Met’s Technology to Get With the Program

In the Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz’s “Troyens” two harnessed dancers representing Dido and Aeneas take flight in an aerial ballet.
The duet has been grounded for safety reasons because of outmoded, worn-out stage machinery. It’s just one example of why the Met is embarking on its largest renovation since moving into Lincoln Center in 1966. It will be a $60 million job over the next five to seven years but lacking in the flashy type of rebuilding that has remolded Lincoln Center recently. This renovation concerns the guts of the place, replacements or upgrades for the Met’s internal organs: the flies, lighting, stage lift, air circulation and internal communication systems.
The Met’s technology has fallen behind European opera houses, where many of the directors bringing new productions to New York are used to computerized controls that produce precise results for increasingly spectacular shows. At the Met stagehands still twiddle dials, plug in cables, consult numbered charts and use a lot of muscle.
“It’s really old-fashioned technology,” the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said in an interview this week. “We work with it. We use it. But it has to be modernized. It’s safe without limitations in our use of it, but at some point it could fall apart. We’re not waiting for that day to happen.”
An internal planning document provided by the Met paints a grim picture. “Because of inertia and limited maintenance time, many of the stage systems are beyond their expected life span and close to failure,” it said. Directors these days require heavier scenery, faster moves and more sophisticated lighting, it noted. The Met’s high-definition movie theater broadcasts are also driving the need for change. Digital and audio technologies are becoming common, “both as part of the production itself and as support for broadcasts seen around the world,” the planning document said.
The Met was not significantly involved in the $1.2 billion Lincoln Center renovation of the last six years. The planning resulted in friction between the former Met general manager, Joseph Volpe, and Lincoln Center’s leadership. Mr. Gelb said that campus redevelopment money, about $4 million, was applied toward a $10 million project to replace Met stage wagons, on which scenery sits.
“What happens in any institution, when you’re very busy, things work, and you don’t fix them until they’re broken,” Mr. Gelb said. ”The Met’s needs were not as sexy perhaps as some of the other institutions,” he added. He said he tried unsuccessfully to insert renovations into Lincoln Center’s master plan, “but basically the program was over.” A Lincoln Center spokeswoman, Betsy Vorce, disputed that, saying that the complex was willing to extend the program, but that Mr. Gelb withdrew his request.
Past friction between the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center over a proposal to move the orchestra to Carnegie Hall also impeded the prospects of renovating Avery Fisher Hall, where the Philharmonic plays. Lincoln Center has since agreed to a renovation there, but it is not expected to begin before 2017.
The Lincoln Center renewal, which was formally completed two months ago, covered outdoor spaces and several buildings. Mr. Gelb said there were no immediate plans to make changes to the Met’s auditorium or public spaces of the house, except for possibly expanding restrooms, although, he said, “it’s hard to get a donor for that.”
The last major work at the Met was in the summer of 2010 when the company reinforced the stage with steel girders to support the 45-ton set for its “Ring” cycle. It has undertaken other piecemeal projects, like building an art gallery and gift shop and installing new lobby elevators. Met officials insist that the outmoded systems have not seriously impaired the work of directors. They just make Met stagehands and technicians virtuosos of the workaround, said John Sellars, the technical director. “It’s a real challenge not to let them down,” he said.
The first phase involves the fly system, which will be worked on mainly during the quiet summer weeks over the next four seasons. The stage lifts, air control and lighting systems should be overhauled within five to seven years. Central digital control will for the first time coordinate the movement of fly mechanisms that raise and lower scenery and the stage lifts. Roof repairs are included.
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