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Capriccio's guide to Opera Houses and Concert Halls

It's often quite hard to easily find out about certain details of concert halls and opera houses before you visit them - things like dress codes, or acoustics or tickets that are and aren't worth it. So I thought I'd create a guide and gradually update it with new concert halls as and when I have visited them regularly enough to comment. Normal full price ticket information tends to be very easy to come by on their respective websites for obvious reasons.


Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London

Capacity: 2,256
Date: Theatre built in 1858, other parts of building in late 1990s.
Dress code: people tend to be a little dressed up, but there's no official dress code and you can really wear anything within reason. Probably not shirtless or a bikini.
Acoustics: Acoustics are generally very good for a theatre of this size and age. It's in a deep horseshoe shape so many seats in the higher levels are quite far away, but sound in the amphitheatre (top level) where the cheapest seats are located is very clear if not always exactly loud. The front of the amphitheatre is excellent though. The mid stalls have good sound, though in the front 3 rows the orchestra tends to dominate and surtitles are obviously very high above you. Back stalls can get very muffled, so the top price seats really are worth the extra push if you are going to splash out. The side stalls sections are good accoustically, and if you get an isle seat you have the advantage of not having someone's fat head in front of you - that can be a real problem in the stalls in general as the raking is not that steep. Seats in the second and third row of the Stalls circle, the Grand Tier and the Balcony have slightly reduced sound - usually its better in the Amphitheatre. Sight lines are good in general, seats with restricted views are sold as such and tend to be high up and at the sides (often they have excellent sound though).
Standing tickets: Yes, sold in advance with all other tickets and are usually very cheap - often less than 10 pounds. Tend to have restricted view and very high up, though some are lower down in the Dress circle. There are hearing only tickets too not available online - only through box office.
Day tickets: 67 Day Seats are available from 10am on the day of performance from the ROH which are at the very back of the amphitheatre at the top and also at the back of the side stalls. For popular shows you may have to start queuing much earlier than 10am. Standby tickets occasionally available 4 hours before a show at half the price of normal tickets. Phone 020 7304 4000 to find out. See also here and here.
Cloakroom: Free, not obligatory for coats, though large bags cannot be taken in. Your bag will also be searched before you go in.
Backstage Tour: See here for prices. Quite pricey, but worth it to find out about the history and see backstage if that's your bag.
Membership: £83 a year (or more for higher levels) which gives you priority booking, access to dress rehearsals and a regular in house magazine.

See here for more details:

Linbury Theatre Covent Garden, London

The Royal Opera House's second stage for smaller scale and more experimental opera and ballet, site of ROH2 or whatever ROH2 will become. Things rarely sell out, so it should be easy to get tickets not very far in advance. Most of the booking details are the same as for the main theatre. It's much smaller (capacity: 400) and acoustics are ok as are sightlines. Often shows are quite reasonably priced, but do be warned that it's unlikely that you'll see things on the same artistic level vocally or dramatically as on the main stage. Dress very casual.

English National Opera (ENO) Coliseum, London

London's second Opera House - casts tend to be largely British (i.e. not of international standard) though rarely they'll have a big star. Tend to have lots of "young" talent, and many British singers sing on both major London stages. Everything is sung in English translation, so be warned. Productions are largely new and usually more modern/experimental than the Royal Opera House's productions. Often they'll bring in directors from outside of opera. A double edged sword. They will only revive things that have been successful before so this may be an indication of a good production.

Capacity: 2358
Date: 1904
Dress code: None officially. Smart Casual or lower is what most people opt for, though some do dress up.
Acoustics: The acoustics of the Coliseum are not ideal for opera as it wasn't build for this purpose. Deep overhangs on the stacked tiers give a boxy, reduced sound to anything past the fourth or fifth row of each tier. The top tier (called the Balcony) is very far away from the stage. Stalls have by far the best sound, but even here the orchestra can sound rather distant as the volume of the theatre is huge.
Standing tickets: No
Day tickets: Day tickets available from 10am at full price. Standby tickets available to students, senior citizens and people receiving income support 3 hours before a show - £10 to £30 a ticket. Also available to virtually every show on the day will be tickets from the TKTS booth in Leicester square for £25-£30 for seats that would usually be at least double that.
Cloakroom: Free, not obligatory. Large bags can't really be taken in.
Backstage Tour: see here, haven't been on one so can't comment if it's worth it.
Membership: £50 a year (or more for higher levels) which gives you priority booking and access to dress rehearsals. Since virtually nothing sells out this might not be worth it, unless you want to go to the dress rehearsals only and make your money back that way.

See here for more details:

Glyndebourne Opera House Lewes, East Sussex

Set in the heart of the Sussex countryside, Glyndebourne is a luxury experience even by opera standards. Performances start early, have a 90 minute interval for supper which consists of a picnic in their beautiful grounds which are just glorious on a sunny summer day. Opera only happens at Glyndebourne during the summer festival, and then the first leg of Glyndebourne on Tour. Rehearsal periods are extremely long by normal opera house standards, so productions tend to be very detailed and well thought out. Glyndebourne do not as a rule hire stars: they hire who they think will be best for a role. Singers are still of a very high order though, certainly a class above ENO casts. Tends to be lots of young talent on the way up, many going on to become real "names". But you won't see Gheorghiu here. Prices in general are very high, though top prices are in line with top prices at the ROH.

