Friday, December 6, 2019. Mainly overcast or cloudy yesterday in New York with temps hovering between the high 30s and low 40s. Cold, but not too except for the occasional chilly breeze moving through. Snow is in the forecast for the general area but that remains to be seen.
Only in New York Events. A couple of weeks ago, on a Wednesday (November 20th), more than 500 opera lovers gathered for lunch at Cipriani 42nd Street for the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s 85th Annual Luncheon.
I was first a guest at this luncheon about fifteen years ago. I was amazed at the huge audience in the middle of a business day in New York. It was then held in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. You could see that the guests were undoubtedly bright, and literate, and cultured — but not in the better-than-you sort of way that we encounter from time to time among the culturati.
I’m not an opera buff, per se, although I love music and great voices, but I was surprised by the turnout — hundreds! It was like a banquet of a private club of devoted members of all stripes, sizes, ages and personalities. This club was a matter of serene fellowship that everyone shares privately and happily and with each other..
That first time I was seated next to a woman much older than I — in her late 80s or even early 90s — I asked her about her relationship to opera. She told me that she came to it via her husband.
“He was a man who loved music,” she told me. “He loved playing an instrument and wanted to be a musician, but his parents had insisted when he was old enough that he had to have a profession (for security). He became a lawyer.“
But his heart, she confided, was always and forever with music. On their first dates he’d took her to concerts at Carnegie Hall, and to an opera at the Met — in its original building on 39th Street and Broadway. Coming out of a performance he would be fired up about what he saw, talking excitedly about the performances in detail, from awe or wonder to tragic disappointment.
I asked her how she liked it all. She said that at the time she didn’t. She was young, probably in her late teens, and she liked Frank Sinatra who was the rage especially among teenage girls in the late 1930s, early ’40s. Pop music.
But she going to the opera with this guy all the time because, as she explained sensibly: she liked him and hoped to marry him, and wanted to please him. (Which she did; and on this day, their son, then in his fifties, and an active member of the Met Opera Guild, was at our table.)
But the question I had was: how did she become the impassioned opera fan that she clearly was at this lunch?
It happened suddenly, she explained: one night in November 1961 when she and her husband were attending the debut of Joan Sutherland in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Met.
“She came down those stairs, singing that aria of The Mad Scene,” she recalled, “and that was it; it hit me! I’ll never forget the feeling. It was thrilling!”
At the time of our lunch that day, more than 30 years after that initial thrill, she’d become a devoted audience to all opera. Her husband had long since passed away, but the opera had long before become hers. Her only regret was that there was no opera in summertime in New York. She had to be content listing to re-broadcasts.
The lady’s emotional experience with it interested me. Since then I have asked a number of people I’ve met who love opera how they came to their devotion. I learned that the “Aha!” experience that my lunch partner had is quite common with opera folk. They were present at a moment in a performance when something suddenly touched them deeply, and the result that followed is an almost religious appreciation and devotion to it.
This annual luncheon is a celebration of that moment for many. The luncheon has been a highlight of every opera season since for more than eight decades now. It is a bringing together of celebrated artists and their fans to honor legendary figures from the world of opera.
At this year’s luncheon, the Guild welcomed members of its Board of Directors, the event’s host committee and numerous other esteemed guests who generously supported the event. Richard J. Miller, Jr., President of the Metropolitan Opera Guild took the podium to announce that the Guild “is honored to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the magnificent sopranos Martina Arroyo and Teresa Stratas on the 60th anniversary of their debuts at the Metropolitan Opera.”
Mr. Miller also reminded the guests that this annual luncheon “helps make the Guild’s exemplary in-school opera education programs possible, and the talent of our honorees, coupled with their passion for spreading the love of opera, aligns perfectly with our mission.”
Special remarks were given by opera celebrities Harolyn Blackwell, Stephanie Blythe, and Eric Owens and exquisite musical tributes sung by Ailyn Pérez and Matthew Polenzani, all of which thrilled the audience.
The Metropolitan Opera Guild is the world’s premier arts education organization. Its dedication is to touch and enrich people’s lives through the magic and artistry of opera. This Luncheon also raised $500,000 for the Guild’s education programs which last year reached 15,760 students in New York and New Jersey. Guests showed added generosity by pledging more than $30,000 during the event itself.
Among the honored artist guests were Lucine Amara, Richard Bernstein, Harolyn Blackwell, J’Nai Bridges, Andrea Carè, John Cheek, Philip Cokorinos, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Dwayne Croft, Tyne Daly, Rosalind Elias, Lauren Flanigan, Denyce Graves, Håkan Hagegård, Hui He, Hei-Kyung Hong, Karen Kamensek, Judy Kuhn, Olga Kulchynska, Anthony Laciura, William Lewis, Shirley Love, John Macurdy, MaryAnn McCormick, Fabrizio Melano, Pier Giorgio Morandi, James Morris, Ken Noda, Eric Owens, Jongmin Park, Wilber Pauley, Lonny Price, Susan Quittmeyer, Florence Quivar, Elinor Ross, Stephen Schwartz, Jane Shaulis, Bartlett Sher, Paulo Szot, Ben Vereen, Arthur Woodley, and Andrey Zhilikhovsky.
The Luncheon benefited from the generous support of the Lloyd E. Rigler–Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation and corporate sponsor BNY Mellon Wealth Management.
The Metropolitan Opera Guild fosters personal expression, confidence, literacy and collaboration in children with customized education programs that are integrated into the curriculum of their schools. The objective is to build a deeper appreciation of opera in adults through workshops and community programs, and by publishing OPERA NEWS, the world’s leading opera magazine. Through its unique relationship with the Metropolitan Opera, the Guild offers all audiences unique access to the artists, performances and majesty of one of the world’s most renowned performing arts companies.
For more information about The Metropolitan Opera Guild and its programs, visit metguild.org.
Photographs by Dario Acosta (Met Opera Guild).