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Opera on a Budget

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m cheap.

Back in the days when I didn’t get up before noon on weekends, I used to drag myself out of bed on Saturday at 8 a.m. after a friend told me about a Cambridge, Massachusetts shop called Dollar-a-Pound. On weekends only, the store cleared out its warehouse floor by selling clothing for a dollar a pound; customers were given giant plastic garbage bags at the door, and then we all rushed in to grab never-worn or barely worn castoff designer clothing before someone else got it first. Merchandise was weighed on a scale and paid for on the way out. I’ve replenished an entire season’s wardrobe in an hour that way—and had money left over for brunch (after a short nap).

I’ve waited all afternoon in the sweltering heat in Central Park for free tickets to see Shakespeare in the Park, and like most New Yorkers I’ve waited in the TKTS line for cut-rate Broadway show tickets. I’ve won tickets via radio promotions to live tapings of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. One of the big reasons I’m happy about the alliance between the Metropolitan Opera and WNET/Great Performances is there’s now more opera on television—and it’s free. Or at least free after I’ve paid my monthly ransom to Verizon.

At the Metropolitan Opera, I’ve saved money by getting standing-room tickets—for operas as long as Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (more than five hours on your feet for the latter, with all the cuts opened).

So my initial reaction to the Metropolitan Opera’s 2006 program offering same-day tickets for certain performances was: Finally, someone in opera heaven is listening.

Here’s how it works. Two hours before Met performances on Monday through Thursday (with a few exceptions, such as opening night of new productions), 200 tickets are reserved at the box office for $20 seats. These are not seats up in the nosebleed Family Circle section—they’re in the Orchestra section, though generally on the sides. I’m of the school that doesn’t think sitting in Family Circle is worth it, unless you want to close your eyes and just listen to the music, so this is an important distinction for me. So tickets that normally sell for $175 are sold for a little more than a tenth of their normal price.

Prokofiev's The GamblerI visited the ticket line last week, and I am happy to report that there are plenty of New Yorkers just as cheap-minded as I am. Because of the amount of time one must spend waiting in line, many of the people I saw were either those with flexible work schedules that allow them to miss a whole afternoon of work, or who are retired. On a Monday around 5:30 p.m., a line of people people waited in the Met basement for the box office to open so they could buy seats for Prokofiev’s The Gambler. The first man in line said he had purchased $20 rush tickets five or six times last season; this season he had been to see War and Peace and Le Nozze di Figaro and was surprised at being the first one there when he arrived at 1:30 that afternoon. I was later told by the Met employees who manage the line that crowds normally start arriving in the morning. There was actually still room at the end of the line, and if I been free that evening to go the opera, it appeared that even arriving at 5:30 I would have been able to get a $20 ticket. I love Prokofiev, but evidently we Gambler-lovers are a small group.

In line to get tickets to The Gambler, I met a woman in New York on a month-long visit from Slovenia, and I spoke to Miriana Simundza, a New Yorker since 2006 who this season has seen Macbeth, Iphigénie en Tauride (which she says drew the biggest crowd for the $20 tickets), and Tristan und Isolde. She makes it sometimes to New York City Opera (she saw King Arthur this season) but doesn’t normally buy full-price tickets to the Met.

La Boheme at the MetThe next day, I visited the line for $20 tickets to La Bohème. When I arrived around 2 p.m., the line stretched down the corridor at the bottom of the box-office lobby steps, and around the corner past the basement entrance to the house. If each person in line bought the maximum allowed two tickets, it looked like some people would not get a seat. I spoke to Bill McCormack, who had come to the city from Connecticut that morning and had been waiting almost four hours when I saw him. He says he has seen just about every opera performed this season by the Met; his favorite was Manon Lescaut, with Otello as a close second. He professed to a strong preference for traditional stagings such as the Zeffirelli Bohème he was about to see that night, and if I had been waiting all day in line next to him, we probably would have gotten into a long discussion about the merits of the various approaches to staging on tap this season, about Peter Gelb’s choices of new directors, and so on.

Next in line behind McCormack was Valentina Shondra, from Bay Ridge, who said back in her original home country of Belarus, she grew up practically living in the Minsk opera house. She certainly did look comfortable in the Met line. She says she loves “everything” opera and after many years taking care of children and grandchildren, she finally has enough free time to get back to the opera more often. She and McCormack got into a discussion of the current Met production of Eugene Onegin, with Shondra saying that though she knew the opera inside and out—or perhaps because of it—she loved Robert Carsen’s minimal staging.

At some point during the long afternoon of waiting in line, many people in the ticket line sat on the floor. A few brought miniature lawn chairs, but unless they lived within short walking distance of the Met and could drop them back and home or at a nearby office in the two hours between receiving their tickets and the opening curtain, I’m not sure where they would stow them during the performance.

When it comes to this ticket scheme, my cheap soul is glad someone in opera heaven is listening, and if they’re still taking requests: how about some temporary seating while we wait in line for our $20 tickets? I’ll pay a dollar for the privilege.

Photos: (top) Olga Guryakova as Polina and Vladimir Galouzine as Alexei in Prokofiev’s The Gambler by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera Photo.
(bottom) Ramón Vargas as Rodolfo and Angela Gheorghiu as Mimí in Puccini’s La Bohème by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera Photo

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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