I am privileged enough to have been born into a family that could afford to take me to the opera. Not often, but we could usually manage once or twice a year. Most people can't do that. Certainly, I'll hiss with poorly concealed envy at anyone who can afford to get a seat at the Royal Opera House on any kind of regular basis. This branch of the arts is not popular at least partly because no-one can afford to see it in the first place.
However, interesting things are happening to the world of opera at the moment. Let's have a look at ways you can enjoy it on stage or screen, without breaking the bank. I'm afraid this post is only relevant to the UK, but it would be well worth you checking around for similar options near you if you're not local.
Isn't web streaming brilliant? We can use it to explore new music, learn how to make things, and, of course, watch concerts live from miles away. This summer, The Guardian is streaming six performances live from Glyndebourne, with its video of The Cunning Little Vixen remaining online until June 22nd. At the end of last month, a giant screen was erected in Trafalgar Square to show the Royal Opera House's production of La Boheme (further screenings are planned right up until mid-July). Local cinemas in the UK hold regular screenings recorded from the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan and many others. It's not quite the real thing, but this writer reckons opera is best enjoyed in performance.
If you know where to look, there is a vibrant and exciting operatic fringe in the UK. Smaller theatres often play host to small-scale, inventive productions of works both well-known and not often heard. Following the success of Opera Up Close at the 2011 Olivier Awards, the opera fringe is better exposed and populated than ever before. Tickets can be on the pricey side, but still a fraction of what you'd pay to get into a large opera house. And some of them will even let you take your pint into the show.
Listings of all sorts of classical music events can be found at bachtrack.com.
Music School Productions
Most music schools will put at least one major opera each year, and these are a fantastic opportunity to take in a show and get a glimpse of the talent of the future whilst you're at it. Many conservatoires and music schools have fully equipped theatres on the premises, so they'll not hold back on the spectacle unless they have to. And music schools, like most higher or further education establishments, have clubs and societies, so it's worth keeping abreast of any less official groups who put on performances. Our friends at En Travesti have been one such group.
The quality of an amateur performance can be pretty variable, but amateur shows can be great for getting a feel of the atmosphere, the story and the music attached to an opera. Again, it can also be a good way to scope out emerging talent. If nothing else, you can guarantee that the cast will be having a jolly good time.
Even the larger companies will put on public shows, special offers, competitions, or give space to new writers and emerging talent. It's a question of keeping your ear to the ground so that you know when they come up. Facebook, Twitter and RSS feeds are great for hearing about this sort of thing as soon as it's announced – otherwise, local radio stations may well also put out announcements about them. It's also well worth joining mailing lists for theatres, companies and opera houses you'd like to go to, as you might find you can get early-bird tickets that way.
It's definitely worth saving up to go to the Grand Opera at least once in your life. But in an age of lightning technological advances, real-time networking and, yes, austerity, getting a flavour of the wonderful world of opera isn't as hard or as expensive as you might think.
Got any more suggestions? Comment and let us know!
* Returns - go on the day and see what they have. Particularly if it's a more modern show you can get a £100 seat for £15.
* All the London houses run schemes for London music students - often dress rehearsal tickets - we used to get tickets for as little as £5.
* As you said in the Research section - all major companies/houses have offers for unwaged/low waged/young people/older people. Ring up the box office and ask.
* DVDs. Good public libraries, and all university libraries, carry a selection of opera DVDs. Enjoy them at home as you would a performance - invite friends round, turn off the lights, have a swanky drink in the interval.
* Book early, when all the cheap seats are available, and save up. I know £20 for a seat is pricy, but it's only a little more than most London cinemas charge (£12 - £15 for an adult seat). When you think of the cost of putting on an opera, how it's not a money-making industry - and just how magical it is - I think it's extremely good value for money.
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