Capacity: 1242
Date: New theatre opened in 1994.
Dress code: Extremely smart. Most people go in black tie for the summer festival, though you won't be denied entry without. The tour is less fancy but still smart.
Acoustics: The acoustics are largely excellent - it's a small theatre so you can usually hear the singers very well from most seats. Centre-Rear Stalls and Stalls Circle sound is really about the best I have ever heard in any opera house. If you're too close to the stage the sound from the singers can travel over your head a bit. Sightlines are good throughout, except for Upper Circle Slips, and Side Standing also in the upper circle. Not worth it are the boxes at the back of the circle- the sound is very reduced (one might call it, "boxy") but the tickets are still very dear.
Standing tickets: Yes. They're not cheap though: £30 each. Unless you're a young person - then they're £10, but right at the sides. Side standing have very restricted views of the stage and it's a little quiet, but still reasonable sound.
Day tickets: No. You'll have to hope for returns.
Cloakroom: Free.
Membership: To become an ASSOCIATE MEMBER only, you have to pony up a one off £500 and then its £75 a year. This gives you some benefits such as pre public booking, but you're still not the first: Associate membership is a waiting list for FESTIVAL SOCIETY MEMBERSHIP which means you get first dibs on tickets. And it's £170 every year. Typical waiting time for full society membership is 10 years. Be warned that they have recently dramatically increased the size of the waiting list, meaning that tickets are at even more of a premium than they used to be. There's also under 30's membership which allows you to get £15 standing tickets for every performance, and £30 stalls tickets for 2 pre selected performances a season (very occasionally others are made available later). Also £15 stalls for particular performances on the Tour are sometimes offered to under 30's (though only in its Glyndebourne leg).

Royal Albert Hall South Kensington, London

This is a concert venue which is hired out by various groups and organisations throughout the year. As such rules vary for different concerts. Most significantly it is the venue for the BBC Proms, which happens every summer for three months and is the world's biggest classical music festival - the following information will relate largely to the Proms. It also occasionally has populist opera productions mounted there (always miked up)

Capacity: 5544. i.e. Massive.
Date: 1871
Dress code: None. Dress for comfort.
Acoustics: Without question the worst acoustics of any major concert hall I have ever frequented. It's in the round so there are no really good seats. Those situated next to the stage have just about acceptable sound, but will obviously have either a treble or a bass emphasis. Virtually everywhere else the sound seems always distant, even when huge symphony orchestras are playing, and soloists, however big toned, almost always sound weedy. It's ok for the biggest choral works. Prommers (those that turn up on the day and stand in the centre) don't get good sound either unless they are very close to the stage. This requires either queuing for several hours before hand or having a season ticket.
Standing tickets/Day tickets: Yes. Every BBC Proms concert has space for around 1400 standees ("Prommers") who stand either in the middle of the arena, or at the very top in the gallery and pay just £5 (cash only). There is one queue for the arena, and one for the gallery (the latter for which you won't have to queue so long for in all likelyhood). For the most popular performances you may need to queue for several hours to get in. For the last night of the Proms the most hardcore people might queue for 10 hours (though 4 or 5 will easily suffice), but for unpopular programmes of contemporary music you probably can queue for less than half an hour. Average might be 2 or 3. A good guide to popularity is to see how many seated tickets have been sold on their website.
Prom Season Ticket: the price will be set at the start of each season and will allow you to go to as many Proms concerts as you like as a Prommer, in your own privileged queue (you are guaranteed entry if you turn up more than 10 mins before the start of the concert). Last summer it was £190 for the whole season of 76 concerts. You can also buy half season tickets.
Cloakroom: £1 per item. Not obligatory.

Barbican Hall Barbican, London

Home of the London Symphony Orchestra. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra plays here alot too, as do visiting orchestras and groups. A (The?) major London concert venue.

Capacity: 1949
Date: 1982
Dress code: None.
Acoustics: Acceptable, certainly improved from what they used to be, but still by no means great. The Center stalls up to row J or K say is pretty nice sound, though often I like being as close to the stage as possible so that the sound is actually full enough. If you're too close to the stage there's a risk as always of it going a bit "over your head", but mostly in this hall it's a case of the closer the better. No overhangs is obviously a big bonus. Scandalously, London doesn't really have a great concert hall for full symphony orchestras, but this is probably/possibly the best one.
Standing tickets/Day tickets: No.

Royal Festival Hall Southbank, London

Home of the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestras, and lots of other orchestral concerts besides.

