Tag Archives: Metropolitan Opera

I Always Feels Like Somebody’s Watching Me

11 Feb

Well…maybe I don’t always feel like somebody’s watching me, but sometimes it’s fun to give myself the creeps.

As I wrote in my last entry, I have started walking. A lot. I’m averaging about 3 miles a night now, not including the mileage I get just walking in everyday life, so I’m getting in anywhere from 5-9 miles a day now. It’s during those nightly walks that I really get in the steps, though, and to keep myself entertained while I’m walking, I’ll typically listen to whatever music pops up on my iPhone (SEE ALSO: Beyoncé, “Formation.”) But a couple of times a week, I get a special surprise when two of the podcasts that I’m following release new episodes.

I’m new to the world of podcasts, and I’ve recently discovered Fireside Mystery Theatre and Chilling Tales: The Podcast, and I gotta tell ya, guys…I’m hooked. Fireside Mystery Theatre is a storytelling podcast based in the tradition of radio dramas from the 30’s and 40’s. They perform their stories live from September to May at the Slipper Room in New York City’s Lower East Side and they have a whole slew of back episodes to choose from. Recently I listened to Episode 8 (April 10, 2015), which included three Irish ghost stories and I was completely taken in by them. The musical interludes between the stories were wonderful, too.

Chilling Tales is another storytelling podcast, but it has less of a “radio drama” feel about it and is more straightforward storytelling with actors voicing the characters or a single narrator. The first night I discovered the podcast, I was at home, cooking in the kitchen with only a couple of lights on in the house, and by the end of the second episode (Horror S’more-er: Chilling Tales Goes To Camp), I was checking the locks and windows in the house and turning on as many lights as possible.

It takes a lot to genuinely scare me. After living in New York City for as long as I did, there wasn’t much I hadn’t seen or experienced and, believe or not, after years of terror threats and heightened alerts and raids on your apartment by the FBI, one becomes desensitized to a lot of things. Or at least one tells oneself. After some time in the city, I became less worried about being blown up in the subway than I was about being blown away in a hurricane or bodies falling on me from the high-rises in Midtown. (This actually happened, by the way – not a body falling on me, but I happened upon a suicide scene on 6th Avenue one day on my way to work. The body had landed on the sidewalk just next to an outdoor café. The police had brought in city buses to park on each side of the corner to block off foot traffic and onlookers. It was not a pretty scene. And I would have expected my pastrami on rye to be comped.)

All that being said, one of my favorite things to do at one point in my time in New York, was to walk from work at the Metropolitan Opera House, where I used to work coat check, to the subway on 57th Street, while listening to a suite of music from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” You should try it sometime. It’ll really freak you out. So now, while I’m walking around my darkened neighborhood late at night, I listen to people telling spooky stories. And I find myself looking over my shoulder. A lot. Because the one thing that does scare me is people jumping out from behind things or sneaking up on me.

When I was in third grade, my next door neighbor’s dad took me and a few of the kids in the neighborhood to a radio station-sponsored haunted house. We were all far too young to get in, but Kevin Ray’s dad knew some people who let us in – or he convinced them that we were old enough…I don’t know – and we got into this place.

Looking back on it, I don’t really remember many of the specifics of the place – it felt like there were a hundred different rooms that we went through and I remember thinking we were never going to finally be done with it, though the reality is there may have been a dozen or so different rooms and scenes. But what I do remember still haunts me.

The first room I remember walking through was a large, open space, with a walkway on the left side of the room, and Satan pacing the floor on the right side of the room. Now, I know, that sounds kind of hokey, but I was maybe 9 years old and, in addition to Satan, there were also dozens of fallen angels behind bars, reaching out into the walkway, begging us to save them. As a kid who went to church regularly, this terrified me on so many levels. I may have cried…I can’t remember.

The next room I remember featured a doctor eating the guts out of a body on an operating table. Just, y’know, yanking them out and shoving the slimy, bloody entrails into his face. And then he sawed off their head. Duh.

And finally, the last room we came to was a huge space with just a coffin set up near the wall at the far end of the room, furthest away from the door. The tour guide told us to form a circle in the middle of the room, holding hands and closing our eyes, which immediately made me suspicious, but I closed my eyes, anyway, so that maybe I wouldn’t have to see what was inevitably about to happen. A few seconds later, there was a lot of screaming and I heard someone passing behind me, so I opened my eyes to find a mummy in the center of our circle, getting in everyone’s faces and making mummy-like sounds (I’m not even sure what those are), and Dracula, who had risen from his coffin, running around the outside of our circle, thrusting his head between us as if he were going for our throats.

Well, I was done. I bolted for what I thought was the door, only to find that I had accidentally run myself behind Dracula’s coffin, which set me into a panic. Kevin Ray’s dad came and rescued me and we proceeded to leave through a giant door that had black plastic hanging from it, like a meat locker. That’s the last time I’ve ever willingly set foot in a haunted house.

That night, perhaps in an attempt to apologize to all of us for subjecting us to that nightmare, Kevin Ray’s dad took us to Pizza Hut, where we all sat at a booth. We didn’t all fit, so we had to pull up a chair to the end of the table, which is where I had to sit, and as we were waiting for our pizzas to arrive, I remember hearing Hall & Oates “Private Eyes” playing over the PA system.

