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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Fright at the Opera

So last night, we're at the performance of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera House, sitting in the front row of the Family Circle. (That's the upper balcony.) It's the middle of Act II, and Jennifer Larmore and James Morris are onstage singing their duet as Gertrude and Claudius. When two things happened.

We noticed a funny smell in the air. Burning rubber? Burning plastic? Burning insulation? Then, the elderly couple sitting next to us got up and left. There was the smell of smoke in the theater. Definitely noticeable. We got up to leave. And so did most of the people seated in the Family Circle.

We quickly got our bags from under our seats, went up the steps, down the Family Circle stairs, and out of the auditorium.  We went down the winding lobby stairs to the Parterre level. As we went down those stairs, I noticed three house detectives running up to investigate. We continued down the Grand Staircase to the Plaza exit. There, we were handed re-entry passes. We found a dry spot on the refurbished Lincoln Center Fountain and watched.

Several fire trucks pulled up. A squad of firefighters went into the opera house, followed by the fire chief in his white hat. Unbelievably, most of the audience that had left the auditorium stayed in the lobby. Some of them even filmed the arriving fire trucks. They were perched like birds, on the four lobby levels of the atrium. People also gathered on the balcony of the Grand Tier.

Now, granted, the Met had not made an announcement. The opera had not stopped. And the ushers had not told people to evacuate. But when you smell smoke in a theater--any theater, you evacuate! It's the first, most basic rule. Get yourself (and hopefully your loved ones) out of the building!

The second act ended, and it was intermission. More people gathered in the atrium. We saw the firemen come back out, looking relieved. When the fire chief came out with his clipboard, we decided to go back in, and handed in our passes to the usher.

We rode up in the elevator to the Family Circle and resumed our seats. There was still a faint smell of burnt plastic in the air.

A Met official came out and made an announcement. He explained that during the first act, one of the gels (the clear plastic filters that color the lights) had ignited, and was quickly extinguished. "There was no emergency," he said. The house management had decided not to lower the fire curtain, and not to stop the opera, since the fire was out. He apologized, and thanked the audience on behalf of the Met. And the opera went on.

So there you have it, an eyewitness account of the great Metropolitan Opera fire incident of 2010.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.