Is the Met the Hot Zone of Opera?

Thomas Hampson (in suit) and Sondra Radvanovsky in the Met's Photo: Photo illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, AFP/Getty Images

As soon as the spotlight illuminated a patch of curtain just before last night’s performance of Verdi's Ernani at the Met, the audience groaned. A company-suited man emerged with a warning: Although soprano Sondra Radvanovsky would sing, she was toughing it out with an infection. As it happened, she gleamed quite nicely through all four acts, though at times it was tenor Marcello Giordani who sounded in distress. Perhaps he was just too embarrassed to request one of those I'm-going-to-sing-badly-but-please-don't-be-mad-at-me-for-it announcements for himself.

This viral attack was not singling out the revival of Pier Luigi Samaritani's 1983 production — though it would have had good reason to have it in for a staging already suffering from the virulent eighties strain of operatic gigantism. The current production of Tristan und Isolde lost both of its box-office draws when tenor Ben Heppner pleaded flu before opening night (and has yet to return to work) and Deborah Voigt was sidelined by stomach problems halfway through a performance last Friday. With its subterranean rehearsal rooms and antiquated ventilation, the Met acts as an efficient distributor for germs that itinerant singers import from other opera houses around the world. Spending one’s workday at the Met is like living in an intercontinental airplane in which all the passengers are phlegmophobic divas who can be felled by an ordinary cold.

Once upon a time, renovating the Met’s backstage and modernizing its ventilation system were part of Lincoln Center’s vast plans to overhaul itself. The Met’s part of that project has been indefinitely postponed so for now it’s back to the old cough, croak, and curtain call until flu season finally ends. —Justin Davidson