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By the Way: The workaday world at the Met


Imagine going to work at the Metropolitan Opera House. Walking into that fabulous world of fantasy at New York’s Lincoln Center, a gigantic hive swarming with performers and behind-the-scenes workers.

Ryan Hixenbaugh does that. And every time it’s new – the cast, the stagehands, the color, the costumes, the music. He paints scenery at the Met, the biggest repertory opera house in the world. Among his favorites are the dramatic backdrops for “Aida” and “Tosca.”

“I love my job,” he said, with a huge grin.

We all tend to visualize a person we’ve not yet met, but often that image is deceptive. Before I met Ryan, I saw him, in my mind’s eye, standing on a ladder or perching precariously on tall scaffolding paintbrush in hand.

“Oh no. We actually paint it flat on the floor with a long-handled brush,” he told me with twinkling eyes. For a second, I thought he was joking, but apparently not. That’s exactly what he does and that was just one of the fascinating things I learned over a cup of coffee.

Ryan and his wife, Vicky, live in Manhattan where he has a studio. They have a weekend home, a renovated one-room schoolhouse in Nockamixon Township, where he also maintains a studio.

He was kind enough to take me on an imaginary trip backstage at the Met in Lincoln Center, a place where he spends his days, painting with a team of other scenic artists surrounded by “the best music in the world.”

And that music doesn’t stop. “I just let it flow over me,” Ryan said. “I don’t really even think about it but it’s always there. Often, the stage will be set for a full-dress rehearsal all day. Then it’s taken down and a new set put up for the evening performance. It’s amazing to watch. A hundred workers rush to the stage to dismantle the set and put up a new one. We call them ‘The Met Army.’"

He drew a mental picture for me of the place he works, painting sets and backdrops with a team of others, all members of the United Scenic Artists Union.

“The opera incorporates so many disciplines. It’s all kind of magical,” he said. “The stage is enormous. Depending on the opera, there may be 100 people on stage. There are built scenes, walls, staircases, caves, trap doors, mountains, rocks.”

The opera house is 14 stories tall, five of them underground. That’s where the scenic shop and carpenter’s shop are situated.

The stage itself, one of the largest and most technologically complex in the world, measures 80 feet deep from the curtain to the back wall and is 100 feet wide. Backstage totals 43,000 square feet and the side stages take up another 20,300 square feet. There are hydraulic elevators and motorized stages.

Ryan likes working on a giant scale. He notes some of the backdrops curve so they are even wider than the width of the stage. The backdrop for “Tosca,” he said, for example, is 160 feet wide.

“We spray paint some things,” Ryan said. “We use all kinds of tools and techniques. It’s been done like that for centuries. All the artists are very talented, classically trained in art and sculpture.”

Ryan, who grew up in Coopersburg, majored in graphic design and business at Moravian College in Bethlehem and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Graduate School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. He has exhibited his personal artwork at a Manhattan gallery.

Ryan has worked at the Met for three years. Before that he was employed by Scenic Art Studios in Newburgh, N.Y.

The Met season runs from September to May and when Ryan’s not working there, he and his fellow artists paint scenery for Broadway shows. “We also do the sets for a lot of television shows,” he said.

Ryan’s wife is also involved with the theatrical world. Vicky is a freelance wardrobe stylist.