It’s a sunny, fall day in Lyon, and an email appears reminding me that I am young.
To be young in the opera world is to enter a transient realm, between the strictly policed age brackets of young artist programs, and an audience demographic fetishized by arts marketers; where young can mean anything below 21, 25, 30, or 40. It’s precisely because of my youth that, according to this email, I can get tickets to see a production at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden from as little as £1.
£1! A heavily asterisked £1 admittedly, but £1! The cheapest ticket I have ever bought to a classical music event, and it’s to London’s most expensive opera venue? The thought crosses my mind that I’m prematurely turning into my bargain-hunting dad—and his “I’ll have two at that price” attitude to stuff that’s suspiciously cheap—as I wonder whether I should get two, three, or 23 tickets on principle alone.
Unfortunately, as far as I can see, there are only two productions that I’m able to buy £1 tickets for. Both are midweek performances, far in the future, of standard repertory operas (“The Barber of Seville” or “Turandot”). On both evenings, the whole of the Covent Garden top section will be given over to Young ROH members, a bold gesture, perhaps in turn hiding how the scheme has quietly reduced its offering for its young members to a handful of shows per season. The majority of those tickets are £25; some are less, but only a couple are £1: standing, right at the back of the top tier.
It is, admittedly, a completely stupid thing to book a midweek show in a city I do not live in, with no idea how I’ll get there, what work is looking like, who I’ll go with, or whether my less youthful-feeling knees can cope with a whole opera standing up. But it’s not a thought process that I really entertain, as I race through to the checkout, my entire being blinkered by the bargain. A couple of clicks later, ‘tis done. I tweet about it excitedly.
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The pound coin is the golden child of Britain’s legal tender. In a country that gave the world Poundland and the £1 Fish Man, the pound coin is both ticket to freedom (to ride cross-country on the Megabus, or release a supermarket trolley into the wild) and a shot at a fortune (by buying Thunderball lottery ticket). Bankrupted stores like Homebase, BHS, and MFI have all been bought for a pound, as have football clubs that have gone on to make their investors a pretty penny; in 1982, the millionaire Ken Bates bought a debt-ridden Chelsea for £1, later selling it to Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich for £18 million. Time it right, and £1 can get you the UK branch of an established American magazine, a fast-fashion business, or an entire private school. Obviously, in such situations, £1 is a nominal payment—a very small amount that’s clearly below market value—but it’s clearly still worth something. Just as Mitchell & Webb taught us that £100,000 is the smallest large amount of money, surely £1 is its semantic opposite. And unlike its lesser, copper relations (the 1p and the 2p), the mighty £1 is unlikely to be threatened with a government consultation on its future.
The fact that £1 is not worth a lot but not worth nothing is exactly where its social value lies. One of the things that got me through my first chaotic post-university houseshare was the regular promise of a “£1 surprise” from a friend’s trip to the local mini-mart. Like a traveler returning from foreign lands with exotic spices in tow, he would come home bearing custard in tetrapacks, packets (plural) of Oreos, or a family-size fruit pie, discounted at the end of the day but just within its sell-by date, all for £1 or less.
Obviously, that was pre-Brexit, pre-COVID, pre-Massive Inflation, and at a time when carrying at least some cash around was normal. But, partly due to nostalgia, and partly because wages haven’t risen in the time I’ve been an adult, my brain is locked permanently in a mindset that equates “£1” with “decent value.” In the middle of lockdown, Imogen West-Knights coined the term “treat brain” to explain how lockdown craziness has rewired our brains towards the vigorous pursuit of indulgence. But the size of each person’s “treat brain” differs. I have a treat brain the exact size of a pound coin, but it’s an amount that feels less tangible than it’s ever been. And, in a country where not even a McDonald’s saver menu staple is under £1 anymore, an opera ticket for less than a fast-food cheeseburger feels like the world has turned upside down.
Opera’s numbers game has been highlighted in Britain over the past few months, with ENO, WNO, the Glyndebourne Tour and the Royal Opera House all receiving Arts Council funding cuts to varying degrees, throwing yet more fuel on the fire of accessibility debates around the artform. But what happens when you put the price of opera first, and treat it as an essential, rather than as a price you pay for an occasional luxury? And are cheap tickets the answer to everything?
One thing’s for sure, it’s a good time to be in that rare group of young-ish people who like going to classical concerts. When I lived in Manchester, every Thursday there would be a stream of students, ready to claim their £3 stalls tickets to whatever was happening at the Bridgewater Hall. I now live in London, where I can get to lots of gigs at the Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square and London Sinfonietta for a fiver. Under 35s can get into ENO for £15 (while it’s still there), and Under 21s get in for free. Pay What You Can schemes are being brought in at venues like the Barbican. And, as tickets for pop acts continue to spiral, paying under £10 for a three-hour activity in the center of town feels like a good way to spend your time, whatever you’re doing—but especially if it happens to feature some of your favorite music.
The night before the “Barber,” I slip into the new production of “Rusalka,” with a ticket I bought for slightly north of the “Barber” tickets (£11). It’s good, but long, with two intervals that stretch the production to nearly four hours. I sit in a side seat that’s like a church pew encased in a court dock, and I feel like a gargoyle as I peer over to catch a (restricted) view of Asmik Grigorian and David Butt Philip at full tilt.
