It is November 30, the opening night of Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera. I am sitting in Family Circle. Act 2 is underway and sweet harp sounds are lulling me into a state of bliss. Baritone Christian Gerhaher, in his highly anticipated Met debut, is singing Wolfram’s entry into the song contest, an ode attempting to describe the “true essence of love.” As he sings of a miraculous spring whose water he would never dare taint, shouts ring out from the third-level balconies on each side of the theater. Gerhaher attempts to continue but the commotion increases as the audience begins to react to the unfurling of two banners that read “No opera on a dead planet,” accompanied by shouts of “No opera!” “We must end fossil fuels! “We’re going extinct!” Around me, audience members stand up and yell “Shame on you, go home, get a life!” The clamor rises. At last, security removes the protesters, and the performance resumes only to be interrupted again by a woman in the orchestra section who begins to scream, causing an even greater uproar in the audience.
Up here in Family Circle, it is dark, it is loud, and all kinds of scary scenarios are going through my mind. I decide to walk out. Yes, I realize the protesters are climate activists, they are non-violent, they mean no harm. But I am afraid. And I’m by no means the only one.
This morning, a Metropolitan Opera chorus member, who prefers to remain anonymous, writes to me: “Truthfully, the only thing that was going through my mind was, I am going to get shot. I couldn’t see anything in the house and from where I was it sounded like it was coming from all around me. It was extremely uneasy and scary… not being able to understand what was being yelled or what was going on.”
Later, I learn that the protest was organized by the group Extinction Rebellion. I learn that the performance did resume right after Peter Gelb, the general manager at the Met, stepped onstage to let the audience know that the house lights would remain on so that security could easily identify and remove any other protesters. The performance continued to the end without further disruption. “Everyone just went on with business as usual,” wrote my chorus source, “in the intermission, we were commenting among ourselves about other interruptions that have occurred like the opening of The Death of Klinghoffer [in 2014].” Those interruptions did not come as a surprise, they were triggered by an inflammatory work and preceded by hundreds of protesters with signs outside the Metropolitan Opera shouting “Shame on the Met!” But how did Wolfram’s song about love become a catalyst for revolt? The trigger lay in the verses about the spring and the purity of its waters. In a statement, the Extinction Rebellion group declared that the protest was timed to begin when those words were sung. “Our oceans are dying” resounded a few times among the protesters’ chants.
It isn’t that those words shouted out that night lack importance or that the concerns they raise about climate and the planet are not pressing and vital. But is a dark box, albeit a very large one, the best place to transmit those concerns? Because that is what it felt like, at least from my perspective: being aurally assaulted in a box, in a darkness pierced by yelling and uproar, with recent and not-so-recent news of wars and mass shootings circulating in mental spirals around the one thought: What if someone starts shooting here? An irrational thought, I told myself, as there are metal-detecting devices and bag checkers at the entrance into the Met. Still, it was hard to keep an unblurred line between rational self-control and sheer panic.
The sadness of last night’s distressful incident goes both ways: for the performers, the orchestra, the ticket holders, the house; and for the protesters’ real message getting lost somewhere in between the visceral flight-or-fight responses they stirred in the audience. Yelling in the dark in an opera house? Aren’t there more effective ways and forums where to transmit those messages?
Opera is not the reason that our planet is in pain. Throughout its history, opera has served as a comfort and refuge for many, and often an outlet of protest towards injustice and oppression. To disrupt it is to ignore its history and its transformative, mobilizing powers. To disrupt it is to denigrate one of the miraculous aspects of living on this planet. True, if the planet is dead, there would be no opera. But if, in opera, we find moments of comfort, inspiration and respite from the difficulties of daily existence, from the atrocities of our times, we can use those moments to recharge and be more inspired to action. If opera, if art in general is disrupted or destroyed, what good does it do to the protesters’ cause? What new followers does it gain them? What I could see and hear around me last night among my fellow audience members was not appreciation and agreement, but fury and fear.
Fortunately, the show did—and will always—go on. And I will attend the next performance.
Top photo: Bigstock