On a recent drizzly Monday morning, the usual adult crowd at the Metropolitan Opera was replaced by 2,000 rowdy schoolchildren who were there to watch the last dress rehearsal of “The Barber of Seville.”
Out on the plaza in front of the theater, teachers rounded up stray children playing tag. “Hold hands!” they ordered, and the students, bundled in puffy jackets, obeyed and formed a single-file line that snaked inside.
Ushers led them into the auditorium and handed out programs. Supervisors shouted above the noise. On the orchestra level, a couple rows from the back wall in the center section, the 49 high school kids from the Solomon Schechter School of Long Island were already sitting quietly.
The group consisted of seven seniors among the freshman, and I squeezed in next to two of them, unintentionally booting out someone who had gone to the bathroom. Matt Wertheim sat on my left, Rachel Blau, on the other side of him, and both checked their phones anxiously. The teens explained they would soon be hearing back from the colleges they had applied to early decision – Northwestern for Werthheim and Brandeis for Blau. Wertheim had hardly slept the night before. The senior to my right, Rebekah Davis, seemed more at ease and told me that unlike her two peers, she had applied to 20 schools, not one. Either way, college was on their minds.
The seniors on the trip are members of their school’s a cappella group, the Schechter Shu-Bops, and also took AP music theory. Because of their music studies and extracurriculars, they also attend dress rehearsals of productions around the city. But most of them had never seen an opera before.
For several decades, the Met has opened up dress rehearsals to students to introduce youngsters to the arts that might otherwise be mostly reserved for adults. It hosts about 25 of these events each year during the season, from about September through March, dates that conveniently align with the school year.
The Met strives to expand the program each year, said Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager. This year, Linda Mirels, the chair of the board at UJA-Federation and a board member at the Met, suggested a partnership with the Jewish Education Project, which works with educators to organize events, talks, outings and other experiences for Jewish students. In addition to the Long Island school, Solomon Schechter of Queens attended the dress rehearsal. Gelb said the Met would continue to partner with the organization.
Joan Cohen, the music and drama teacher at Solomon Schechter Long Island, said she wanted to expose her students to a larger world of music and art, and any Jewish angles the opera presented didn’t factor into her decision.
Cohen prepared her students for “The Barber of Seville” by teaching them the history of opera, instructing a character study of Figaro, assigning story-line worksheets and playing the arias.
“I shoved it down their throats,” she said. Often, she said, they whined about wanting to listen to their own music instead, but Cohen wouldn’t hear of it.
Davis said she looked forward to the production, but complained that it had been translated into English.
It was a point she kept returning to. During intermission, she said, “The words are kind of simple, so it seems like it should be in another language.” Later, in the second act, she leaned toward me and whispered, “Do you know if it’s only in English the entire run?” I didn’t, but later found out that yes, it is, because the Met wants to market it as a “holiday” production. At any rate, it seemed like a good way to hold the attention of grade-school kids who were also attending the performance.
And this adaptation did resonate with a younger audience. During several surprising or humorous moments, they let out screams of delight. A donkey trotted onstage early on in the first act, and the kids exclaimed “Awww!” Later, the elderly servant in Doctor Bartolo’s house roused laughter when an orange tree fell on him and he staggered around like a mute drunkard. Then, at the beginning of the second act, there was an explosion offstage that released a plume of fiery orange smoke followed by ear-piercing screams from the children. Someone behind us said, “Shit.” Davis said, “That was cool.”
Throughout the production, I gazed at the kids; some had slumped in their seats, others sat perched on the edge, craning their necks over the person in front of them. Except for the few stirring moments, it was difficult to tell who was enjoying, or were even paying attention to, the production. But when the opera ended, the applause erupted and continued for several minutes, as though the students were engaged in a war to out-scream one another.
When the cheering died down, the seniors mused over their reactions. Wertheim thought Figaro seemed like a classic yenta: adored, wise, and a matchmaker, though motivated mostly by money. He found himself humming, “Largo al Factotum,” one of the arias. Davis thought overall it seemed more like a play than an opera, and said it reminded her of “Fiddler on the Roof,” particularly in its contrast between the rich and poor and its portrayal of the powerlessness of women. Blau said she thought the opera paralleled the biblical story of David and Batsheva. “David, like the count, goes to extraordinary lengths to be with a common woman who he knows little about, and who is engaged with another man,” she told me
Wertheim agreed that it didn’t feel as overly dramatic or stereotypical as he’d expected, with heavy singers belting out arias that could shatter glass. Wertheim, Davis and Blau stood up to head out quickly; they had missed half of rehearsal for their school play, and their teacher wasn’t too pleased.
As I walked outside toward the 1 train, I didn’t think about the somewhat cheesy ending to “The Barber of Seville,” when Count Almaviva and Rosina finally unite and there’s much singing and merriment, but rather about the seniors at Solomon Schechter. I wondered what they had heard from their first-choices colleges.
I emailed Wertheim later, and he told me he heard he’d been accepted to Northwestern that night. Later, Rachel Blau learned that she had been accepted by Brandeis. Which made my day at the Met a particularly unusual one —an opera with more than one happy ending.
Britta Lokting is the Forward’s culture fellow.