As the middle of the second third begins, my coat falls on the floor, splaying the handful of change I’d been holding onto for the past few days all over the aisle. A woman in front stoops to pick some of it up as she passes, but she misses a bit; a 20p and a 2p have landed on neighboring steps. Boxed in by my seat, it’s a few minutes before I clamber out to retrieve them, but I notice how they sit there on the wood, being trodden on by unsuspecting audience members. I think of my dad, with the loose change pot he’s kept for as long as I can remember, his pockets bulging with “shrapnel” waiting to be decanted, how snugly those two coins would fit in that little wooden box, and how soon that little pile he’s tended to for years will be worthless.
I go for an ice cream (£4), and pay with my contactless card.
When you review a show, free press tickets are a route to a clear conscience so you can Focus On The Art Itself. But what happens when you buy tickets for so cheap that it almost feels unbelievable? The answer is that everything else gets a price tag, with fluorescent exclamation marks, flashing constantly.
I meet my friend at the Covent Garden entrance, and send her on a reconnaissance mission: can you find anything in the giftshop for the same price as our tickets? We spend a long time flicking through the wide selection of burlesque masks, scrunchies, and off-cuts of fabric used in productions. She finds two items—a postcard, and a Pantone pencil (both £1)—and I find one, a button badge (50p).
Thoughts turn to the foyer: Could you eat or drink anything for the price of our ticket? A carefully balanced pile of artisan Scotch eggs (£6) suggests probably not. We move to the Paul Hamlyn Hall, stopping briefly to consider another Scotch egg, now with added house salad (£13.50), washed down by a bottle of Dom Perignon (£285). We avoid a quick bite at the Crush Room (fruit salad, £14), and, ignoring a program seller (£8.50), we stand on the great glass escalator, heading past the Balconies Restaurant (£85 for 3 courses) and eventually arrive at our floor.
The scene change is rapid: up an escalator, past a swanky restaurant, through a bar, down a wide corridor, into a narrower corridor, down an even narrower corridor. You feel the space constrict, swallowing the chatter and noise until it’s deathly silent, like you’ve accidentally wandered into the opera house’s restricted section. There’s a lighting change, from warm chandeliers to domed, fly-catching light fittings. In the long waits at “Rusalka” the night before, this part of the house felt like a refuge for the sit-and-waiters, the stealth-mode Tupperware fiends, and those simply wishing to exist, removed from the spending exercise a few feet away. We make our way to our stands, the remains of my unspent change thwacking against my leg.
I am standing in a room, different from the one you are in now—in that it smells warm, and faintly of body odor. We are towards the back of the auditorium; my late grandma’s adage that “you get what you pay for” rings true here, as it seems that I have paid to be bloody miles away—but, crucially, not as far away as one could be if they were seeking sympathy, or dramatic effect.
What exactly do you get for £1? For one, there’s a surfeit of surtitles, which feels a little like staring at my Twitter feed, as the same thing flashes up from three different sources at almost exactly the same time. “How tall are you?” I ask my friend while we wait. “5’ 2 and ¾,” she replies, from atop the step at the end of the row. If you’re shorter than 5”4 and stepless, you’re not going to see an awful lot.
I’m reminded of a passage from “TÁR.” “Sebastian likes to sit in the stalls—there’s no problem with the balance in the circle,” the assistant Francesca tells Lydia. When a conductor asks an assistant for an extra pair of ears in the hall, how many head right to the very back? Come to think of it, how many critics have ever critiqued from the cheapest seats in the house?
“There is no formal dress code,” the ROH’s website says. “We want everyone to feel comfortable and able to engage with what is happening on stage, and so we encourage audiences and visitors to wear whatever they feel comfortable wearing.” As soon as the overture’s fast theme begins, I become incredibly aware of my shoes, a pair of clumpy Dr Martens that feel glued to the floor. (It’s noticeable that, in a packed amphitheater, nearly all of the Young ROH members are dressed to the nines).
The arias are easygoing, and I sway through “Ehi, Fiorello” and “Largo al Factotum.” It’s an incredibly liberating experience to move so freely in such a regimented space, but it’s a trait particular to Rossini that I don’t imagine is felt in, say, Wagner. Recitatives, by contrast, feel stodgier than ever; the one thing worse than sitting through endless recit is standing through it. The performance unfolds as a long, tuneful reminder that I’m due for an eye appointment, but the well-sighted around me laugh along merrily. We get the train back, legs exhausted. “I’d have paid a bit more for a sit down,” my friend says politely.
Putting price first isn’t the way that people usually write about opera, even on the ROH’s entertaining TripAdvisor page. Facing the gradual creep of market forces into every aspect of artistic life, such an artform emerges as one area that shouldn’t, and couldn’t, ever be reduced to a pure numbers game.
But sometimes, this world feels blind to it. When entering these sites of big prices and extreme wealth, every fiber of my being wants to scream: “How the fuck can you afford all this!” My fear is that cries of “don’t you all realize how expensive it all is!” would be met with the worst reply of all: a shrug.
The artform is never really the problem, but if you’re there for more than the music, and have a tightened budget, how much is there past a cheap ticket to keep you in the room? And for young people looking for an all-encompassing night out on a budget, could opera play its part in that a bit better, making its new crowd part of the experience, rather than occasional interlopers who’re there because of a special deal? The answer begins, not ends, with tickets for a quid. ¶
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