Metropolitan Opera 50th Anniversary Celebration: Stories From The New House Told By Opera’s Greatest Stars

By Francisco Salazar

For 50 years, the Metropolitan Opera has made its home in Lincoln Center, creating numerous cathartic and revelatory memories for both audiences and artists alike.

In speaking with some of the world’s greatest artists that have performed at the Met, OperaWire has been granted the opportunity to hear some unique, enriching and entertaining stories and experiences that have taken place at the new Met. As a celebration of the season’s climactic 50th Anniversary gala, OperaWire has taken the opportunity of compiling those stories together for your reading pleasure. Throughout this article, you will find numerous anecdotes about debuts, colleagues inspiring one another, and even two stories about uncooperative horses.



Renata Scotto – Debuted Oct. 13, 1965

“‘Manon Lescaut’ was the best production I ever sang here. I loved it. It’s one of my favorites but I also loved doing ‘Macbeth’ which is my favorite character. It’s better than Shakspeare. ‘Francesca da Rimini’ was also a favorite show. Again one of those shows that is not modern but approached some ideas of modern theater. I did very little Mozart but I had the opportunity to work with Jen-Pierre Ponnelle in ‘La Clemenza di Tito.’ He was a great theater director. How can I say which is my favorite? They are all my favorites.”


Gregory Kunde – Debuted March 3, 1987 

“I do remember my debut which was in 1987. I jumped in for Dénes Gulyás singing Des Greiux in ‘Manon.’ I was his cover at the time and I was told about two days before that he was not going to be able to sing this performance and that I would be going on. I didn’t have any rehearsal on the stage and I only watched some performances. So I arrived at the theater and I had no idea where I was going, having never been backstage before. The conductor was Manuel Rosenthal, one of the great French conductors of the 50s, 60s, 70s. The Manon was Catherine Malfitano and we had never met. I showed up that evening and knocked on her dressing room door at about half past seven. I said, ‘Hello Ms. Malfitano, I’m going to be your Des Grieux.’ And she said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be there for you and we’ll have a lot of fun and it will be great.’ And Maestro Rosenthal said the same thing and it was a memorable night. It went very well. That was one performance.”


Dolora Zajick – Debuted Oct 8, 1988

“There were some really funny moments I’ve had at the Met. I had this mechanical cat on my shoulder in ‘Rusalka’ and had a head that just boggled and a tail that moves back and forth. I would hit the head with a spoon and the head would stop for a second and it would then go on. And one day I hit the head and it fell off. And we had to continue the scene with this headless cat and the tail still going. And didn’t know what to do with the head so I threw it into the cauldron with the rest of the stuff. And everybody thought it was part of the staging.”


Susan Graham – Debuted Sept. 25, 1991 

“The story really that stands out automatically is my debut in ‘Rosenkavalier’ when I made my entrance in the second act where I have to deliver the rose. It’s opening night and all I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. I literally froze. And then James Levine looks at me and he waves ‘Your turn.’ I was so nervous that I didn’t even know if I was on the right note. It was an out-of-body experience. But it turns out that I did sing the right note.”


Sondra Radvanovsky – Debut Dec. 9, 1995 

“It was here that I had my first staged ‘Norma’ and to have the honor to share that stage with all the sopranos before me who sang ‘Norma’ was special. I remember walking on stage opening night to sing Casta Diva and literally my knee is shaking and praying to god that I wasn’t going to fall into the pit and standing there and thinking ‘Oh, my god, Maria Callas stood here and sang this exact same thing.’ I really felt like I’d made it. I’d arrived. That was a big moment for me.”


Matthew Polenzani – Debuted Dec. 19, 1997

“Philip Langridge was one of the best singers that I knew. He was a great musician, technician, deliverer of text, communicator, and not to mention being one of the most beautiful human beings you could ever hope for. We were doing ‘Moses und, Aron.’ He sang the whole thing like it was a Schubert lieder or “Mary had a little lamb.” This brutal, unbelievably difficult high atonal music was it was as easy as anything. Of course, it was difficult for him, but he made it look easy. One night, he came in the theater and was not feeling well. He went out on stage and proceeded to mark a few things down. He sang some high notes falsetto. He was struggling.

