Muffled Mozart refrains pour from overhead speakers. A muted monitor hanging nearby is seemingly ignored by both those seated in the hall and those walking—sometimes with a notepad, always with a purpose—through the winding corridors. In the corner, a man and woman have a hushed discourse, occasionally dropping terms not immediately recognizable to an English-speaking layman.
It’s as if you're sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room. Except it’s not a waiting room—it’s a backstage labyrinth. And it’s not a doctor’s office—it’s the largest repertory opera house in the world. Those classical melodies above are from a live feed, as the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and an ensemble of world-renowned singers rehearse for Don Giovanni. The production’s set towers over the artists on the closed-circuit TV. The intricacies of Mozart’s score and Michael Grandage’s staging are discussed as people traverse from the stage to the principal dressing rooms.
Down the the principal singers’ wing, Aida Garifullina paces in her dressing room as the opera’s overture accompanies her lip trills. Her role, Zerlina, doesn’t make her entrance for a few scenes, but she’s already in full hair, costume, and makeup—wedding veil included. And the lip trills are far from her first bit of warming up that morning.
“I woke up at 7:30, I started to warm up my voice at 9 until about 10, and then I went to the Met,” she says. It’s now shortly after 10:30. Once fully costumed, the Russian soprano continues her warm-ups.
“It’s important for me to warm up again in the dress,” she explains, sitting up and holding her hands to her waist. “To keep the beautiful, low sound, you have to try to breathe against the corset.”
Rather than preserve her instrument, Garifullina will sing in full voice during this dress rehearsal—and not just for the invited audience in attendance. She makes her Met debut with Don Giovanni, and two days before her first performance, she’s still acclimating to the size of the house. “You don’t usually have to sing at full voice during rehearsals in other opera houses; you can mark,” she explains. “But here, you have to show off everything every time, every day. Especially when you are new. You do your best and more.”
Wrapping herself in a baby blue shawl, Garifullina makes her way to the stage, giving herself a quick look in a full-length mirror in the hall before heading through the double doors. The reason for the shawl immediately becomes apparent: the expansive space behind the stage is frigid as set pieces are loaded into the house. Before reaching the wings, singers navigate a cavernous space filled with artifacts of various productions presented in repertory.
To get to 18th-century Spain onstage, you’ll have to pass through the tombs of Aida, the neon lights of Michael Mayer’s Vegas-set Rigoletto, and the crumbling walls of another Spanish tale: Carmen.
“It’s not very glamorous,” Garifullina says with a tinge of skepticism as she poses against a wall of lockers before running off for her first entrance. She’s not wrong: the chill, the fluorescent lighting, and the perpetual fear of tripping over cables or pieces of other operas is a far cry from the pouring of champagne and elegant bell chimes happening in the lobby. But after just a few more steps and she’s on the stage, there’s no comparison.
“I was waiting for this contract for many years. I always wanted it, and now I’m here. It’s a very prestigious house. It’s just so different; it’s like another planet.”
As for her favorite part of the prestigious house? That one’s easy. Without hesitation: “The stage. I love being on this stage.”
Get a glimpse of backstage life at the Met—and hear more from Garifullina—in the gallery below. She apepars in Don Giovanni through February 16; additional performances will run through April 18.