Private eyes (clap!)
They’re watching you! (clap! clap!)
They see your ev’ry move…

I’ve never been able to listen to 70’s soft rock the same way since. (If only I’d developed a similar aversion to pizza…) I was convinced that someone was behind me – Satan or perhaps that weird-sounding mummy. Convinced that they had followed us to Pizza Hut and were planning to finish me off before the pepperoni pan pizza had even arrived. That they were watching me (clap! clap!)…that they saw my ev’ry move. Like demons and mummies do. I think I maybe ate half a slice which, even at that age, was unheard of for me. I couldn’t be bothered to eat – I was on poltergeist patrol.

To this day, I have never wittingly stepped into a haunted house again. I’ve been that guy who holds people’s bags while they go through the house or runs down the hall with his eyes covered, screaming, “I’ll punch you! I swear, I will!” when the dorms decided it’d be fun to have a haunted floor. I flat out refused to go to Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights this year, even though I could have gotten in for free and all my co-workers begged me to go, but I am 99% certain I would have gotten myself fired for assaulting the first performer who jumped out at me with a chainsaw. Homie don’t play dat.

But I can creep myself out with ghost stories and Bernard Herrmann scores and that’s enough for me. Because I can turn it off whenever I want.

I still get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear that song, though. And a craving for Pizza Hut pan pizza. Not today, Satan! Not today…


Boh, Shay…Cyan….Yew…Eeeeeeee…

21 Jan
Renee Fleming will sing the National Anthem at this year's Super Bowl.

Renee Fleming will sing the National Anthem at this year’s Super Bowl.

It’s been announced that Renee Fleming, arguably one of the most celebrated American sopranos in the opera world, is going to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl this year. She will be the first opera singer in history to sing it at the Super Bowl and my Facebook feed is all abuzz about it.

I spent three seasons working in the coat check room at the Metropolitan Opera House after I moved to New York. It was one of the best jobs I could have ever hoped for. Because I moved just a few months after 9/11, security was very high and the Met was requiring all male patrons to check any kind of bag they had with them. In addition, all female patrons had to check bags as well with the exception of their purse. To pull this off, they hired dozens of us to check the bags at the front entrances and then bring them downstairs to the coat room and sort them by number to speed up the distribution process at the end of the show. It was organized chaos, but it was a brilliant job. I met wonderful people there – people with whom I am still friends – and the money was ridiculous. We got paid a flat rate of $54 for the first four hours we were there. After the fourth hour, we started getting time and a half every 15 minutes and at the end of the night we split tips. My checks were sometimes $500-$600 and around the holidays we could walk out with $30-$60 in tips on a good night. Sadly, I have no idea where all that money is now, but I was enjoying life back then. I was working with one of my very best friends from graduate school (she got me the job), I had the best boss I’ve ever worked for and I got to experience the highest quality opera one could hope to find – and I got paid to be there to listen to it!

After two seasons of paying 10 people a night to basically sit around during the shows, the Met cut the coat check’s budget and got rid of the mandatory bag check policy. The majority of the staff was either let go or had their shifts cut, but somehow I kept on working as much as my boss, Jack, could let me. He was a good man and looked out for me and Jennifer, making sure that we were taken care of, both with shifts and with “family,” inviting us to his home to share a homemade Thanksgiving meal with him, his lovely wife, Mickey, and his mother-in-law. I was able to hang around another season before the budget was cut again and I was taken off the schedule.

While I was at the Met, I had extraordinary opportunities that I still can’t believe. As employees, we were allowed to purchase the best available seats to any operas we wanted for $40 a seat. I took my parents and my Aunt and Uncle to see Aida – we had center orchestra seats that would have normally cost $300 per ticket. I got to hear Plácido Domingo, Debra Voigt, Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flórez, Ruth Ann Swenson, Dmitri Hvorotovsky and so many more on any given night, and most incredibly, I was at Luciano Pavarotti’s final performance of “Tosca,” standing in the back of the auditorium, weeping, as he sang his last “E lucevan le stelle” at the Met. He was unable to stand on his own, so they restaged the number so he could lean against a table. His size and his age, however, didn’t diminish that incredible voice that pierced through the opera house like a laser cutting through the dark. It was a moment that I will never forget.

I also had the opportunity to hear Ms. Fleming sing on many occasions – most memorably during the run of Il Pirata that the Met mounted specifically for her. You know you’re a big deal when the Met builds a show around you. To celebrate her birthday, which was during that run, her old college roommate (and famous Phantom of the Opera Christine), Lisa Vroman, threw a party in Ms. Fleming’s honor on the Grand Tier level after a performance. Jack asked me to work the event, checking coats and packages for the guests. I would, obviously, be paid – I think it was $25/hr. – and I could accept tips. And I got to check Ms. Fleming’s feather coat. Yes, it was a coat of feathers, and she looked stunning in it. Ms. Vroman and I had chatted earlier in the evening – she was impressed that I’d heard of her – and so when she and Ms. Fleming were leaving, she made sure that we had a little chat before they left. She and Ms. Fleming were so lovely to me, a lowly coat check guy, and I will never forget that.

I will also never forget that Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance didn’t tip me when I checked their bags. But that’s another story for another day.

ImageI have no doubt that Renee Fleming will give us an incredible National Anthem on February 2. But if she happens to call out, I know someone who could easily step in for her.