I was watching James Levine throughout this as I was waiting to make my entrance on stage and Jimmy’s face looked like he was listening to Caruso. Like he was listening to Sutherland. Name whoever you want. A great singer on their absolute best day. Every part of his being was suffused with positive beautiful energy and he was doing everything he could to lift Philip out of a place that Philip was rarely in. And wouldn’t you know it? By the end of the first half, he started to turn things around. And in the second act, he was his glorious self again. A huge chunk of that credit goes to Philip and his ability and his genius. But I think that you can’t have that without Jimmy, who gave Philip support and love and belief and knowledge that everything was going to be fine.”


Krassimira Stoyanova – Nov. 28, 2001 

“My debut as ‘La Traviata’ in 2001 is the biggest memory. At the Met, it was truly special, especially in the beautiful luxurious production. The Metropolitan is one of the biggest theaters in the world and it’s the greatest in America. Without the Metropolitan Opera, the art world would be poor because here is where every great singer has performed. From the beginning this has been such an important theater and Lincoln Center is such a special place for me because it’s a cultural center.”


Nancy Fabiola Herrera – Debuted Feb. 4, 2005 

I will never forget singing ‘Rigoletto’ with Joseph Calleja. There was one part where I had to recline on the table near a lit candle. Suddenly the wig caught fire and started burning up. I could only smell the burning hair and I was constantly looking right at Joseph completely afraid. But as he sang ‘Bella figlia dell’amore,’ he carefully put it out with his hands. And we kept singing to the end as if nothing ever happened.”


Adrianne Pieczonka – Debuted Feb. 21, 2004

“For my first few years at the Met, I think I got so lucky that I was singing with Plácido Domingo in everything. I made my debut in ‘Queen of Spades’ with Plácido and [Dmitri] Hvorostovsky. The next thing was singing ‘Walküre’ with Plácido and the next thing was ‘Simon Boccanegra’ with Plácido that was on HD. That was very special with Jimmy Levine conducting. I had never worked with Jimmy before that ‘Boccanegra’ and I have not worked with him since unfortunately so it was incredible to have had that experience. It was special.”


Luca Pisaroni – Debuted April 29, 2005

“I will never forget the first time I sang on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. It was in 2005 and I was singing Publio in Mozart’s ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ conducted by the legendary James Levine. When I walked in and saw the size of the auditorium, I was terrified that my voice wouldn’t be able to fill such a big space. Fortunately, the acoustics of the MET are warm and generous and you feel your voice spin and fly towards the audience. It is exhilarating to sing in front of so many people and when the audience erupts into applause, it feels like a warm embrace. It is the most rewarding feeling a singer can have.”


Ana María Martinez – Debuted Nov. 9, 2005 

My parents moved to New York when I was six and my mother had friends who worked at the Met and gave her tickets to some of the final dress rehearsals. And she took me with her to see ‘Turandot.’ I had never seen it before and I fell in love with the opera, especially the character of Liu. I didn’t know she would sacrifice herself and when she did, I was devastated. I held back my tears and when the show was done, I was a sobbing mess and tried to crawl under the seat in front of me. My parents asked me what was wrong and I just wanted to be alone. The soprano who sang Turandot was Elinor Ross. That performance impacted me for the rest of my life. 

Fast forward to a year ago at the Met and I am singing ‘Madama Butterfly’ and I find out that Elinor Ross attended a performance with her son and that she was trying to contact me, without knowing me or my story, to tell me how much she enjoyed my performance. So you better believe that I communicated with her son to tell him how much of a full circle this was.”


Klaus Florian Vogt – Debut May 3, 2006 

“I remember my debut. I hadn’t had any time on stage before I went out for the performance of ‘Lohengrin.’ So I was really nervous. And as part of it, I had to go on a wagon that crosses the stage for my first entrance and it didn’t work. I had no idea what to do. Finally, somebody in the back told me to just go so I got off of this wagon and I stepped on stage. That was my first moment on the Met stage.”


Angela Meade – Debuted March 21, 2008 

Earlier in my career at the Met, I was asked to cover Renée Fleming’s gala on opening night. I covered the ‘Capriccio’ final scene, so I got to be there and watch her doing three very different types of music in one concert. I’ve always loved Renée and I think she is a great artist and great singer and she really knows what her strengths are. And I think those three scenes emphasized who she is as a singer. It was a real learning experience to sit backstage and watch her do these things in rehearsal and watch her on stage.”


