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Dispatch from New York: There's smoke -- if not fire -- at the Met's 'Hamlet'

April 6, 2010 |  2:35 pm

Hamlet This weekend, Los Angeles opera-goers experienced for the first time the most famous flames in opera— Brünnhilde’s self-immolation at the end of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” On Monday night, New York opera-goers experienced a less historic but more immediate feel (and smell) of operatic fire.

Under current general manager Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera has become more experimental, with singers performing in the aisles and a greater sense of realism on stage; but at Monday’s performance of Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet,” the smoke in the balcony and firefighters in the lobby were not examples of regietheater. Quite simply, something appeared to be on fire (and it wasn’t Brünnhilde).

In the second act, as Simon Keenlyside’s Hamlet was singing about clouds, the Metropolitan Opera House began to fill with smoke. There was a little rustling as people whispered to their neighbor: Do you smell smoke? Is something burning?  Then, the sounds of commotion in the balcony caused audiences all to crane their necks at the highest reaches of the auditorium. A few people in the orchestra quickly made for the exits. The performers on stage and in the pit didn’t miss a beat, they kept going as if nothing was going on.

Soon the smoky vapors lifted, the banquet scene where Hamlet’s players enact “The Murder of Gonzago” unfolded and the curtain went down. At intermission in the lobby were two teams of New York City fireman.  When asked what had happened, one of the fireman (who declined to give his name) responded: “Oh, something caught on fire.  It was very small.  It’s taken care of.”

Before Act 3  began, a spokesman for the Met explained from the stage: “A color gel on one of the lights began to burn.  It was removed…. There was never any danger. Had there been we would have stopped the performance.”  Conductor Louis Langrée raised his baton, the curtain rose on Act 3 and “Hamlet” continued.

A statement from the Met press office today said “a gel on a stage light burned and released an odor that was picked up in the ventilation system. The odor was smelled in the top balcony and someone called the fire department…there was no fire.”

The only question is—given the dedication of some Manhattan opera-goers to their Met season tickets—how much smoke would they have endured?  When the first few people got up and left to avoid the smoke, an older gentleman in seat U2 leaned to his companion and sneered: “Cowards.”

-- James C. Taylor

Photo: Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet.  Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera

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