My First Opera: Lucia di Lammermoor

by Andrew Litton

My mother took me to my first opera during the last season at the old Met, in 1966. I was maybe a little too young, but she thought it would be nice for me to be able to say I’d seen something there. The opera was Lucia di Lammermoor. My only recollections are that it was Anna Moffo singing—she was strikingly beautiful, even to an almost-six-year-old child—and that I liked Act 2 better than Act 1, because in Act 2 I had a green lollipop. As for Act 3, I was on my way home. It was way past my bedtime.

By the 1967-68 season, in the new house, I was able to stay up for a whole performance, and was just getting old enough to appreciate what was going on. I had help in this from a close family friend—my godfather, in fact—who was the timpanist in the Met’s orchestra, and would explain the stories to me. I remember making it through all five hours of Die Frau ohne Schatten, and also the amazing Robert O’Hearn Der Rosenkavalier, a staging that's still in the company's repertoire now and that the Met puts on its postcards.

Then, when I hit ten, I decided I wanted to be a conductor. I'd been going to Leonard Bernstein's Young People’s Concerts, and had heard him conduct Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which I found hugely exciting. My parents were doubtful at first—after all, the day before I'd wanted to be a fireman—but I was absolutely serious. My godfather also took me seriously, and started taking me to rehersals with him. And so, whenever I didn’t have to be at school, I'd be in the pit at the Met. From my seat next to the timpini I could see just about two thirds of the stage; and from that seat I began to fall in love with opera.

At first I never knew where the big timpani rolls were coming, so we had a system whereby my godfather would say 'pssst' and I'd then cover my ears while his sticks came crashing down. Then, in my teens, I got to the point where I could read a score, and so I would sit in the pit during performances with a music stand. I don't know what the audience thought I was doing there, but it was a fantastic education. Back then the musicians were in the pit every night, and it was amazing how different they could sound, depending partly on the repertoire, but mostly on the conductor.

I feel a bit of a fuddy-duddy saying this, but it really was a golden age. The house team for Verdi was Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill—and I got to see them day after day, horsing around in rehearsal! I remember Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes, and Jess Thomas and Birgit Nilsson as Tristan and Isolde; I saw Pavarotti’s debut and his subsequent Fille du régiment. I was just in time to catch Reneta Tebaldi as Alice Ford. And I remember very distinctly the Bernstein Carmen, which was controversial at the time but which, as I'd been at all the rehearsals and five of the performances, felt like it was mine.

My godfather, Richard Horowitz, is still playing timpani for the Met, aged 81. In his spare time, he makes batons—he has made them for Bernstein, Kleiber, Leinsdorf, Böhm, and now Haitink and Levine. And, I’m happy to say, for me. He’s a legend.

Andrew Litton conducts 'Carmen' in concert at the Vail Valley Festival, Colorado, on July 16th.