As the Met’s Administrator of Supernumeraries, Richard Holmes oversees a small army— sometimes literally—of non-singing performers who appear as soldiers, townspeople, or party guests in a variety of productions. But his Met career started much earlier, in the old opera house on Broadway and 39th Street. On the eve of the Met’s 50th anniversary season at Lincoln Center, Holmes, one of the company’s longest-serving employees, spoke with Met radio host Mary Jo Heath about his early operatic days, including a memorable night in September 1966.
You were a very young man when you came to the Met. What were you doing then?
I was in the children’s chorus. It had been a dream of mine. Not many children have this dream this early, but I’d been listening to the Met broadcasts for about four years, and I was dying to be in the chorus. I came in and auditioned in September 1964 when I was 12, and was taken in—luckily immediately, because my voice changed not too long afterwards. So I was able to do three seasons—two in the old house and the first season in the new house.
What was your debut?
The very first night that I sang in a performance was Turandot, with Birgit Nilsson. And she was literally just right at my elbow, sitting on a little stool. I had her recording of Turandot and played it every day. Yes, I was a peculiar child. [Laughs.] I just kept on staring at her. And she looked up at me, very nicely, and said, “Stop staring at me, you silly boy.” She had some tissues and threw a couple at me very playfully, and then got up and gave me a little kiss. That was my first night at the Met. Talk about being immediately captured…
What do you remember about the old house?
There was very little backstage room. We were all just squashed in. In Turandot, the children’s chorus sings from offstage, and they had poked holes through the scenery so we could see the maestro. There was no backstage monitor like we have today. So it was a bit difficult. But I remember thinking, Puccini stood on this stage…
What was the mood like before the move to Lincoln Center?
It was a tremendous feeling. Being a child, I was much less sentimental about it—I just couldn’t wait to see what the new house was going to look like. But there was also a kind of autumnal feeling. I kept on thinking, This is the last time we’ll see this opera ere, this is the last time I’ll go to this rehearsal room.
So when did you first walk through the doors into the new Met?
It was the middle of August 1966. I was lucky enough to be supering as a child in [Barber’s] Antony and Cleopatra [which opened the new Met the following month.] There was no singing children’s chorus, but they needed someone young in it. It was like going into a fairy-tale fantasy land. Suddenly there was all this room. We were used to the old Met stage, where the back of the set was the wall on Seventh Avenue. Now there was an entire stage in the back, and an entire stage on either side. Franco Zeffirelli’s sets for Antony were gigantic. The sets for Die Frau ohne Schatten were huge. I remember the double staircase that was in Cecil Beaton’s Traviata. And everything was new, of course. It all had that new-car smell to it. The carpets still had paper on them so that you wouldn’t mess them up before the bigwigs came in for the opening. At least for the first few months, I don’t think anyone much missed the old house, because they were getting used to having so much more convenience. The dressing rooms were much better equipped. They didn’t smell of cigar smoke, which everything at the old Met smelled of because the head of wardrobe for the chorus, a gentleman named Tony Scardino, smoked cigars all day. And it was all wood, so it seeped in there. I can never smell a cigar without thinking of the old Met or Tony Scardino…
What was it like on opening night?
We were fiercely corralled because there was so much going on. I remember after we got dressed, coming down in an elevator, the doors opened and suddenly there was Leontyne Price in her full Cleopatra regalia, which was enormous, with Mr. Bing, who was not Sir Rudolf yet at that point, and Justino Díaz, who was singing Antony. They were all doing a radio interview. If you listen to the old broadcast, it’s on there. You can actually hear the ding of the elevator. That’s us coming down. [Laughs.] What everybody was terrified of was the transition after the very first scene. I think a lot of people know the story of how Leontyne Price got trapped in the pyramid at the dress rehearsal. She was stuck in there for about an hour. So on opening night, everybody was standing in the wings, wondering, Is the pyramid going to open? This time everything worked. The stage was packed. There were camels and goats in the first scene, so we had to keep out of their way… I may have the number wrong, but I would say there were 200 to 250 supers, as well as the full chorus and extra chorus. Leontyne Price was glorious. I was entranced by her big aria, “Give Me Some Music.” We tried to get to the front of the house, but nobody could, because of all the famous dignitaries who were there. It all looked like a movie set. Later I walked out to Broadway, and that little park right across from the Met was wall-to-wall cameras. That night was the big event of the decade culturally. It was absolutely fascinating and electrifying.