Riccardo Frizza – Debuted Jan. 24, 2009

“The ‘Armida’ I did with Renée Fleming was the first time the opera was done here. The musicians had never played the part. So I remember those sessions quite well. They were always asking about the speed and detail of every single passage in the opera. They were a bit worried because Rossini always has so many notes and each part is extremely virtuosic. But I was struck by the professionalism with which they all came together to communicate with me about their concerns.”


Jamie Barton – Debuted Sept. 23, 2009

Stepping onstage at the Met for Adalgisa – a role debut and my first leading lady on that stage! – was an incredible experience. I hadn’t had any stage rehearsal time, and my nerves were there in full force. Luckily, so were the support and encouragement of my colleagues backstage! Every time I came offstage, my dresser was there to hold my hand and give me water. Chorus members high-fived me as I passed, and the stage manager smiled at me as I waited to walk out and sing Adalgisa’s prayer. I’ve since learned that this is the way of the Met – you have more cheerleaders than you can comprehend, from the security guards to Peter Gelb. That visible and tangible support helped make that night a success and continues to be one of the many reasons I think of the Met as a second home.”


Michael Fabiano – Debuted Jan 11, 2010 

“I stepped into ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ with seven hours notice. I was in Philadelphia at home. I had just gotten home from Paris from singing ‘Faust’ and Joseph Calleja canceled because he was very sick. They called me and asked if I could do it. I told them I hadn’t sung “Lucia” in a year and a half. I told them to give me a chance to think about it and 15 minutes later I remembered it all. I got on the train, got into costume department, they rushed me through some staging. And then I went on and did the stage. But then things got a bit eventful. At one point, I ran off stage. I didn’t know where the light fixtures were and I ran right into one of them and fell right to the ground. I gashed my head wide open. We were all laughing with that scared laugh. But I got through it.”


Javier Camarena – Debuted Oct. 1, 2011

“Every time I come is a special moment. Obviously, my debut was a big moment for me in my entire career. It was always a major goal of mine. And being able to do the encores in ‘Cenerentola’ was also quite humbling for me. But I have to say that one night I will remember was seeing Roberto Alagna in ‘Manon Lescaut.’ It was the first time I heard Roberto live and I was completely thrilled from seeing the way he transformed into Des Grieux. Everything about his performance that night was electric and really left me emotionally devastated.”


Marina Rebeka – Debuted Oct 13, 2011 

“One of my strongest memories from the Met was in Puccini’s ‘La bohème.’ I was debuting the role of Musetta, and in the staging, I have to appear laughing like crazy, brought in on a carriage with a real white horse. It was a live radio broadcast that evening and the horse did not stop at all. People on the other side tried to force it to stop, but it wouldn’t! I was laughing – not because I was having a lot of fun – but because of all of this craziness. When I got out of the carriage the horse went backward and the carriage started to move back. I ran into the restaurant on the stage, but it was obviously too late for everything. I don’t know how I was able to sing. The table did not come in time, I broke the plates too late… it was quite a mess. During the interval, I got a letter from the Met stage management. In it was written: “Marina, thank you for your courage” and under that – a recipe for … HORSE BURGERS!”


Elza van den Heever – Debuted Dec. 31, 2012

“To make my debut on New Year’s Eve at 33 at the Metropolitan Opera opposite Joyce DiDonato and Matthew Polenzani is something that I will never get again in my life. But what really made it special was David McVicar and playing Elizabeth in this unique way. I remember the first day I went, I didn’t really care what I was wearing because I knew that I would get a rehearsal costume. I was wearing a camouflage-printed legging with army boots over it. So I show up, David McVicar takes one look at me and said, ‘I want you to imagine that she is wearing exactly what you are wearing underneath the skirt we are about to put over you. And that is how you’re supposed to play that character.’ He wanted me to feel as if I were wearing army gear underneath. She’s a woman ruling in a hostile man’s world. It was a brilliant moment.”


Pretty Yende – Debuted Jan. 17, 2013

“I was amazed watching Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I saw ‘Trovatore’ with him and Anna[ Netrebko]. I adore them. I have never sensed such power. There was immense old-school kind of singing and I was just blown away. If I had to choose one performance that was it. There was the 10-year-old me hoping that when somebody sees me doing something on stage, there could be so much respect and high art. It was really powerful for me.”


