At the Opera, Applause for an Unsung Cast of 42
Posted November 17, 2018 5:15 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Change has come to the Metropolitan Opera House. The largest repertory opera in the world is in the throes of innovation, simulcasting performances in HD theaters, introducing Sunday matinees, premiering modern operas and updating the classics — all attempts to bend to the new reality rather than be broken by it.
Whether these innovations will put the Met on a new trajectory is unclear, but one aspect of the institution remains steadfast: the ushers, an eclectic group whose tenures can stretch back decades.
With more direct interaction with patrons than anyone else, they are both witnesses to the change and an embodiment of something enduring and irreplaceable about the opera-going experience.
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As a shift begins, they pass into the cloakroom to put on their uniforms — tuxedos with burgundy lapels, worn shiny from use. Forty-two work any given performance, each at once a rule keeper, hand holder, problem solver, diplomat.
In early to work a daytime dress rehearsal last month, Tshombe Selby walked briskly down a backstage hallway to the staff cafeteria for a quick bite. A North Carolina native, the 34-year-old has been an usher for five years, and on this day he had already turned on the charm. He navigated nimbly past other distinct tribes of opera staff — stagehands in their rugged work clothes, chorus members in period costume, square-jawed security guards — with smiles for all.
When he speaks, he tilts his head back and looks down regally, his huge frame stuffed snugly into his tuxedo. Though his voice is mellifluous and his movements gentle, it’s no surprise he has worked as a bouncer. “My aunt has a saying,” he said with a grin. “Don’t let the smooth taste fool you.”
Forty-five minutes before the show, the ushers will admit the first patrons, and when the last stragglers empty from the auditorium at night’s end, they close and lock its doors. After each intermission they shepherd the crowd back inside, then enforce the Met’s strict policy against seating latecomers. All the while they field ticketholders’ requests and indulge their curiosities, emanating a formal but reassuring presence. “You have to be good with people,” said the house manager, Jenna Grein, herself once an usher. “It’s mostly about relationships.”
Their duties have hardly changed from those depicted in a 1941 New York Times article, though at that time only men were employed as ushers, and their most difficult charge was preventing smoking during the intermission. For this they were paid $1 a performance. Today’s group is represented by Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, and receives paid vacation and health insurance.
The unique responsibilities draw an unusual mix of personnel. One advantage of the job is its flexibility: as late as the afternoon of a performance, a regular usher can hand off a shift to anyone in a pool of substitutes. This arrangement has long attracted artists who might themselves be called to a last-minute audition, like aerialist dancer Chriselle Tidrick.
Trained in ballet but with an interest in fusing acrobatics and modern dance, she has performed throughout the city and across the country. “I had tried to be normal at one point in my life,” she said, having earned a teaching degree in hopes it would supply a steady income. But she found that almost any job left her with too little time to rehearse and perform. Then a friend asked if she had considered being an usher at the Met.
She started in 1999, fitting the shifts of a full-time usher around her own performing schedule. She has also achieved the unusual distinction among ushers of appearing on the stage of the Met — as a stilt-walker in a production of “Benvenuto Cellini.” On a recent Friday, she was at her usual post, taking tickets at the foot of the grand staircase, where she stands fast against the stream of patrons entering the building, and again between acts as they flow back out for a breath of fresh air. Performance after performance, season after season, as soloists come and go and whole shows turn over, the ushers remain.
Over time, Tidrick has watched, in fragmentary encounters, the passage of her patrons’ lives. She recalled a soft-spoken man who often sat alone in her section. As time went on he began to arrive with a woman, and later still they were married and expecting a child. “And now sometimes when they come through, they’ll have a photo up on their phone to show me a picture of their kid,” she said. “I’ve seen, in little tiny snippets, this whole evolution of this relationship.”
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The opera house has six levels, and by virtue of price and position, each attracts a distinct clientele who put different demands on their ushers. Mercedes Valdez is energized by the crowds and has settled at a position on the orchestra level, where most of the seats are. Her husband, Peter, works just above her on the Parterre, where private boxes are patronized mainly by the Met’s board members and other major donors.
Born in Cuba and raised in Far Rockaway, Queens, Mercedes Valdez once sought a career in opera and even learned Italian, but now she says the only place she sings is in the shower. Still, she remains a passionate listener, and if she is able to find another usher to cover her section, she delights in being able to slip into the back of the auditorium to watch performances. “Where else can you get a live orchestra every night?” she asked outside one of the auditorium doors as music crescendoed within. “A different opera every night? Nowhere else. And the best singers in the world.”
Upstairs, Peter Valdez carefully counted out programs for each box in preparation for the patrons’ arrival. He has a baby face but his cropped gray hair and the low number on his name tag (Peter, Usher #4) signal his seniority, earned over 42 years as an usher.
