OPERA IS FOR THE ELITE or, at least, for those who can afford the often-high seat prices. London’s Covent Garden used to offer some reasonably priced tickets, but these only gave access to seats or standing places far away from the stage, from which one could hear the performance, but one only saw what looked like ants moving around on the stage. Once I had one of these ‘budget’ seats at a performance given by the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. I was so far from the stage that, even though my eyesight was excellent at the time, it could have been almost anyone or anything flitting about in time with the music so far away from me. The best I can say is that I have spent time under the same roof as the great dancer even though I could hardly see him.
In early 1994, my wife, Lopa, became aware that a foundation was offering Covent Garden opera tickets at radically reduced prices to members of south Asian minority communities to introduce them to the joys of western European opera. Lopa decided to investigate this generous offer aimed at what the foundation assumed were ‘culturally deprived people’. She rang the organisation to ask how to become involved in the scheme. An ineffably patronising but kindly lady replied:
“Which community do you come from, by the way?”
“I am Gujarati.”
“All you need is a letter from the association that represents your community.”
“I don’t belong to such an organisation,” Lopa responded.
“Never mind, dear, why don’t you start one, and then contact us again?”
Not once did the lady ask Lopa if she had ever been to the opera. I suppose she assumed that south Asians never watched western European opera.
A short time later, Lopa sent a letter to the foundation on paper she had headed with the words: ‘Gujarati Worker’s Association of Kensington.’ Soon after this, she was accepted on to the scheme, which offered several tickets for each of a selection of top-class opera performances. These tickets were for the best seats and were priced at less than a fifth of their full price, which was still not an inconsiderable amount of money. We attended about six operas, sitting no more than three rows away from the stage. Sitting in these wonderful seats, which in 1994 cost well over £130 each, spoiled me forever. I do not think that I would be happy to attend another performance at Covent Garden unless I sat in seats with as good a view as those subsidised by the foundation.
On one occasion, we invited my father to join us. He was quite familiar the opera house at Covent Garden, having sat in the Royal Box several times with his colleague Lord Robbins, who was Chairman of the Royal Opera House. He accepted our invitation and we sat in wonderful seats watching an opera. I cannot remember which one we saw, but what happened in the interval, has remained in my memory. Dad said that he would treat us to champagne and smoked salmon sandwiches in the so-called ‘Crush Bar’, an exclusive refreshment area in the opera house.
We arrived at the Crush Bar, where a uniformed flunkey stopped all who wished to enter.
“We need a table for three,” my Dad explained.
“I am so very sorry, sir,” replied the flunkey, “all the tables are taken”.
My father reached into his pocket, and withdrew a £10 note before saying:
“Would this help you find a table?”
“Please follow me, sir,” replied the flunkey as he led us to an empty table.
Incidentally, the refreshments my father bought the three of us cost far more than we had spent on the subsidised tickets.
At each of the subsidised performances we attended, we saw few if any other south Asian or any other people of non-European appearances in the audience. Sadly, the foundation abandoned their scheme about a year after we had joined it. There might have been other schemes that followed it, but we never found out about them.
Oh, in case you are wondering about the Gujarati Workers Association of Kensington, whose creation was encouraged and suggested by the lady at the foundation, which shall remain unnamed, it still has only one member.
I’ve never been to a performance at Covent Garden, for the reasons you mentioned. So far I have only seen two operas in the UK, first at the Hippodrome in Birmingham (a guest appearance by the Welsh National Opera) and later at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.
Fortunately the operas here in Germany are much less expensive, and the opera houses are smaller, so we don’t have to sit so far away from the stage.
A good place to see opera is at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff