Met's sputniks back in service

The Metropolitan Opera's chandeliers, known as the sputniks.
The Metropolitan Opera's chandeliers, known as the sputniks.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • The sputniks, as the Metropolitan Opera's starburst- shaped crystal chandeliers are known, were stuck in orbit for more than a year. But thanks to a mechanical overhaul, they can come back to earth - ensuring that a beloved Met ritual can resume next month as the curtain rises on the company's 50th anniversary season at Lincoln Center.

The Met's chandeliers play a silent role before performances: As the house lights dim, a dozen of them slowly ascend 19m to the auditorium's golden ceiling. But after a faulty clutch put one out of commission, they all spent last season in place near the ceiling.

The Met has taken advantage of its summer break to replace the outdated equipment that raised and lowered its chandeliers for half a century. It custom-dyed several thousand metres of new power cable just the right shade of "Met red" and installed 12 new computerised winches in the catwalks above the auditorium's ceiling.

During a break in a recent technical rehearsal for the new production of Tristan Und Isolde that will open the season on Sept 26, Mr Jeff Mace, who oversaw the chandelier project, showed off the new winches up in the domes, more than 25m above the orchestra seats. The winches unspool two lines of steel wire and a suitably red power cable to each sputnik.

While the old machines could lift 68kg at a speed of 0.3m a second, the new ones can lift 227kg and go three times as fast.

Now the sputniks are ready to resume their nightly ascents and the Met, which has been facing a box-office slump and fiscal challenges, can take its place once more among the many opera houses that have made opulent, ornate chandeliers showpieces in their own right.

The cult of the opera house chandelier, which dates back to the candle era, spans far and wide: They can be emblems of elegance, or visual manifestations of the dazzling, over-the-top art form that is opera, or acoustical aids that help reflect sound in large theatres that still shun electronic amplification.

Antoine Pecqueur, who wrote The Most Beautiful Opera Houses In The World, said the role of chandeliers had changed over the years, from illuminating high society's see-and-be-seen rituals to serving a more functional, transitional role today. "We pass from the lighting in the hall to that of the stage," he wrote in an e-mail.

The Met's emblematic chandeliers were installed when it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966. Made by Lobmeyr, they were a gift from the Austrian government in gratitude for United States aid after World War II.

For some opera buffs, performances without the chandelier- raising ritual had felt incomplete.

Mr Fred Plotkin, who wrote Opera 101: A Complete Guide To Learning And Loving Opera and writes about opera for the classical music radio station WQXR, said the rising chandeliers signalled the moment to put aside thoughts of the day and focus on opera.

"When I sit in the grand tier, I love watching them begin their ascent," he said. "And in the balcony, when you're really quiet, you can hear the tinkling when they stop. That sound, to me, is the sound of the Met."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2016, with the headline 'Met's sputniks back in service'. Subscribe