His father, who worked for the Met in data processing and was also an amateur jazz saxophonist, passed onto his son a love of music. “We weren’t rich, but in New York, you don’t necessarily have to be rich to enjoy the performing arts,” he said. He’d only attended one opera before taking the job, a double bill of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” with a ticket he received as a confirmation gift.
A delicate-looking matron began descending the stairs toward her private box. “I better help this young lady out,” he said, excusing himself to offer his arm. Upon reaching the landing safely, she slipped him a bill, saying, “I remember you from last year.” No usher has been on staff longer than Jose Burgos. At 71, he has snowy white hair and a bristly mustache, and behind chunky black glasses, his eyelids droop slightly, like drawn curtains. In 1966, he was a student of Romance languages at Fordham University when he saw a position at the Met advertised on a school bulletin board. The opera house at Lincoln Center had been open just two weeks when he worked his first performance, “Rigoletto,” with Nicolai Gedda and Cornell MacNeil. (The Times’ review was tepid.)
He met his partner there — “my friend, my Tom” — who worked on Wall Street at the time but was also an usher. “We shared a locker,” Burgos said, “and then we shared everything else.”
Tom introduced him to Wagner, and when the opera house went dark in the summer months, they traveled to Fire Island and later to Europe and lands farther afield. The two were together until Tom died in 2002 of a heart infection.
These days, Burgos holds a solitary post at the concourse level, a less-frequented entrance where patrons can drive up to the door rather than brave the crowds and the climb up Lincoln’s Center’s front steps. He knows many of those arriving by name, greeting some in Spanish or Italian, and upon entering, a clutch of aficionados lingers around him to converse.
“He knows so much — he’s an encyclopedia,” said a man in a tailored blue suit.
It was the opening night of “La Fanciulla del West,” and tenor Jonas Kaufmann was making a rare appearance. The group traded rapid-fire barbs about recent or coming operas and the singers cast for them. The critiques were sharp; Burgos shrugged apologetically. “We’re merciless,” he said. “Art takes no prisoners.”
On this level the walls are covered from ceiling to floor with hundreds of photographs of bygone soloists who have graced the stage. When Burgos mentioned a singer, he would gesture offhandedly toward their image, as if they were present.
Having worked thousands of performances over the years, he has grown selective about the singers he sits in to watch. Kaufmann was one of them. When the show began and the lobby cleared, he summoned a more junior usher to take his position and ascended to the Grand Tier, where he quietly let himself into the theater and set out a slim stool at the top of the center aisle. The orchestra pit and stage glowed like a music box laid out below him.
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On this night, the house was full, but over the years the ushers have witnessed a shift in the composition of the audience. More people than ever are experiencing opera for the first time — last season the Met reported 78,000 new ticket buyers — but this increased breadth has come at a loss of depth, as repeat visitors have dwindled.
When Vivian Goldring began ushering on the Dress Circle 28 years ago, the section was filled by subscription holders who attended many shows per season. “And then each year, I would have several of them come to me and say, ‘This is my last season.'” These days subscribers account for less than one-third of ticket sales, and the culture of the audience has changed accordingly. And because of this, patrons today need the ushers more than ever. While subscribers quickly learn to navigate the house, new arrivals are often lost without assistance. But the ushers’ role has always been about much more than orientation. “They are the diplomats and missionaries for opera,” said Peter Gelb, the opera’s general manager, who as an usher during high school.
The Met today isn’t just producing operas, he said; it has to produce its own audience, too, through educational programming it has developed for schools and advertising to the wider public. The ushers play a crucial role in this, enhancing first-time operagoers’ experience. “That role is very significant, and more meaningful and important today than it ever was before.”
For Goldring, to truly appreciate opera, it must be heard again and again. “I don’t think you could ever say, ‘Oh, I know that piece inside out,’ because there’s so much in it. You are always discovering new things about it.” Audiences today — who seem busier, more easily distracted and less fully committed to the art form than they once were — need that guidance.
There are some among the younger generation who share her passion, none more so than Selby, the former bouncer who spent the evening stationed at the orchestra level. He grew up singing spirituals in church before discovering his lyric tenor voice might be right for opera. He arrived in New York City to seek his fortune and within two weeks had landed a job as an usher at the Met, so he could be closer to the music.
Determined to move from the aisle to the stage, he devotes himself wholeheartedly to training. In his coat pocket he carries a pitch pipe, and on breaks he may pull out a musical score to pore over. “I do a lot of work when I’m sleeping,” he asserted.
His persistence has been paying off. He recently gave a recital of spirituals and arias at Chowan University, in North Carolina, and last summer he sang in a lineup of young artists in Kiev, Ukraine.
On days when rejections from his own auditions have him down and he is doubtful about his prospects, he said, he’ll walk to the front of the orchestra section. “It’s nice to put your back against the stage, and when the crowd claps, you get the feel. Of course, they’re clapping for the performers — but you’re right there, with the whole auditorium clapping and giving the bravos. It’s like sitting in the sun a little bit, and giving you a little energy.”