Tenor frenzy in New York

April 19, 1996|By WILLIAM McCLOSKEY

A RARE convergence of tenors is turning the closing days of the Metropolitan Opera's 1995-96 season, which ends next weekend, into a frenzy of ticket seeking.

The world's two leading active tenors, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, have undertaken new roles as, respectively, the title role in ''Andrea Chenier'' and Siegmund in ''Die Walkuere.'' (Jose Carreras, the other of the ''Three Tenors,'' hasn't sung at the Met for years, and little elsewhere except on special occasions, since recovering from leukemia.) In addition, the newest tenor to be touted as their successor, handsome young Roberto Alagna, has just made his Met debut.

Tickets for all three productions have been sold out for months. The only sure hope for admission is to obtain standing room, which the Met sells at 10 a.m. each Saturday morning for the entire coming week. One ticket per performance per customer. The lineup begins long before 10 a.m., however.

Creamy acoustics

The Met has 100 reserved orchestra-level standee places at three rails and another 75 places in back of the topmost tier behind the Family Circle (postage stamp view, creamy acoustics). Prices are $15 and $1 respectively, cash. The 40 places at the orchestra front rail are the premium ones, the

reward for the early birds.

A rigorously monitored system of sign-ins has developed over the years to prevent crashers in the waiting line, and to allow people to wander off for breakfast between roll-call checks. During a routine week, one can join the line outside the opera house at 8 a.m. for a good chance to be among the top 40. and, in my limited experience, can hope for one of those places during a special week by appearing at about 6: 30.

Last Saturday, when I exercised my only option to hear back-to-back Pavarotti and Alagna, the line began to form just after the end of Friday night's performance. First sign-in was at midnight. After that, any hope for a place in the good 40 was up to luck, since most fans with that much devotion were planning to attend all six of the week's big tenor performances or at least buy the extras for friends.

First roll-call was at 4 a.m. -- you lost your place if you failed to show. Next roll-call was at 6. By 8: 30, with an icy wind whipping across Lincoln Center Plaza, those on the list received numbered cards. The line outside the opera house had by now reached several hundred and was growing by the minute. No one dared leave.

Helen, an ex-military lady who has made standee order her task for years (a necessary and appreciated service), was bundled heavily against the cold as she strode the line, more a drill sergeant than ever. The occasional would-be line crasher got it full blast, a performance to whet the appetite for later ones to come on stage.

Hoping for a turn-in

Those who can't make the Saturday-morning line must haunt the box office and opera house environs hoping for a turn-in. The Met handles turn-ins formally on the day of performance, lining people in order against the wall facing the ticket window. Often, the first one or two people at the ticket window for the 10 a.m. opening will catch seats that have drifted free over the night.

By the time of the 1: 30 curtain for the Pavarotti matinee last Saturday, the turn-in line had been moved to the opposite side of the opera house, where it snaked back and forth in mobbed disarray. At 1: 25 the first three people were summoned to the ticket window. I didn't wait to see, but I don't think anyone else made it in.

There are also scalpers. The one who approached me by the standee line had an appropriately slinky, ingratiating look. He could give me a good ticket, he told me kindly. A terrific one in the Orchestra, for instance (retail $137), but he was reluctant to name a price right out. When pressed, he drew me away and mumbled ''Nine hundred.''

Scalper detail

When I laughed and walked off, he followed, saying he could fix me up more reasonably in a wonderful seat in the Balcony (retail $38) that, since he liked talking to me, he'd part with for only $200. Several hours later, still an hour before curtain time, he and the other scalpers were not around, either because they had made their deals or because two uniformed policemen now wandered on duty among the crowd soliciting tickets.

When someone held up a rare ticket for sale (by law of averages somebody always can't go) one of the cops always managed to be standing in the anxious circle that gathered. The sales themselves were not challenged. Protocol among true opera lovers has always been to ask no more than the ticket price, however tempting -- we've been there on both sides.

Oh, the performances: worth it? For the committed, don't bother to ask. Pavarotti's clean, sympatico, expressive, thrilling voice poured over us as in days of yore. He might still have been 40 instead of 60, except that his famous bulk no longer bounces across the stage. Domingo, two days later, I'm told, was equally grand.

And the 32-year old Alagna in ''La Boheme?'' Maybe. His debut three evenings before had been marred by a cold and two cracked notes, and the New York Times critic trashed him, but on Saturday night all was in order. The trashing was at least in part a reaction to the hype in, among other papers, the Times, that had heated up the debut. Without the dampener of hype we'd be jumping all over the place about the discovery of a possible major new tenor.

William McCloskey, who writes on opera and seafaring, has been a Met standee for over 50 years when the occasion requires. He prefers to sit.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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