Stephen Chernin, Associated Press
Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Sept. 18, 2006. He will appear at the Met on Jan. 7.

NEW YORK — Lorin Maazel walked down a basement hallway shortly before 11 a.m., was introduced to the orchestra, said hello and started straight into the prelude from Wagner's "Die Walkuere."

Just like that, he ended an absence of nearly 45 years from the Metropolitan Opera.

When he conducts the opening of the revival on Jan. 7, it will be his first appearance at the Met since January 1963 — when he was 32 years old and the Met was still at the old house down on 40th Street. The company believes Maazel's absence is the longest gap between appearances for an individual in its history.

"At that time I don't think there was anybody as young as I am in the orchestra. Now I don't think there's anyone as old in the orchestra as I am," the 77-year-old maestro said after Wednesday's opening orchestra rehearsal. "It's not that I wasn't asked before. But what they proposed was either not to my liking, or I wasn't free."

Maazel will be the first person to conduct at the Met while serving as music director of the New York Philharmonic since Leonard Bernstein led a new production of Verdi's "Falstaff" in 1964. In between opera performances, Maazel will be across Lincoln Center's plaza conducting his own orchestra at Fisher Hall.

His instructions to the Met orchestra were short and precise: This note shorter, than one longer. This one louder, that one softer. No grand pronouncements.

Maazel thinks the sound of the two groups will be pretty much the same when he conducts, although he disdains comparisons, calling them "odious."

"I always thought that a conductor has a sound picture," he said. "In any given work, I can get three or four or five orchestras to respond in a way that is so identical that you could exchange — you wouldn't know that it's Berlin or Vienna or New York. You would know that it's maestro Maazel."

Maazel has conducted opera mostly in Europe. He because the first American to conduct at Germany's Wagner festival in Bayreuth (1960). He led the Deutsche Oper Berlin (1965-71) and the Vienna State Opera (1982-84) and is in his second season as music director at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain, where he led Verdi's "Don Carlo" last Friday before flying to Virginia for a Christmas break at his farm. He got up at 4 a.m. to travel to New York in time for the rehearsal.

When he first conducted at the Met, he led 16 appearances in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." from Nov. 1, 1962, to Jan. 19, 1963.

Orchestra seats were $11 back then. They run as high as $275-$295 for his five performances of "Die Walkuere," depending on the day.

Just five members of the Met orchestra remain from then, and only three of those are playing "Walkuere" this season: violinists Sandor Balint and Raphael Feinstein, and violist Marilyn Stroh.

Balint thought Maazel was low-key and had a relaxed confidence about him, both then and now.

"I certainly remember the first rehearsals that we had with him. A lot of the older members of the orchestra at that time wondered whether he had enough opera experience to conduct an opera as complex as 'Rosenkavalier,"' Balint said. "We were all very pleasantly surprised at the very first rehearsal that he was really very well-prepared and he either had been carefully instructed in the opera or just simply, naturally knew how to do it. All our fears were allayed."

Robert Tuggle, the Met's director of archives, said the longest break he could recall before this involved conductor Pierre Monteux, who led performances from Nov. 17, 1917, to April 15, 1919, then returned from Nov. 16, 1953, to Feb. 4, 1956.

Maazel thinks he has changed with the great distance in years from when he first was at the Met.

"Technically I believe I've become a better conductor. It just flows," he said. "At that time, I always felt I was struggling. I've gathered a lot of experience since then."