Staff Writer Marko Blanusa shares the best tips, tricks and practices for thriving at the opera as a student.
Young people are often put off by the idea of going to an opera or ballet. Common reasons include feeling out of place amongst an older audience, expensive tickets, a disinterest in the music and worries about not being able to follow along, amongst many other concerns. Despite being a classical musician myself, I can’t deny that I used to often share these sentiments about opera and ballet. However, my first trip to the opera immediately shattered many of the preconceptions that I had and opened my eyes to the power it held. There is a charm and magic to its extreme theatricality. It is unmistakably over-the-top and does not hide its exuberance, but this makes its stories so unique and larger-than-life, drawing you in and not letting you go throughout the whole runtime – the ultimate escapist show.
Since then, my love of opera and ballet has been steadily growing, and I have as of recently even begun volunteering in the Front-of-House of the Royal Opera House. This article aims to shed some light on how best to access opera and ballet in London and hopefully inspire you to go and enjoy them yourself if you are unfamiliar and unsure where to start.
What are the best venues in London?
The Royal Opera House (ROH) – This is London’s best-known opera and ballet venue – and for a good reason. It is located in Covent Garden, just a five-minute walk from King’s Strand Campus. It has two concert halls: the grandiose main auditorium, and the more modern Linbury Theatre. If you are not interested in what they have on stage, there is also a rooftop bar overlooking the Covent Garden piazza, which is open to the public – so come by even if you don’t have tickets to see a show.
The London Coliseum – Located just across the road from the National Portrait Gallery, this equally grandiose venue is home to the English National Opera (ENO), and also often hosts performances by the English National Ballet.
Opera Holland Park (OHP) – This venue is only open in the summer because it is an open-air tent in the middle of Holland Park in West London. It has a really cosy atmosphere, with armchairs and blankets for audience members, coupled with the summer breeze. It’s a great place to go out for a slightly more informal experience.
Royal Albert Hall (RAH) – Though it’s not a venue specific to opera and ballet, it often hosts visiting companies or organises concerts which incorporate sections of opera and ballet music. Those may be a good place to get started if you do not want to go straight in and listen to an entire opera or ballet.
It’s all well and good to know which venues exist, but the tickets are usually very expensive at first glance. However, almost all of these venues offer significant discounts for students, the best of which I’ve compiled below.
Young ROH membership – If you are aged under 25, the ROH offers a scheme that can give you discounts on all tickets for its shows, usually bringing the price down to £30. They also offer ‘Young ROH Nights’, when the entire auditorium can only be booked by Young Royal Opera House members – a great option for those worried about elitism or etiquette. To access this discount, you need to create an account for free on their website and enter your date of birth.
English National Opera (ENO) free tickets and discounts – In my opinion, the ENO offers the best discounts in London for opera and ballet. If you are under 21, you can claim free tickets to most performances if you book in a given window. Under 35s can also book at a significant discount, with tickets usually costing £15-25. These are subject to availability but it is absolutely worth taking a punt on an opera or ballet when the tickets are free! Once again, you will need to create an account for free on the ENO website to be eligible.
OHP U30s scheme – While the Opera Holland Park is probably on the more expensive side when buying full-price tickets, they also offer some discounted offers. Under 30s can get £15 tickets to some performances but only when booking on Mondays in the specific ‘Monday Rush’ period.
Which operas and ballets should you start with?
Now that you know where to go and how to buy cheaper tickets, what should you go and see? Of course, all performances at the above venues are of a very high quality, but some are more geared towards experienced listeners, especially those with more complicated plots or longer runtimes. These are my recommendations for the best beginner operas and ballets which will be playing this academic year:
The Nutcracker (ROH & London Coliseum: various dates, December – January) – This ballet is already a Christmas tradition across the world. For those who have not yet seen it, however, it is a great first ballet to attend, with recognisable melodies and beautiful winter sets and costumes.
Hansel and Gretel (ROH: 16 December – 7 January) – As for a Christmas opera, I would absolutely recommend Hansel and Gretel at the ROH. It is really easy to follow along as it is such a famous fairy tale and the music is really charming and oftentimes quite funny, too. Also, it includes a happy ending – something which you will come to realise is very rare in opera.
Carmen (ROH: 5 April – 31 May) – This is a much more tragic story than the previous two but the iconic music, which I’m sure many will recognise, makes it an opera that is well worth seeing, even if you are unfamiliar with the form.
Swan Lake (ROH & RAH: various dates, March – June) – A ballet with some of the most iconic music ever written – and one of my personal favourites. It is a sprawling fairy tale of sorcery, seduction and betrayal.
The Barber of Seville (OHP: 4 June – 21 June) – If you are interested in the outdoor theatre of Holland Park, this is a great place to start. The Barber of Seville is one of the most entertaining operas, based on an eighteenth-century French comedy. It guarantees you will have a good laugh!
Ground Rules – Tips for your first visit!
Finally, if you’ve decided on where to go and what to see, you may be worried about the etiquette of seeing an opera or a ballet, so here are a few tips:
Dress codes – Despite what you might think, all of the venues I have mentioned do not have a dress code! However, many people still opt to dress more formally for these events, so bear this in mind. But there is certainly no requirement to dress a certain way.
When to clap – This is something which people often cite as a worry when going to any classical music concert. In a more traditional concert, people usually do not clap between the movements of a symphony or concerto, but in opera and ballet, there is much more clapping. In opera, people generally clap at the end of an aria (song) and in ballet, at the end of each set piece. If in doubt, just wait for someone in the audience to start before you!
Surtitles – Many first-time opera-goers are understandably worried about the language barrier and distinctive singing style, which makes it difficult to make out dialogue. Luckily, all of these venues have clear surtitles in their shows and thanks to that I have never had a problem following along. They also often offer audio-described performances, alongside other accessibility tweaks for those who need them. Check each institution’s website separately to confirm these availabilities if this affects you.
Filming and photos – While concerts of other genres of music are very relaxed when it comes to filming concerts, there are stricter rules in classical concert halls. Generally, the rule is that phones should remain off throughout the performance. But you can take it out at the end to get a few photos of the cast taking their bows.
Opera and ballet can seem like art forms stuck in the past, a relic of how we used to be entertained. However, beneath these layers of stereotype lie so many profound stories told in an overwhelmingly dramatic way so as to invite you into new worlds and immerse you in the rich music. The hyper-theatricality of an opera or ballet may not be for everyone, but I encourage you to try and take a plunge – it can be an experience like no other and hopefully one you will not forget anytime soon. Happy concert-going!