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UPDATE: Is the Metropolitan Opera Fire-Proof?

September 22, 2014

This article was updated on Sept. 24, 2014


There was a subtle drama in the wings at the opening of Marriage of Figaro on Monday night, Sept. 22, at Lincoln Center. Earlier in the day the New York City Fire Dept. showed up to inspect the stage sets and discovered a problem: “a significant portion of the scenery was found to not be fireproof.”

As a result, said the inspectors, the show cannot go on — unless the material is removed or else additional fire prevention measures are taken. According to a spokesperson in the Fire Department’s press office, Opera officials agreed to hire fireguards for all performances of Figaro, along with an engine company “for rapid response and fire suppression.” All expenses are to be paid by the opera. There are 15 performances of Figaro this season.

This is not such an unusual situation, but one wonders why the Met was unaware of the flammable nature of the material and had not filed for a permit sooner. There’s also the question of how much this will cost.

We asked Peter Clark, spokesperson for the Met, for details. In an email, sent the day after the performance, he offered this statement, “The Met works closely with the FDNY to make sure all our productions meet the Department’s safety standards.” He added, “There’s no further comment.”

However, there was comment from within the company. A person who asked not to be identified noted, “ It’s disturbing to think we use anything so flammable, and it makes you wonder about the quality of what’s in storage.”

As an aside the problem with the Figaro sets was not just flammable material. Apparently, the original set designer stepped aside and the replacement oversaw the creation of a whole new set. How much that cost is anyone’s guess. The sets themselves appear as decorative iron grills, as though to suggest security gates.

In a season of acute financial awareness and conscientiousness, said our source, and we are paraphrasing here, this is especially curious. It’s just one more example over the last several years of a lack of planning and oversight, along with an approach of sparing no expense, and costs be damned. Whether they used cheaper material to save money or they forgot to file for the permits, it’s not good.

As for fire safety, said our source, the company goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety of everyone working on and behind stage. “Everything is flame-proofed and there are very strict rules about the use of flames. Everyone is vigilant.”

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.