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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

EXCLUSIVE | MET Opera Cancels Show After Someone Scatters Ashes Of Deceased Into Orchestra Pit

By Joseph So on October 29, 2016

(Photo: Joseph So)
Potential terror attack at the MET Opera which leads to closure turns out to be a man sprinkling the ashes of his mentor during the performance. (Photo: Joseph So)

My annual trip was very memorable – sadly, for the wrong reasons…

NEW YORK CITY— It’s 9 pm on a lovely but cool Saturday evening here in New York.  But instead of being at the Metropolitan Opera, enjoying a performance of Rossini’s L”Italiana in Algeri, I’m back at the hotel filing this report. Currently on my annual Autumn trip to the Big Apple, visiting family and catching a few operatic gems the likes of Tristan und Isolde, Jenufa, Guillaume Tell and L’Italiana in Algeri.  Well, Tristan and Jenufa were indeed wonderful, as was most of Tell. But I will never find out how the great American tenor Bryan Hymel as Arnold would have sounded this afternoon in his Act 4 Aria, “Asile hereditaire.”  Nor will I know how Canada’s lovely mezzo Rihab Chaieb would have been like in her Met debut role, as Zulma in L’Italiana.

You see, the unthinkable happened – the cancellation of an act this afternoon, followed by a whole opera this evening, unprecedented in the history of the Met. I’ve been coming here for 49 years, and I can recall very, very few instances when a performance did not go on, if you don’t count the various strikes and the weather emergencies! In 1987, an audience member fell to his death at the intermission of a Macbeth and the rest of the performance was cancelled. British soprano Elizabeth Connell never got to sing her Sleepwalking Scene. Nine years later, tenor Richard Versalle fell from a ladder in the first few minutes of the opening performance of Vec Makropoulos starring Jessye Norman. He died on the way to the hospital, and the show was cancelled. The cancellation of Act 4 of Guillaume Tell followed by L’Italiana may well be only the third time in the new Met.  There was one other cancellation I am aware of – Leonard Warren died of a heart attack right in the middle of La forza del destino starring the great Renata Tebaldi. That was probably around 1960, at the old Met.

I was in the audience of the Guillaume Tell this afternoon. The second intermission was very long, and I just assumed that it was to give the singers a bit more rest. After all, the Second Act (combining acts 2 and 3) was interminable for a non-Rossinian like me, something like over two hours.  I was even joking with the nice lady sitting next to me how Act Two felt like all of Gotterdammerung. Normally the pit would have a few musicians tuning up prior to the start of the next act. This time it was completely empty. I didn’t think much of it. Then the stage manager came in front of the curtain with a microphone. My first thought was – “Oh no!  Someone is sick…”  He told the audience there was some technical problem and the performance would start soon. Then there was another long wait of a good 15, 20 minutes. By then, some audience members started to leave.  Matinee audiences are often out-of-towners and they need to catch the train or whatever.  Those who were impatient started to clap rhythmically, while more headed for the exit.

The stage manager came out again a few minutes later, to announce that due to some technical or mechanical issue, the performance was cancelled. That brought an uproar, a few boos, and one man screamed repeatedly at the top of his lungs — “I WANT MY MONEY BACK!!!”  He had to be shushed by the more sensible people in the audience. We were told that we could exchange our tickets for a future performance of the same opera. I left the opera house without knowing the real reason. In this age of the Internet, it didn’t take long to find out!  Canadian baritone Matthew Zadow, a Facebook friend, posted a link from Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc, with details of the abrupt cancellation. It seemed that someone from the audience sprinkled a white powder into the orchestral pit. The substance was being tested, and as a precaution, the rest of the show was cancelled. As I was leaving the theatre, there was a heavy police presence, with nearly a dozen police cars parked across the Plaza. I had another show in the evening, L’Italiana, and I had a distinct feeling that it wasn’t going to end well. Sure enough, by six o’clock, a Facebook message from mezzo Rihab Chaieb confirmed that the evening show had also been cancelled.

People crowd around Plaza in front of the MET opera house before the canceled performance of L'Italiana in Algeri (Photo: Joseph So)
People crowd around Plaza in front of the MET opera house before the canceled performance of L’Italiana in Algeri (Photo: Joseph So)

Sadly, this is a sign of the times.  Of all the opera houses I regularly attend – Munich, London, Berlin, Dresden, Santa Fe etc., the Met appears to be the only one that uses a portable metal detector to scan you as you go in. Knapsacks are regularly searched. I don’t think you’re even allowed to bring it into the auditorium in places like the Semperoper Dresden.  It’s chilling, and a sad reality that malicious acts such as the one this afternoon is almost impossible to prevent. For the sake of everyone, let’s hope that instead of a deadly substance like Anthrax, it’s harmless, nothing more than the action of some idiotic prankster who thought it was funny.  In the back of my mind, I kept thinking that this is Halloween weekend. Let’s hope that’s all that is. As more details come out, I will update this report.

Met Incident Update

As reported in the media in a news conference Saturday, the NYPD said multiple witnesses told them that the man who sprinkled the substance was from out of town. He indicated that he wanted to sprinkle the ashes of his mentor during the performance. Investigators say the man didn’t say anything as he spread the substance. He was seen on surveillance video, casually walking away.

“I don’t believe he thought he was doing anything wrong or that he had a reason to flee,” said NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller.

Met Opera General Manager Peter Gelb said that none of the musicians were hit by the ashes, and that the Opera will be open for business on Monday. He also added that the organization hopes people will continue to come to the opera, but will ‘leave their ashes at home’.

As I was leaving the opera house, there was obviously a large police presence. When I returned 90 minutes later for the L’Italiana in Algeri performance, there were even more police cars parked just outside the Plaza.  So, the mystery is solved.  I am sorry to have lost the chance to hear Bryan Hymel sing his great aria, and to see the scintillating production of L’Italiana, but I completely agree that safety must have top priority. But people, please remember that while Opera is an exciting art form, it’s exciting enough on its own, and your help is not needed! Let’s not get carried away!


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Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).

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