mind is beginning to seize with numbness. I grab a magazine, plop my bag in my cramped plot of floor then take a walk.

It wasn't always like this.

In that time before construction began on the garage and walkways downstairs, a time that seems as primordial as the first photosynthesizing ocean bacteria spewing oxygen into the atmosphere, the area below the main floor was bearable. It was never the lounge at the Waldorf Astoria, but it was relatively warm, there were working outlets where you could plug in your laptop and besides the humming of chatter it was relatively quiet. There was even a bathroom.

But for the past year the outlets in the wall no longer function, the cacophonous banging of construction is incessant and, in the coldest months, your lips turn blue by the time you begin the migration upstairs. I silently glare at the construction workers, smoldering as I consider the Empire State was put up in 12 months.

Rush tickets go on sale two hours before the performance, which is usually 6 PM. The first people in line arrive around noon. Through trial and error I’ve found that if I get there by 2 PM I will be Number 20 in line and will get Row “L” in the orchestra section, which is excellent. I bring papers to read and a pen. When the temperature dips to below 20° I wear six layers of clothing but still have to walk around after a few hours to get some sensation back into my limbs.

An hour before rush tickets go on sale everybody is forced to stand and tighten up the line so they can wait another 30 minutes until they are let upstairs to wait in another line.

Looking at everybody’s eager expressions moments before the Met usher drops the velvet rope you realize there is one common thread that runs through all these discordant ticket buyers: a potent love for opera. $20 is only a Starbuck’s Venti White Chocolate Mocha away from a movie ticket in New York these days. All the discomfort of waiting in line – the stiff leg muscles, the aching back, even the possible amputation of toes due to frostbite – become worth it when you are able to sit elbow to elbow with the Haves, to witness the glittering chandeliers that disappear up into the gold gilt ceiling as the house lights are dimmed, to hear the silence wash over the audience before applause erupts for the orchestra and conductor, to view the magnificent stage settings as the heavy golden curtain is slowly pulled away, then be able to hear glorious music sung by singers bedecked in the most dazzling costumes while following along on your dimly-lit screen in the crimson seatback in front of you.

After that initial rush of pleasure you derive from your first $20 opera, a wondrous boon in these dismal economic times, it’s easy to become a rush ticket masochist.

 

Ken Paprocki is a photojournalist based in New York, who photographs and writes about real life, from hunting the Taliban in Afghanistan, to the peculiarities of his home state Nebraska, to the daily grind of New York. He had an article entitled “Water Warriors” published in the June issue of Reader’s Digest.

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