Twelve small chandeliers rise silently to the ceiling of the opera house as the lights dim before the beginning of each performance
If you've ever been to the Metropolitan Opera, then you must have felt butterflies of anticipation and awe when those crystal chandeliers ascend silently to the gilded ceiling as the lights fade before the beginning of each performance. (Or is it just me?) Let's take a look at how these signature fixtures came to be.
When the Metropolitan Opera House (image 2) was constructed, along with the rest of Lincoln Center, in the early 1960s, the Austrian government donated 350 chandeliers, sconces and other light fixtures to the opera house, a "shining and glittering symbol," according to the Austrian Foreign Minister at the time, "of the friendship between Austria and the United States."
The fixtures (images 1-5, 8, 9) were produced by Lobmeyr, a venerable Austrian crystal company founded in 1823, and were designed by Hans Harald Rath, a descendant of the original Lobmeyrs. (Today, the company is run by a sixth generation of Lobmeyr descendants.)
Rath worked closely with Wallace K. Harrison, the architect of the opera house, who supposedly gave him a book on the big-bang theory as inspiration. Rath's starburst designs certainly evoke a celestial theme, which links them to the sputnik-inspired designs that were so popular at the time. The Russian government had launched the first orbital satellites into space in 1957 (image 6), and the form of these "sputniks" seemed to inspire a host of lighting designs that imitated the satellite's radiating arms. Even before Sputnik, designers like George Nelson and Gino Sarfatti (image 7) were exploring the expressive and fun design potential of Atomic motifs and space imagery. Rath's chandeliers are more luxurious and elegant than most space-inspired lighting, but they evoke a similar modernity and even a sense of fun.
Rath's lobby chandeliers are visible from the outside of the Met building, appearing in a syncopated cascade through the atrium (image 3). Inside the theater itself, a massive chandelier (which weighs about 1.5 tons) centers a cluster of large chandeliers. In turn, these are surrounded in horseshoe formation by twelve small chandeliers which are suspended over the seats, and then gracefully rise to the ceiling just before the curtain opens. Apparently, the first time the chandeliers rose in the new opera house, in 1966, the audience exploded into an impromptu ovation (understandably! It is SO exciting EVERY TIME!). Rath also designed the sconces that light the lobby and stairwells (image 8), rectangular clusters of assorted large crystals that look like oversized jewels from the collection of an especially fabulous dowager.
Lately, the light fixtures at the opera house have looked particularly stellar, thanks to a recent overhaul, when Lobmeyr dismantled every chandelier (image 9) and replaced each of the 49,000 crystals with new ones donated by Swarovski (who had also created 90% of the originals).
The glittering result is the perfect symbol of a night at the opera, a glamorous and transcendent spectacle.
You can buy the Lobmeyr designs yourself at Moss, if you have $15,000-$26,000 in your budget. Kerson 20th Century Design on 1st dibs currently has a sputnik-like Gino Sarfatti chandelier listed for $4600. They also, by the way, have a stunning Lobmeyr snowflake chandelier, listed at $4800, that is very similar to the ones at the Boom Boom Room on top of the Standard Hotel, which was designed as an homage to the fabulous Warren Platner.
Images: 1 Chandeliers in the theater of the Metropolitan Opera, via Millefiori Favoriti; 2 The Metropolitan Opera House, with the Lobmeyr chandeliers visible through the window, via MacRonin47 on Flickr; 3 Chandeliers in the Met lobby, via Millefiori Favoriti; 4 The ceiling of the Metropolitan Opera house, via Josh and Olivia; 5 Detail of the chandeliers, photo by Piotr Redlinski for the New York Times; 6 Gino Sarfatti "sputnik" chandelier, via Kerson Gallery on 1st dibs; 7 Image of Sputnik 1 on a 1957 Soviet stamp, via Wikimedia Commons; 8 Lobmeyr sconce by Hans Harald Rath at the Met, from the Lobmeyr website; 9 Dismantled crystals during the recent refurbishment of the chandeliers, photo by Piotr Redlinski for the New York Times.