The gods had Olympus. Baseball has Cooperstown. Broadway has Sardi's. And the Metropolitan Opera?
Theaters everywhere are temples, well stocked with symbols of glories past and present. Wherever you turn at the Met, memorabilia abounds: posters that hark back to the great nights of yesteryear and announce those of tomorrow; rhinestone-encrusted finery displayed like vestments in a cathedral treasury; props touched by the reigning divas of their day, like relics of the saints.
And the Wall, hung with 1,024 identically framed black-and-white photographs of Met luminaries. The images are stacked 10 high, snug as bathroom tile, in Founders Hall, the crypt that honors the civic leaders who made the dream of Lincoln Center a reality a half-century ago. Their names, gold-stamped on fake-marble plastic strips, are glued to the travertine at the foot of the Met's curved double staircase.
On the Wall of Fame singers predominate. How could they not? But maestros, dancers, directors, designers and a sprinkling of top administrators claim places too. The arrangement is alphabetical, which serendipitously puts Henry E. Abbey, the Met's first general manager, at the head of the parade. The Polish soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara, done up as Desdemona in Verdi's "Otello," brings up the rear. Maria Callas (La Divina) is seen as Tosca, her last Met role; Joan Sutherland (La Stupenda) as Lucia di Lammermoor, her first. Risë Stevens appears as Carmen, with whom she was synonymous; Renata Scotto and Kiri Te Kanawa appear as themselves. Immediately to Ms. Te Kanawa's left, the director Julie Taymor rivets the eye, vying with William Dooley's expressionistic Jokanaan, from Strauss's "Salome," for most spellbinding gaze in the collection. Hands clasped in prayer, Geraldine Farrar — as great a star of the silent screen as she was in opera — wears ripe lipstick, lush mascara and the full habit of the cloistered Suor Angelica.
One morning in March, Robert Tuggle, the Met's director of archives took an hour at Founders Hall for a ramble down Memory Lane. The Wall, he said, was inspired by the lobby of the old Met on 39th Street, where a few dozen portraits were clustered around the box office windows. Mr. Tuggle mounted some 140 faces of Met stalwarts in a side gallery for the company's 125th anniversary season, 2008-9, mixing color shots with black and white, to discordant effect. Expanding into the main gallery the grid has maxed out at 1,024 spaces, necessitating discreet turnover. For a classier, more consistent look, color images are converted to black and white.
"I try to avoid head shots," Mr. Tuggle said. "But sometimes with the new people that's all we can get. And some of the historic ones are so good, like Franco Corelli's, that you just want to use them. Singers in costume are always shown in roles they sang at the Met. And there's always been a subtext: hats, headdresses, hair, helmets."
For a while computer consoles allowed viewers to identify faces by position on the grid. "No one used them," Mr. Tuggle said, "and they kept breaking down." When his search for a more elegant and also more reliable system failed, the consoles were silently removed.
Why not produce a CD-ROM of images from the Wall? "Who would buy it?," Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, said when I asked him a few years ago.
Perhaps he underestimates the potential of the Met's grand rogues gallery. Consider the caricatures at Sardi's restaurant on 44th Street, in the heart of the theater district. Dating to the late 1920s, the collection has established Sardi's as Broadway's unrivaled hall of fame. On another March morning V. Max Klimavicius — protégé of the founder, Vincent Sardi Sr., and now president — told how it happened.
Mr. Klimavicius said the tradition started with a group of journalists. "They had what was called the Cheese Table, as in 'big cheese.' A sketch artist named Alex Gard showed up, who used to work at a nightclub in Paris, and a journalist thought it would be a good gimmick if Vincent hired him. So Vincent and Alex hammered out a barter contract: two meals a day for caricatures of famous patrons."
Gard's reign lasted through 1948, better than two decades. His successor was the hard-drinking John Mackey, who came and went in two years, to be replaced by the artist and playwright Donald Bevan. When Mr. Bevan moved to California in 1974, Sardi's chose his successor by an open contest. The winner was the bank note engraver Richard Baratz, from Brooklyn, who today telecommutes from Texas, where, he is working on the new $100 bill.
