As far as New York rituals go, the moment the Metropolitan Opera House’s glamorous crystal chandeliers ascend into the ceiling during first curtain surely ranks as one of the most beloved. Created by Hans Harald Rath of Austria’s family-owned glassware company Lobmeyr, which was founded in 1823, the chandeliers have been on object of wondrous fascination since the New York Metropolitan Opera opened on 13 September 1966.
The iconic chandeliers – including 11 in the lobby and 21 in the auditorium – were commissioned exclusively when the opera house moved from its original location on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets, to its current home on Lincoln Center Plaza. In keeping with the building’s bold statement of modernity, the architect Wallace K Harrison supplied Rath with several space-age references, including a copy of Le Ciel, a book on cosmology by the astrophysicist Jean-Claude Pecker.
Legend has it that Rath, creatively road-blocked, happened upon the constellation-like design by inserting toothpicks into a potato. Whatever its genesis, the resulting ‘Auditorium’ design, the first to use Swarovski crystals on such a scale, proved to be a massive success (the line remains Lobmeyr’s bestseller).
In addition to its intergalactic design legacy, the chandeliers also stand as a symbol of the relationship between Austria and the United States. The lighting was an official gift to the United States by the Republic of Vienna, recognising the Marshall Plan’s assistance in jumpstarting the European economy after the Second World War.
In 2008, the chandeliers were taken down and thoroughly cleaned for the first time since 1966. ‘It was then we realised just how beloved these chandeliers actually were,’ says Lobmeyr’s Leonid Rath, the designer’s grandson, at an event celebrating the chandelier’s 50th anniversary. ‘It was clear that these were not just a regular piece of interior design or lightning. Before they were taken away, all of the staff, including the stagehands, wanted to make sure we would take suitable care with their prized chandeliers.’