The matinee of Guillaume Tell was abandoned following an incident initially thought to be a terrorist act.

Mainstream media who usually show scant interest in opera were alight yesterday after an unidentified white powder was reported as having been tipped into the orchestra pit at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The matinee performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in Pierre Audi’s new staging was cancelled, as was the evening performance of L’Italiana in Algeri.

The incident occurred around 4:30pm, during the second intermission of the opera, when an audience member was observed sprinkling a powdery substance over the edge of the pit in two places, prompting anti-terror units to be called to Lincoln Center. The audience filed back to their seats following the interval, but the performance never resumed as the action had been perceived as a potential threat to life and tests were underway to identify the powder.

Several members of the audience then informed police that a man, now believed to have been idenfified via CCTV surveillance cameras, had told them that he was there to scatter the ashes of a friend and mentor. “I don’t believe at this point that we see any criminal intent here,” said John Miller, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner and the man in charge of the city’s intelligence and counterterrorism, although he added that the disposing of ashes in a public place may violate city codes.

At first, frustrated audience members were kept in the dark for what seemed like a protracted delay before the final act of the opera. An initial announcement was made from the stage and security guards took up positions in front of the orchestra pit. A little later the audience were informed that the rest of the performance was cancelled. “There was some booing, and someone shouted, ‘I want my money back!’” musicologist Micaela Baranello told The New York Times.

As police cordoned off the venue, two porters who had handled the powder were taken off to a nearby medical unit. The orchestra were evacuated and the Met issued a statement about “a disturbance by an audience member, who sprinkled an unidentified powdered substance into the orchestra pit.” Others were less calm: “Performance of Rossini’s “William Tell” cancelled before Act IV. My viola case (black cover) is still in the pit!” tweeted Met violist Vincent Lionti.

Like many performing arts venues, The Met uses metal detectors and insists on bag searches as patrons enter the house. It is not yet known who the cremated remains belonged to, how they managed to be slipped through security, nor quite why the person in question chose to dispose of the ashes in such a public manner. However, it seems likely it is only a matter of time: “NYPD looking for man who came from out of town to sprinkle ashes at Met Opera that caused evacuation. Cops know man’s identity,” tweeted Ken Duffy from NYC’s 77 WABC Radio.