"Alex was a true caricaturist," Mr. Klimavicius said of Gard. "He didn't flatter. But the criterion for being included here isn't that you have to be a star. It's that you're a friend of the house. Every picture has to be autographed. We want people on the wall to be proud of their portraits. We want them to bring their friends. So sometimes we do flatter."
Though the house style has evolved, the room gives an overall impression of remarkable consistency. And not everyone is from the theater. The mayors of New York have places of honor, as do Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Tina Brown on the cover of a mock issue of The New Yorker.
Any opera stars? "Beverly Sills," Mr. Klimavicius answered on brief reflection, and there she was, in a caricature obviously derived from the same photograph, as the dizzy Norina in Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," that Mr. Tuggle chose independently at the Met.
Out of the way as it is, the Met Wall generates little foot traffic. Still, before curtain and at intermission, you will find an unfazed stargazer or two pacing the gallery, puzzling out who is who. With the help of a little alphabetical speculation, one positive identification may lead to another.
Two spaces to the right of Cecilia Bartoli, for example, you find the Italian baritone Ettore Bastianini. In the second and third spaces over from Danielle de Niese are the de Reszke brothers, Edouard and Jean, who made their Met debuts together on the road in Chicago on Nov. 9, 1891, Jean in the title role of Wagner's "Lohengrin," Edouard as King Henry. The conductors Fabio Luisi and Nicola Luisotti, both very much with us, hang side by side. Among directors, Francesca Zambello jostles that irascible elder statesman Franco Zeffirelli. But who is the curly-haired rookie to the immediate left of James Levine? James Levine, way back when.
No one else gets double exposure, but occasional subjects are made to double up: the dark-eyed Ravogli sisters, Giulia and Sofia, for instance, who teamed up as Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice, and Louis Quilico and his son Gino.
Pictorially and emotionally the range is astonishing. Some images are from the studios of celebrity photographers (George Balanchine by George Platt Lynes, Peter Gelb by Brigitte Lacombe); some are the work of house staff, shooting live action onstage (a generation ago Winnie Klotz, today Ken Howard). Some faces catch the eye by the subjects' histrionic verve, some by sheer pulchritude.
Some seem not to be singers in fancy dress at all but the characters themselves in the flesh. Paradoxically (but this is the nature of theater) such living archetypes can recur in multiples. The male division turns up successive avatars of personalities from Boris (Godunov) to Wotan (each shown three times) by way of Falstaff (three), Otello (six) and Siegfried (three). And among the women the gamut runs from Aida (seven), Amneris (eight), Brünnhilde (two) and Carmen (six) to Zerbinetta (three).
Some faces you linger over because you want to know them, some because you already do. The tenor James McCracken and the mezzo soprano Sandra Warfield were friends of my family's when I was a boy haunting the opera house in Zurich. As Met contract players they had made debuts at the old house one day apart in November 1953. In their dreams they would team up as Samson and Dalila in the Saint-Saëns opera. In their waking lives they appeared in dozens of the same performances, but in subsistence assignments, so they struck out for Europe.
McCracken's international career duly exploded. In 1963 the Met recalled him for a new production of Verdi's "Otello" at Lincoln Center, where he became a mainstay.
Warfield achieved independent stardom, mostly on less prominent stages, but eventually the Met invited her back for two Dalilas in the new house. Her first Samson there was Richard Tucker. McCracken was her second. And so the dream came true.
The bare bones of fact — dates, roles, debuts, last performances — are all tabulated on the MetOpera Database, which is free and accessible to all who wish to explore it. But as the adage has it, every picture tells a story, and no two fans know the same ones. The Wall provides a forum for gossip, reminiscence and personal connection. How about a book, Mr. Gelb, or better still, an interactive Met Wall on the Internet? Endless as they occasionally seem, Met intermissions are too short, and art is long.