Tales of an Opera Standee

The Omniscient Mussel, hostess of the famed OperaPlot contest is writing a piece about opera standing room culture, and has put out a call for standees’ tales on the experience. Below are the my submitted musings.

Standing in San Francisco

I’ve enjoyed standing room at San Francisco Opera many times over my past 17 years in the Bay Area. My first experience of it at The War Memorial Opera House was from the rear Orchestra at the ’95 Die Walkure, starring Jane Eaglen and James Morris. It was also my first-ever live Ring opera. Having only familiarized myself with a few recorded highlights, the score was surprisingly lyrical, and Jane’s approach refreshingly bel canto.

The first half flew by, and I nearly forgot I was standing, so captivated I was by the evening. Plus, given that opera singers work SO hard, standing for hours themselves, whilst exhibiting a mastery of language, character, vocal technique…it’s a worthy trade. Cupid struck my heart with this taste of the Ring and I haven’t looked back since.

OK…I confess, I did that night what many daring standees do, which is to trickle down into a seat left empty by someone who bailed during the intermission. SO, I got an Orchestra seat for the price of standing room, at least for half the performance. However, I rarely try that stunt these days, and the ushers, perhaps understandably so seem to be more stern guardians these days.

Photo by Yutai (Flickr)

My most recent standing room at SFO was from the rear Balcony at the Verdi Requiem. It was a gala performance that served as the farewell to Donald Runnicles as Music Director, and featured Heidi Melton and Stephanie Blythe.

Below are some excerpts from my blog review of that performance that reveal some benefits of standing in the rear Balcony:

“After my friend scored a single last-minute seat in the Orchestra, I scaled the heights to find the last standing room spot in the Balcony (aka “nose-bleeds”)…

I was reminded that where I stood was the real acoustic sweet spot of the house, and nowhere else can one hear such fine textures in the soundscape, far better than in the rear Orchestra, where I first scavenged for a spot. It does seem to favor voices over instruments, as the chorus actually seemed to overpower the orchestra a bit…but I’m certain that’s just a slight acoustic imbalance, and was hardly a problem.”

My verdict? The rear Orchestra offers the better standing room views, but the rear Balcony offers the finer acoustics…it’s a trade-off. Perhaps the deal breaker in favor of the rear Balcony is that I’ve observed many of the senior standees sitting or laying on either the floor or a bench near the back wall, enjoying just the aural pleasures alone. I have a special admiration for them, as they hearken back to the days of gathering around for an old radio show, creating one’s own visuals with only a ripe imagination.

SFO’s Official Policy

Here is the official scoop on the SFO standing room, from their website:

“Standing Room ticket holders may stand behind the last row of the main floor, or the last row of the top balcony.

200 Standing Room tickets are available for each performance starting at $10 each, cash only. Tickets go on sale at the Opera Box Office at 10am on the day of each performance. Limit 2 per person. 50 tickets are held for sale 2 hours before the performance.

Doors for Standing Room ticket holders open at the Grove Street entrance 1 hour and 10 mins. before the performance.”

Madness Ensues!

Often, when the line of eager standees is let loose into the opera house, it’s literally a mad rush, not unlike the crazed Cabbage Patch shopping dashes decades ago. Once at their chosen spot, each person sets a jacket or program on the railing, especially if they’re going to walk away from it before curtain, to ensure it’s there when they return. Sometimes tempers flare a bit, if someone starts to elbow into a spot clearly too small for a standee, or moves one of the jackets or programs.

On the whole, the standees are some of the most faithful, committed and knowledgeable aficionados. Who wouldn’t be to stand for 5+ hours at a Wagner opera, for example?

Head in the Clouds

During a ’92 design internship in NY, I did standing room for the very first time, at the Met. It was Zeffirelli’s loved and loathed Turandot, starring Gwyneth Jones’. From the Family Circle, it seemed I could nearly touch the ceiling, which looked an awful lot like dozens of upside-down, gilded baby pools!!! Students (presumably) sat off to the sides, at lit stations, studying scores as the performance progressed.

At some point, I walked down and sat on the side hallway staircase, enjoying the echoes and resonance of the performance from a sort of sound tunnel. In this Family Circle, you literally feel as if you’re peering down from the heavens. However, even with that distance, Dame Jones still managed to pierce my ear-drums with the sort of sword-like tone opera lovers long for these days. It was thrilling…a true olympic feat of vocal technique and stamina.

Viennese Tradition & Sexism

On a tour of the Wiener Staatsoper (in ’95), we were ushered through their legendary standing room, and told about a whole set of protocol and etiquette I don’t recall the details of. The primary space itself was like an oversized opera box, with multiple rows that standees would file into, as if in the maze-like line for an amusement park ride. However, that memory is overshadowed by the policy which the guide shared about no women being allowed to play in the orchestra. Only female harpists were hired (because good male harpists were scarce), but even they were shrouded from the audience’s view by a curtain. I was completely incensed by this, and when I inquired the guide defended it as honoring tradition!? Thankfully, I believe this “tradition” has been lifted since.

The “Pros” of Standing Room

With the economy being as it is, standing room is a more desirable option now than ever…although I also perform as a Supernumerary in SFO productions, which offers the cheapest and closest view of all!

Aside from the price and acoustics, there is something very old-school about being a standee that makes me feel young(er) again, as if I’m filled with wonder, and back discovering this beloved performing art for the first time again. It’s satisfying in its austerity, in a way that a $250.00 ticket couldn’t be! It offers a pleasure too, in that sense of getting something special for next to nothing (ie: finding a cute pair of designer jeans on the sale rack, etc.). That being said, when I’m not doing yoga, my back does complain a bit more than I’d like, and I’m a fidgeter, which is even more tempting in these conditions.

The two most common excuses from my peers as to why they don’t attend opera is that it costs too much, and that they don’t/won’t understand it. Well, standing room is only $10 (or so, depending where), AND with Supertitles, that second excuse is nixed…SO, start lining up people!!!

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