…or, storming the Bastille, take two.
I am not an expert in opera. My mother attempted to teach me a bit of culture when I was young, (and maybe convince herself that the bizarre contortions I came home practising after the weekly trek to the deep dark depths of Middleton did in fact bear some resemblance to the art form in its better known state), but that was ballet. I can now more or less follow the plot of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker (although both at the same time might be a struggle), and have stopped wondering how they manage to get up the stairs in those pointe shoes and who decided that it was acceptable for the men to wear tights and nothing else. (The last experience I have of that was the unfortunate souls who were chosen to be animals in our Year 1 Nativity play: not sure their mothers were impressed about being told to go and buy tights for their sons!) But opera, now that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
On the other hand, it seemed somehow wrong to cycle past the two main opera houses in Paris (Garnier and Bastille) as often as I do, and never actually go in. I felt it was one of those things that you should do when you live in Paris. Plus I’d read somewhere that you could get cheap last minute tickets, and it was the first time I’d ever been likely to be somewhere at the required time to take advantage of such an offer. (The ‘Opera House’ in Manchester, in case you’re wondering, currently has the Singin’ in the Rain musical playing, to be followed by a Christmas pantomime (Dick Whittington) and Thriller the musical. Opera, it is not.)
So, step one: what’s on. Well, it turns out, not a lot. The Opéra Garnier, despite its rather misleading name, seemed to have a lot more ballet than opera on, and what they did have sounded a little weird. Skimming through the Opéra Bastille programme wasn’t massively more inspiring, either, until I came across Aida. I’d heard of that one. In fact, I even knew how the triumphal march went, thanks to a play that I once sound tech-ed for, and it was quite tuneful really. Oh, and there was the book I had to read for first year Spanish with the dictator whose sons are called Radhames and Ramfis, after characters from aforementioned opera. That had nothing to do with anything, other than being a sign that I should go. Good, decision made.
Now to get the tickets. According to the website, there are 32 standing places put on sale 90 minutes before the start of the show. Great, that makes 6pm. I can be there for then! And it’s a Tuesday, no-one will be there on a Tuesday. I am there for 5.50pm. I am 24th in the queue. Each person is entitled to buy two. They sell out two people in front. Never mind, I will come back on Thursday, earlier. I am there for 5.30pm. I am 23rd in the queue. They sell out with the person in front of me.
Saturday will be my last chance, literally: it is the last night of the performance. Various other plans for the afternoon fall through, and I arrive at 4.30pm. I am 30th in the queue. I tell the man giving out the scraps of paper with our numbers (you would’ve thought with all the hundreds of thousands of euros that they turn over they could make some proper little queue tickets, or at least use raffle tickets, but they’re always scribbled in biro on torn up bits of scrap paper: what my dad would call ‘the back of a fag packet’), that I’m not going to bother waiting, since I have no chance, and he suggests that I try the box office for last minute returns. Well, why not? I have nothing to lose.
Thus begins the most bizarre queuing experience I think I have ever experienced. There are apparently ‘various lines’, but no-one quite appears sure which is which. I am pointed to a wall, and so go to take a seat by it: this will be a long wait. There are two handbags and a walking stick there, and various people leap up and start waving at me. OK, so I’m not first. After a while more people arrive, and a young man comes and sits in the line next to ours. Should I be in that queue? I too am youthful: is that an advantage? I’m not sure whether to ask. Eventually a woman appears with descriptive signs, and starts ordering us into a reasonable line, and I pluck up the courage to ask her how this whole thing works. Turns out that there are three queues: those willing to pay full price for last minute returns will be offered tickets 45 minutes before kick off. Anything left is passed on to those with young people’s opera tickets, who get them for a flat price of 45€. Anything left after them goes to line 3: the under 28s, over 65s and unemployed. But, she tells me, line 3 haven’t got the bourgeois French equivalent of a cat in hell’s chance, since there are currently no tickets at all remaining, let alone enough for all three lines. Best to wait it out where I am. Right.
At 6.30pm, we are told that there is ‘good’ news: there are four tickets available. 180€ each. OK… At 6.45pm, the madness really begins. “Anyone for tickets for 70€?” We hardy few at the front shake our heads. Is there anything cheaper? No. We will wait. Four places at 70€ are sold, the queue-manner unclipping our pen to allow the buyers out, before swiftly shutting us back in again, then some at 130€, then those infamous 180€ places. The youthful pass holders look pleased, since these tickets will come down to them next. The rest of us wait, watching people from behind us in the queue be ushered forward for exorbitantly priced seats in prime spots. We have until 7.15pm, and then will be dispersed, as anything remaining is turned over to the next queue.
At 7.12pm, we are told that ‘some’ tickets at 15€ are available. To be precise, there are four. I am fourth in the line. By some miracle, after the previous three people have been ushered through, the woman returns and asks who is next. It is me. There is only one left, she tells me. I only need one. I am still expecting them to say sorry, they have sold out, until I actually have the ticket in my hand.
I could write about how confused I was by the long description of my seat position (indicated by section, door, aisle, row and seat number), how it was only upon arriving that I realised that I didn’t actually know the plot, hoped that they would be singing in not-French (reading surtitles is a lot easier than picking out what a warbling woman’s wailing about when it’s not in your native language) and couldn’t quite get over the sheer size of the stage (my last French theatrical experience had been in a place with four rows of audience, four cast members and an Eiffel Tower clearly constructed out of fairy lights ‘in the distance’). I could attempt to do a review of the production, although given my limited experience I am certain that there are many people infinitely more qualified than I am to attempt such a task. But what really struck me was that I couldn’t remember when I’d last brushed my hair (hopefully that morning…), was carrying my rucksack with a flask of tea and a flapjack, amongst other things, and was wearing what I affectionately call my ‘camping coat’ and jeans with holes in. Not exactly my finest opera-going attire.
So what? No-one stopped me going in, no-one commented. But I was aware that it’s not the ‘done thing’, and the more I thought about that, the more the whole system seemed ludicrous to me. The Opéra de Paris congratulate themselves on how they are making the opera accessible to the masses, what with these various options for cheap tickets. But you’ve either got to be there on the second when they open booking to snap them up (and you’ve got to find them, too: my row of four seats were 15€ each, whereas the row of four in front were 100€ each), or you’ve got to be able and willing to give up a significant portion of your evening on the off-chance that you might secure something affordable. I thought about leaving several times, pretty sure that nothing in my price range would come up, and the only reason that I didn’t was because I didn’t really have anything else planned, so I decided I might as well stay and read my book inside just a little longer.
The whole system is complicated and far from transparent: no-one is quite sure where these tickets suddenly appear from, and there is, it seems to me, something inherently undemocratic about the fact that, at the end of the day, your place in the queue doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re willing to pay. The people who bought the 180€ tickets hadn’t been there for nearly three hours, I can tell you that. As for having people smugly sat beside you, waiting for you not to be able to afford a ticket, so that it can be passed on to them at a cheaper price… Well, it isn’t pleasant, I can tell you that.
Of course, I was one of the winners, on that particular evening, and as far as I was concerned it was worth every second of the queue and every centime of my 15€. But there is no way that this system honestly makes anything accessible. Even to find out about it means wrestling a website that seems specifically designed to be unclear, giving information that doesn’t really match up to what you find when you arrive. The fact of the matter is that if you manage to find out about a production, figure out the odd last minute tickets system and arrive early enough to take advantage of it, there’s a reasonable chance that you could afford a normal ticket anyway. And if you turned up with the vague thought that you might give that opera thing a try? You’d see the queue, hear people being offered tickets at nearly 200€ each, turn around and leave. And they wonder why people say that opera is elitist.