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The Met's Herculean task: 4 operas in 48 hours

With its new Sunday matinees, the Metropolitan Opera now mounts four productions between Friday and Sunday

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Above: The sleek, modern look of Anthony Minghella's staging of Madama Butterfly.

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Above: Wigs for the various operas that are rewashed, curled and reset by hair and makeup artists. The Met has began the first regular Sunday matinees in its history, seeking to reverse its recent box office struggles by performing when modern audiences find it convenient.

New York

IT was Friday afternoon, five hours before curtain, and a stylised Japan was taking shape on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. A crew was untangling ropes of cherry blossoms to form the backdrop of Madama Butterfly's house in Nagasaki.

But a fairy-tale China was waiting in the wings. A truck had pulled off Amsterdam Avenue into a loading dock at the back of the Met's stage, its 40-foot container filled with the ornate golden roof of the imperial throne room for Turandot, an over-the-top extravaganza which would start at 12.30 the next afternoon.

Then there were pieces of the Belle Époque sets of Manon crammed into the wings for Saturday evening's performance. And, fittingly enough, several stories beneath the Met's stage, bits of the underworld were being stored, waiting for Orfeo ed Euridice on Sunday afternoon.

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The Met has always been a miracle, keeping a number of operas in rotation at any given time. But this season, things got even more logistically complex when the company began the first regular Sunday matinees in its history, seeking to reverse its recent box office struggles by performing when modern audiences find it convenient. The new schedule means that the Met sometimes mounts four different productions in the 48 hours between Friday and Sunday evening - a truly Herculean task that the company performs on a scale that is unusual, if not unique, in the world.

"I would say we're alone in this mad pursuit," Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, said on a recent Friday afternoon, as the marathon was about to begin.

It is a staggering undertaking.

Four casts got in and out of 718 costumes over the weekend, with the help of 37 dressers. They wore 201 wigs that had each been prepared - and in some cases rewashed, curled and reset - by hair and makeup artists. A stage crew of 178 was needed each day to build, move and strike the mammoth sets, which are so huge that the Met measures their volume by the number of 40-foot truck containers it takes to store them: Madama Butterfly is 14 truckloads; Turandot, a whopping 26; Manon, 13; and Orfeo ed Euridice, 12.

Finding space backstage is like playing one of those sliding tile games. "It often feels like we're playing that game," said David Feheley, the Met's technical director. "But we don't have the empty square." The weekend would feature star turns, passionate love scenes, and no fewer than five deaths (suicide, beheading, suicide, fallen womanitis, and a doubly fatal combination of snake bite and a husband looking back during a rescue from the Underworld). Here is a look at a very crowded 48 hours in the life of America's largest performing arts organisation.

3pm Friday. Clearing away La Bohème.

"Ready?" a stagehand asked. "Ready!" a hard-hatted crew of nearly a dozen replied in unison, and they began pushing away the Café Momus, the centrepiece of the second act of Franco Zeffirelli's hyper-realistic production of Puccini's La Bohème. Before the weekend's four-opera marathon could begin, the crew had to strike and store Bohème, one of the Met's biggest productions, which had been rehearsed onstage during the day on Friday.

Duct tape and carpet tacks were ripped up, and the team lifted an enormous floor cloth painted with cobblestones and folded it faster than most people can manage a fitted sheet.

They were making way for more Puccini: the evening performance of Madama Butterfly. One of the most striking parts of the sleek Butterfly set - a mirrored ceiling that gives the audience a second perspective on the action - was hanging 100 feet above the stage, in the area known as the flies.

"It takes a week to get it looking as pristine as it does," Mr Feheley said as he walked a narrow passage at the top of the flies, explaining why the mirror was stored over 100 feet above the wear-and-tear of the stage.

4.07pm Friday. Teeing up the props.

"I hampered it all up," Anthony Diana, who handles small props, said as he walked through the toy-store-like room backstage where he had gathered four operas' worth of props, placing them onto shelves and into rolling canvas carts.

The Bunraku-style puppet that represents Madama Butterfly's toddler son lay prone in its case. The severed head of the Prince of Persia, a suitor of Princess Turandot who is decapitated for flunking her riddles, lay in a cart. Next to it, a Manon cart held rifles, a bird cage and, for the scene in which the luxury-loving Manon gets her earnest lover to gamble, a champagne bottle and a box of bank notes.

A small guitar sat on a shelf near the doorway: the lyre of Orpheus.

8.05pm Friday: The marathon begins.

The house chandeliers rose, the lights dimmed, the orchestra tuned, the black drop curtain went up, and Madama Butterfly got underway. The naturalism of Zeffirelli's Bohème was gone, replaced by the sleek, modern look of Anthony Minghella's staging of Butterfly. Its vivid red lighting and mirrored ceiling was cited as an inspiration by Rian Johnson, who directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

11.14pm Friday: First blood.

The first death of the weekend: Betrayed and heartbroken, Butterfly, played by the soprano Hui He, blindfolded her son - the puppet from Diana's store room - then took out the knife her father had used to commit suicide and killed herself.

Tears. Curtain. Cheers.

11.36pm Friday: Trucking out Butterfly.

A truck horn sounded and the metal shutters covering the loading dock behind the stage clanked upward. To make room for Turandot tomorrow, the Met had to truck out several containers filled with pieces of the set of Butterfly, which is not due back onstage until Nov 2.

12.35pm Saturday: Up next: Turandot.

When the Met's signature gold curtain rose 13 hours later, the sleek modernism of Butterfly was gone, and the opulent chinoiserie of Turandot was in its place - an old-school Zeffirelli production with the cinematic sweep of a Cecil B DeMille epic.

2.10 pm Saturday: The set is a star, too.

A scene change in the middle of Act II revealed the dazzling imperial throne room, which throws off something like a zillion lumens. The audience applauded, as always.

2.35pm Saturday: It's like Tetris.

It was the second intermission of the afternoon, and Susan Gomez-Pizzo, a wardrobe supervisor, was backstage, fastening a cape onto the plush-voiced soprano Eleonora Buratto, who plays Liù, a slave girl who is faithful unto death.

After pinning on Buratto's cape, Ms Gomez-Pizzo ducked into her domain just off the main dressing area, where stacks of shoe boxes are labelled by prima donna and opera (L Oropesa 'Manon' Sc. 31, Ms. Goerke 'Turandot' Act III). In the middle of the room, an electric fan dried some of the previous night's Butterfly undergarments which had been laundered that morning.

Then she returned to the stars' dressing area, where racks of frilly Manon costumes lined the halls outside the dressing rooms, ready to be moved in as soon as the matinee ended. "It's like Tetris," Ms Gomez-Pizzo said.

8.02pm Saturday: Another 15-year-old heroine.

A crimson curtain rose and Manon, a potboiler starring the bright-voiced soprano Lisette Oropesa, got underway. When the opera begins, Manon is a girl - like Butterfly, she is only 15 - on her way to a convent. But she falls in love with the Chevalier des Grieux (sung by the fiery tenor Michael Fabiano) and they run off to Paris.

Things do not go well.

8.15pm Saturday: A busy chorister's solo.

Où sont mes oiseaux et ma cage? Liz Brooks Wentworth, a mezzo-soprano in the Met's chorus, sang in a rare solo early in the first act of Manon, asking for her birds and her cage as her coach arrives in Amiens, France.

(The birds show up dead: Opera is tragic, even for pets.) After playing the bird-bereaved traveller, she returned in the third act as a fashionable young woman in white and then, after a quick change that must be done in minutes, as a worshiper at the Church of St Sulpice, dressed in black. She was back onstage in the fourth act, now in pink, for the gambling scene, which ends with the arrest of the ill-fated lovers.

Ms Brooks Wentworth's whole weekend was packed. She was a guest at Butterfly's wedding on Friday evening and a peasant in Turandot on Saturday afternoon. And she was back on Sunday afternoon for Orfeo.

3.13pm Sunday: To hell and back.

A blue curtain rose on the season premiere of Orfeo. Critics sat in the Orchestra level. Board members sat in their boxes.

Three tiers of seating were on the stage, with choristers playing spirits of the dead looking down on the action in Mark Morris's production. They were dressed in Isaac Mizrahi costumes that suggest they are ghosts of the great and famous: Abraham Lincoln, Henry VIII, Jimi Hendrix. (Ms Brooks Wentworth was the spirit of a tuxedo-clad, top-hatted Marlene Dietrich.)

4.45pm Sunday: Curtain.

Orfeo, without an intermission, came to a close after a swift 90 minutes with a happy ending and a vibrant dance choreographed by Morris.

Backstage, Ms Brooks Wentworth changed out of her tux in minutes and got ready to meet some friends across the street for a drink. (It's not only audience members who enjoy getting out early from matinees.)

She was still lively after her four-opera marathon. "You have energy for the performance," she said. "And then I'm sure I'll be crashing in about an hour or so."

Onstage, the stage crew known as the night gang was already striking Orfeo. They would soon build another set for Monday, when the Met was scheduled to rehearse yet another opera: Philip Glass's Akhnaten. NYTIMES