September 24, 2011

Cultural News (Archives)

Cheap Seats
It’s Not Over Till Your Arches Fall
By Ben Sisario
Published: December 22, 2006


BY the end of the third act I was a mess — twitching, scratching, struggling to pay attention to Mimì’s tender farewell aria instead of the growing ache in my heels. How in the world was that little old lady in front of me staying so perfectly still?

It was “La Bohème” at the Met, and not just any “Bohème.” Anna Netrebko, the Julia Roberts of opera, was singing her one and only Mimì of the season, and tickets had been sold out for months. But I had scored a seat. Or at least a spot: I was in standing room, the Met’s time-honored concession to fanatics and penny pinchers, absorbing that most expensive of music at the lowest price possible.
Everything about the Metropolitan Opera conveys elegance and sophistication, from the gasp-inducing Zeffirelli sets and gawkworthy gowns (onstage and off) to the rows of Champagne flutes on the bar at intermission. It can all be intimidating, to say nothing of ticket prices as high as $375. And indeed the regular audience at the Met — the average subscriber is a 62-year-old making $120,000 a year — has been dwindling steadily over the last decade.
But things have never been better for budget-conscious opera fans in New York, in part because of the Met’s efforts to combat that decline. This season its new general manager, Peter Gelb, has introduced an array of ticket policies to attract new audiences and, as Mr. Gelb said in a recent interview, “lift the veil of formality that has shrouded the Met in recent decades.” These include lower prices for seats in the uppermost ring, an easier system for buying standing room tickets and a rush program that makes many orchestra seats available at a fraction of their regular cost.
The first stop for any bargain hunter at the opera — or the ballet, or Broadway — is standing room, the corridor along the back of the house where patrons, well, stand. On Broadway these tickets, usually around $20, normally go on sale each day for that evening’s show. For decades the Met has had a more peculiar, arduous system, in which spots were sold on Saturday for all the productions in the next week, but this season it scrapped the Saturday lineup and began offering same-day spots when the box office opens each morning.
I tried my luck a few Tuesdays ago with “La Bohème,” and I was amazed at the ease of the process. Clutching a cup of coffee and a newspaper, I speed-walked across the Lincoln Center plaza at 8:15, worried that I was too late to get one of the 175 standing places. To my surprise I was only the 25th person in the most congenial ticket line I had ever seen, with regulars and newcomers chatting in multiple languages, comparing singers and restaurant recommendations.
The operation was also remarkably efficient. Guards guided us swiftly through the snakes of velvet rope to the box office, where the clerks asked one question: “Upstairs or down?” I chose down — upstairs spaces are $5 less, but are way, way up in the fifth balcony — handed over my $20, and by 10:02 I was out the door.
Staying on one’s feet for three hours — or four, or five — can be a challenge, but the advantage of standing room is that it is available even when a show is hopelessly sold out. I breezed confidently past dozens of people looking for “extra” tickets that night.
Standees have assigned locations, each with its own little MetTitles screen. I was in No. 62, stage right and in the middle of three close rows separated by a cushioned rail. There is room, barely, to squeeze past one’s fellow standees and get in position, but the preferred method of movement seems to be ducking under the rails, sometimes blindly: while I waited at my space, the head of a gray-haired, wide-eyed man suddenly popped up next to me like a Whac-a-Mole. “I’m in 59!” he announced.
Shortly after the lights went down I realized my mistake: I had not borrowed opera glasses (and didn’t have $20 for the deposit on a rental pair), so in addition to all my itching and knee-bouncing, I was doomed to an evening of squinting as well. I couldn’t see Ms. Netrebko’s face very well as she sang “Mi chiamano Mimì,” but she sure sounded gorgeous.
Two days later I had an even easier time buying standing tickets at the New York State Theater, where the City Ballet was doing its annual “Nutcracker.” I was the only person in the entire foyer when I strolled in at lunchtime and bought a $12 spot in the somewhat vertiginous rear fourth ring.
I had never seen “The Nutcracker” before, and right away I became a mushy convert. It was as much a delight to follow the perky dancers — at this distance they really did look like toys and candies — as it was to see the little girl in front of me sit up and clap with excitement when the boy prince gallantly offered the Mouse King’s crown to his young love at the end of the first act.
It was also right around then that I thought how nice it would be to sit down. At intermission I found myself scoping out potential vacant spaces in vain, and thinking that any performance long enough to have an intermission would be better if one were seated.
Back at the Met, sitting is the new standing.
For generations standing room has been the default discount ticket. But this season impecunious opera lovers (like me) have two new alternatives. From Monday through Thursday, a seat in the back of the fifth-ring Family Circle can be guaranteed for $15, the same price as a standing space in that section. “Some standees may not like that,” Mr. Gelb said. “But I would rather have the audience sitting. It’s better for their legs.”
Or a $100 orchestra seat can be had for $20. Thanks to a $2 million grant from one of its board members, Agnes Varis, and her husband, Karl Leichtman, the Met is selling 200 prime seats for many shows for less than the cost of Chinese delivery for two.
These tickets go on sale two hours before curtain and, not surprisingly, have proved very popular: the Met has exhausted its supply every night they have been offered. For a performance of the hit “Don Carlo” production last week, the line began in the concourse downstairs from the box office and extended around the corner to the back entrance of the house.
At the front of the line was Masayo Yamada, a soft-spoken 29-year-old on an extended vacation from her human resources job in Japan. She has seen every production at the Met this season, she said, all on rush tickets; this was her third “Don Carlo,” and she had been waiting on line since 11:45 that morning. Dressed in a black coat with a light-blue scarf, she held a bag from a local bagel purveyor. “Sometimes I wear a kimono,” she said. “But today was too long to wear a kimono.”
The rush tickets do not buy the best seats in the orchestra. They tend to be on the extreme left and right of the hall, or in the back, but as I found at a weekday performance of “Idomeneo,” quick moves can greatly improve one’s station. I was in seat P33, far stage right, and just beginning to sink into my chair when the lights started to go down.
All at once people around me darted out of their seats like horses at Saratoga, heading for unoccupied spaces closer to the center aisle. Caught off guard, I was only able to move two seats in. But with each intermission I moved a few more, until I was most definitely in one of the best seats in the house, and I enjoyed the opera tremendously.
I could see the same sense of joy and satisfaction in Ms. Yamada. About 20 minutes before the rush tickets for “Don Carlo” went on sale, the line was moved upstairs to the side of the box office, and Ms. Yamada waited expectantly for the guards to lead her to a window. When she got her ticket, she walked out holding it and smiling widely.
“E26,” she beamed. “Isn’t that great?”


NYT

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