London opera isn’t just for the well-heeled. Here are some tips on how to see some top productions without breaking the bank including opera, chamber, classical music and song. Oh, and the best bit – some of it’s free. So, shhh: here’s Londoness’s guide on how to get cheap (and free) tickets to the opera in London.
Royal Opera House
OK, let’s deal with the big beast: London’s glorious Royal Opera House. The ROH, as it’s called, is the grande dame of opera houses, and watching a production here is as much about the experience as anything else. Yes, you’ll have to part with a pretty penny to get your bum in a top price seat, but it is a total joy to watch opera here.
How to get cheap seats at the Royal Opera House
If you’re looking for a good deal, I recommend you opt for an amphitheatre seat. These can be the best seats in the house, especially when the orchestra is expanded to accommodate more instruments, such as in a Wagner production. The sound will literally envelop you up here. When you’re booking, you will get the option to see the stage view from your seat, so check on any restricted views. Try and aim for seats as close to the centre of each row – you won’t be disappointed!
If you’re a student, you can bag a ticket for as little as £1. More details here. And every Friday at 1pm, the Royal Opera House releases 49 tickets for each main-stage performance from Saturday to the following Friday (even for performances which have sold out).
Recitals at Lunch
The lunchtime recitals are a little-known secret, and it’s a marvellous way to experience some of the finest song in the Royal Opera House’s sumptuous Crush Room (or nearby at St Clement Danes – see below). The recitals at lunch are led by tomorrow’s opera stars who form part of the prestigious Jette Parker Young Artists crew. More details here.
Royal Opera House at the cinema
This is one of my favourite ways to watch opera: a comfy seat, a glass of wine, and, rather essential during long acts, easy loo access! I prefer to go to the independent cinemas to watch these (I recommend Curzon Cinemas), but cinemas all over the country participate in these live transmissions. During the interval, the presenters often go backstage where they interview members of the cast or the conductor. Students get 2 tickets for £10 on ROH cinema tickets. Just turn up in person on the day of the production. For a list of participating cinemas for students, click here.
How to see Royal Opera House productions for free
My favourite tip, and one which I hesitate to share with you, is the Jette Parker lunchtime recital at St Clement Danes Church on Strand. Not only do you get to sit in one of London’s most beautiful churches (it’s named the RAF Church) but it’s free and fabulous! The church was originally built by Sir Christopher Wren, but was nearly destroyed on the last day of the Blitz. Only the outer walls were left standing, together with the Sanctus Bell cast in the year of the Spanish Armada. The RAF restored it from 1956 to 1958, and it’s now a stunning memorial to aviation regiments. More details here. You can also drop into the ROH Paul Hamlyn Hall for a free Live at Lunch recital, and you can catch opera and ballet productions for free on BP Screens throughout the summer. There is no need to book, you can just pitch up. Check for the latest schedule here.
English National Opera at the Coliseum
Tickets to the English National Opera (or the ENO as it’s referred to) are affordable, especially if you book early. Operas are in English which is great for young ones and opera novices. Speaking of newbies, you qualify for a £20 ticket to the opera if this is your first time (with a complimentary gin and tonic with the cast at post-show party!) Other schemes include a secret seat for £30, provided you don’t mind where you might end up. Under 18s get one free ticket at the ENO. More details here. If you’re a student, you’re eligible for Access All Arias, a scheme which is free to join and offers tickets from £10 to £30 in all areas of the auditorium.
Opera Holland Park
Open for business in the summer, Opera Holland Park is one of my top recommendations for watching opera in London. It’s set against the backdrop of the Blitzed-out, dishevelled and divine Holland House, and the productions are first class. A temporary canopy is erected every year, and approximately six operas are staged. There isn’t a bad seat in the house here, and the best bit is, you can have a pre-performance picnic in Holland Park. For more details, check the website. It’s also worth checking out the OPH events at the nearby, glorious Leighton House.
The Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank provides a year-round selection of opera, with some big names at affordable prices. This year’s star attractions include Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau. Check the website for more details.
London Handel Festival
If you love Handel, you need to head over to the London Handel Festival, which takes place annually every March and April. Handel’s divas taking centre stage this year, with what promises to be a Baroque feast. Handel’s Berenice, which was written for the Covent Garden Theatre (as the Royal Opera House was once known), returns to its home for the first time since its premiere in 1737. You can also catch a lunchtime recital for £10 in St George’s Hanover Square.
Handel (and Hendrix) Museum
As if you needed an excuse to visit Handel’s home in Mayfair, but I’m giving you an extra one: baroque recitals in the historic Music Room where the maestro would rehearse with his latest prodigies. Check the website for what’s on. Tickets normally £12.
Barnes Music Festival
The Barnes Music Festival, which celebrates all thing noteworthy including orchestral, choral, instrumental, opera and jazz, opens on Saturday 9th March at St Mary’s Barnes. This year’s festival takes its inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s 500th anniversary, with international stars and local groups giving fresh interpretations and exploring new ways to experience the music. Children under 12 go free. (This is where I plug the Harrodian School Jazz Band on the 16 March – it’s my daughter’s school.) For more information, visit the website.
St James’ Piccadilly
St James Piccadilly, Christopher Wren’s mini-masterpiece, provides a charming backdrop to some wonderful choir, opera and classical music. And the lunchtime recitals are free! More details here.
St John’s Smith Square
This delightful concert hall was once a Grade I listed church, completed in 1728. Its inaugural concert was given by Dame Joan Sutherland in 1969, and it is now host to chamber, orchestral, choir and jazz music, as well as opera. Check the website for more details.
Fans of the film, The Favourite might like to know that St John’s Smith Square is referred to as Queen Anne’s Footstool. When designing the church, the architect Thomas Archer asked his Queen what she wanted the church to look like, whereupon she kicked her footstool over, exclaiming, “like that!” Rumour has it that this led to the design of the four corner towers. Not everyone was a fan of the architecture. Charles Dickens referred to it as a “petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air.” Oops!
Regents Park Open Air Theatre
This year, you can catch the ENO production of Hansel and Gretel at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, perfect for young ones. Don’t forget to pack a picnic when you go!
If you love lieder and chamber music, then the Wigmore Hall, or “Wiggy,” is where you want to head. Normal prices range from £18 to £60. If you can’t be bothered to head into Marylebone, you can listen to their Monday lunchtime concerts on BBC Radio 3 – for free.
The London Charterhouse dates back to 1371 when it was a Carthusian priory. It later morphed into an almshouse and a school (Thackeray was a student). Henry VIII once stored his hunting gear here, and Queen Elizabeth I prepared for her coronation in the house. Today, the venue is home to a museum and plays host to a selection of concerts and opera performances. This April, OperaUpCLose is staging Donizett’s Maria Stuarda in the sumptuous Tudor Great Chamber. Check the website for more details. Tickets £35-£65.
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