Capacity: 2900. Cavernous.
Date: 1951
Dress code: None.
Acoustics: Pretty bad. The back three rows of the front stalls, and front three rows of the back stalls are supposed to be acoustically the most balanced, and are the sold as "premium" seats, but you are quite far away from soloists here, and I don't think it's worth the money. Singers and soloists are almost always swamped in this hall, so I recommend just getting as close as possible in the stalls. Huge overhangs start cutting out the sound in the rear stalls, so aim not to be too far behind these. The tickets behind and around the sides of the stage are probably best for those on tighter budgets - fine to excellent sound and a view of the conductor if that's your thing. Everywhere else the sound is in general rather thin and boxy, but still not as bad as the Royal Albert Hall.
Standing tickets/Day tickets: No.

Hackney Empire Hackney, London

Not really an opera house so much as a theatre, but the English Touring Opera always start their tours here. It's small, gorgeous and extremely intimate. Tickets to ETO productions tend to all be cheap by opera standards.

Capacity: 1275
Date: 1901
Dress code: None.
Acoustics: It wasn't built as an opera theatre, so acoustics are dry but clear. The pit is small so you never get a deluxe orchestra. Still, you can hear singers perfectly and sightlines are excellent: you always feel close to the stage. I just love it. Overhangs are minimal and don't seem to affect the sound too much.
Standing tickets: Yes. There's a bar actually in the theatre behind the stalls!
Cloakroom: Free

New Theatre Oxford George Street, Oxford

Again not designed as an opera house, but the Welsh National Opera tours there and it serves its purpose well - a very fine regional theatre

Capacity: 1800
Date: 1933
Dress code: Casual
Acoustics: Although it's a large, not built for opera venue, the acoustics are very decent, even at the back of the top tier. The sound is clear and bright. The key is surely that volume wise it's not that big for the number of seats (part of why the Coliseum is such a disaster). Sightlines are good to excellent. The pit is very large and doesn't go under the stage at all which means full orchestras are possible, but then there is a gaping chasm between stage and audience. The atmosphere is ultra casual for opera - you can take drinks and snacks in. The acoustics sell it to me.
Cloakroom: 50p per item


Festspielhaus Baden-Baden Baden-Baden, Germany

It's a festival house which means it's expensive, especially for orchestral concerts, but they usually get the best international stars available. There's no inhouse opera company and opera isn't there year round - it's restricted to particular festival times throughout the year where everything and everyone is brought in. It's a slightly charmless building, especially inside the concert hall, but it's very smart and modern. Baden Baden is an otherwise smallish town with little to do for more than a few days, so don't plan a long holiday there.

Capacity: 2500 (second biggest opera theatre in Europe)
Date: Theatre built in 1998
Dress code: people tend to be quite formally attired and like dressing up. Probably not black tie though. You wont get turned away if you're dressed casually but you will get a lot of looks.
Acoustics: Acoustics and sightlines are decent to very good at all levels, seating about as ideally arranged as can be imagined for a theatre of this size. Clever physics has been used to design the the seats and panels next to the stage which means that they can control sound and keep it consistent however full the theatre is. The best value tickets by far are the lowest level of the "seiten balcon" which are both close to the stage and have a good view and the lowest prices by some margin. Stalls sound is good, at the back overhang from higher levels is minimal and only provides a slight disadvantage.
Standing tickets/Day tickets: Standing room tickets for sold-out concerts are made available at the box office on the day of the performance and are usually much cheaper than the cheapest sitting price category. They are situated right at the back of the stalls. Sound quite acceptable.
Cloakroom: Obligatory for coats and bags and €1.50 per item.
Backstage Tour: €8. Not worth it as it's a largely charmless modern theatre, and there is no on site costume, prop or set department so you don't get to see any of that side of things either.

Opéra Bastille Place de la Bastille, Paris

The principle site of the Opera National de Paris. They also perform at the smaller and older Palais Garnier (built 1875, capacity 1976), though mainly smaller productions.

Capacity: 2723 (biggest opera house in Europe)
Date: 1989
Dress code: It's a Parisian audience so some will naturally be chic, but generally it's pretty casual
Acoustics: It's an absolute barn, and acoustics are extremely variable - basically disastrous. No seat has restricted view, but this means the bad old system of very heavy overhangs between the different levels of seating. I have sat in 140 euro ticket seats, 10 rows back in the center of the first tier up (1ier Balcon) and it was like a mouse fart from both orchestra and soloists - and in Salome of all pieces! Center stalls seats seem to be by far the best, though the area of ideal sound is tiny. The front of each balcony is acceptable- do not bother sitting anywhere under the overhangs.
Standing tickets/Day tickets: See here. Their own website is terrible for information. Basically you turn up on the day some hours in advance, some mega fan who is already there will give you a numbered piece of paper and then you need to wait in line there until doors open 90 mins before a performance. There are only 62 seats available and they seem to go rather quickly - once you're in you queue behind ticket machines (that require exact change) which dispense tickets at between €5 and €15 each. You can buy up to two per person. You'll either be right at the top, at the sides, or at the very back of the stalls deep under the overhang. Most people will try to get a seat (in a theatre this size there are bound to be empty ones), so you can just queue at one of the entrances to the stalls or balconies and 2 minutes before the curtain the ushers will allow you to slip into a seat.