Anne Schwanewilms – Debuted Nov. 7, 2013

“I was pushed into a glass box for ‘Die Frau Ohne Schatten’ and Werneke filled it with different parts of mirrors. There were parts of mirrors and they were illuminated differently. They gave different images, like a mirror cabinet. When I was standing in this box, I saw myself differently all the time. It could really scare you sometimes. But I realized when the photographer came, the mirrors created the image of stars and the light was so differently illuminated. The Kaiserin was no longer living on earth or existing on earth. The picture was perfect and then this blue curtain, it was like a bird. It was magical.”


David Bizic – Debuted Feb. 18, 2014

“I would say, of course, the most memorable is singing on the Met stage for the first time because it was a dream come true. We all have dreams as opera students of where we would love to perform. So, of course, the moment you become an opera singer you set goals for yourself. They are always the impossible ones. And some of us get lucky enough to get there. For me, it was a great sense of accomplishment singing my debut. At the same time a difficult moment realizing that I have to set my new goal now. It was a great changing point but at the same being a student dreaming of something new.”


Jennifer Rowley – Debuted March 19, 2014

“Everyone’s Met Opera debut is the most special time in any singer’s career – it is a realization of a dream come true! I shared my debut with some amazing colleagues that evening, including the horse who pulled Musetta’s carriage on stage for Act II! Who knew horses got stage fright?! Our poor horse did not want to make his entrance, reared up, and started to turn upstage to get out of there. The carriage started to tip downstage, so my Alcindoro and I made the quick decision to jump off the carriage and continue the entrance to Act II together. What a night, and one I will always remember!”


Brian Jagde – Debuted April 4, 2014

A lot of memorable moments at The Met stand out in my mind for different reasons, but the most incredible was hearing Piotr Beczała sing Edgardo in ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ He was flawless. His singing and dramatic presence couldn’t have been more impressive. I remember thinking that it was the most thrilling night of opera I’d ever experienced, and walked away feeling inspired.”


Nadine Sierra -Debuted Dec. 2, 2015

“Singing on the Met stage was a dream come true during the National Council Auditions in 2009, but my fondest memory from that period was being able to share the entire experience with my dear friend and classmate from the Mannes School of Music, pianist Bryan Wagorn. We were both still ‘kids’ in this business who were honestly just having fun and living in the moment. I never expected anything to come out of the Met auditions, so it truly felt like Bryan and I were just performing for the several panels of judges we had to audition for instead of aiming for the big prize at the end. And now 9 years later, here we are: two kids from Mannes contracted at the Met, working to pave the way for our generation at Lincoln Center and closer than ever. Growing up with big dreams is already a tremendous feeling, but being able to reach them with a best friend is the most enriching experience anyone can ask for.” 


David Portillo – Debuted Dec. 16, 2015 

“My fondest memories always involve friends.  Of course, the thrill of singing on the stage with so many family and friends watching throughout the entire run of ‘Barber of Seville’ last year will seldom be found.  There was such a great support system from many years of performing who were there to see that show, and I’m still so grateful for them. My very first day of rehearsal for the Barber of Seville, however, I remember arriving at the rehearsal room early and greeting everyone as they arrived; all of my colleagues in that show I had worked with before.  I was so honored to be singing in this opera house, and I was ecstatic that I could be surrounded by friends from the beginning – this made me so much more excited and it was also very calming.”


Leah Crocetto – Debuted Oct. 22, 2015

“The first time I stepped on the foot of the stage was the day of my performance. I didn’t get any rehearsal time on the set. One of my personal heroes is James Morris and he was my Timur that night. He came an hour before his call because he knew it was my debut. He walked me through the entire set, all the staging and told me about the pitfalls of the set and where I could put my foot, where I need to be careful because the sets were wobbly. He was such a classy gentleman and I will forever be grateful for that because he made my debut more special than I can ever tell you.

But he did something even more special. One of my great aunts loves James Morris and he knew that she was a big fan. So when she came to see the show he came to my dressing room after the show and gave her a big hug. She was weeping.”



Stage Spotlight