Missing The Peanut Gallery

March 26th, 2010 § 0 comments

I recently saw William Kentridge’s artistic adaptation of Shostakovich’s 1930s opera The Nose. Based on a Russian short story from 1836 by Nikolai Gogol, it was my first opera at the Met. I have loved opera ever since I saw the Phantom of the Opera when I was six or seven. The richness of that first experience left me with an unforgettable appreciation for the metaphorical, and a love for what seemed to be a kind of theatrical magic. In one of my undergraduate applications under the question, describe your first artistic experience, I described watching a chandelier rise in the first act of that opera. Every city I have lived in, by frivolous necessity, has an opera house, from Montpellier to Richmond. They are always that impressively ornate building located in the heart of downtown. With cool exteriors and dark, saturated interiors they feel a bit like a library, demanding a hushed tone of respect.

the MET opera house

Operas seem to be more a symbol of status, however, than something of real interest. Commissioned to cover the performance for the magazine, I was excited by the prospect of Kentridge, the Met, and my press seat located in the orchestra. The Met itself is very glamorous, but in true Manhattan style it is an exclusive glamour, an elusive richness that only the eyes of the wealthy can enjoy. Sipping my pink champagne while people watching, I realized I was about thirty years younger than everyone else sipping champagne. This discrepancy was later accentuated by a wispy haired woman who demanded that I go fetch her walker. In orchestra seating, I found out, they don’t have ushers to show you where to sit, as everyone either knows the seating chart or has their own chair. It took me a while of wandering up and down different possible aisles before I selected a seat I was at least relatively sure was mine. At times I felt like a disgraced character from The Age of Innocence.

The set for The Nose

By the end of the night I was surprised to realize that I missed the balcony seats near the ceiling I am so familiar with, and the people who fill them. The experience left me feeling oddly thankful that I still come to see performances with the eagerness of youth or poverty or whatever it is that drives my incessant interest. As a child going to see the ballet, I always had a sneaking suspicion that things must look differently from the orchestra floor, and that they must look better. This night taught me that it does look different, you can actually see the stage without straining and fidgeting, but it is not necessarily better. After being so excited by press passes, exclusive events, and views I can’t normally afford, I am beginning to value being just the same as everyone else trying to get a good look, and a privileged view feels awkward and unfamiliar. Like watching people slip into falseness when they know a camera is being pointed at them, I realize that I don’t like people knowing what I might be up to. As nice as it might have felt to belong at the Met, I relished the suited, middle-aged men who glanced at me like a misplaced item in a store. Remembering the art fairs I wandered through with a press badge and those I saw without, I know now how assumptions can change how you are treated, and as a result how you likewise treat the artwork. My real place, for next time, is somewhere between the ceiling and the orchestra pit.

Kentridge the nose

As the curtain calls ensued, and as William Kentridge took the stage, I was the single inconvenient figure left trying to applaud the performers and artist onstage, obliterated as they were by a vanishing audience.

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