COC Now In The Standing Room Club

Here’s the text of a piece Miss Mussel wrote for the Toronto Star last week about the Canadian Opera Company’s new standing room. Well, the un-macheted text. A nicely crafted dig at unnecessary panic and the truthiness of Wikipedia [author’s assessment] didn’t make the cut along with a few other tidbits.

This season, the Canadian Opera Company joins San Francisco, Seattle and The Met in the North American Standing Room Club. 60 standing places have been added at the back of the third and fourth balconies at a price of $12 each. “It’s always been in [our] mind to do this, says COC publicist Vanessa Somarriba. It’s something [General Director] Alexander [Neef] has wanted as well and this season seemed like the right time to do it.”

[Photo credits: The Canadian Opera Company]

The COC has always offered $20 rush tickets and 50% off any remaining seats but with most of the 2070-seat hall regularly sold out, getting a ticket on the day was unlikely especially if you were on a restricted budget.

The Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London are home to Olympic-level standers. The RAH holds roughly 6,000 people of which 1500 are standing. In the gallery, people often bring a blanket and lay down with a picnic but in the arena practically everyone stands. This season, the full complement of Prommers made it through all 4 ½ hours of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersingers. If there’s something Prommers don’t know about standing, it’s not worth knowing.

Ruth Elleson, an office manager from London, is a long-standing Prommer and a regular at The Royal Opera House. “[At the Proms, we’ve got a doctor, several lawyers and lots of accountants. Standing has nothing to do with how much people can afford to pay. I’ve made a lot of friends this way, so it’s also a bit of social occasion.”

Each standing room has its own culture and everyone I spoke to described the Vienna Staatsoper as legendary.

[Credits: Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Axel Zeininger]

“It’s a zoo.” said Toronto violinist Karol Gostynski. He’s attended the Staatsoper regularly since relocating to Vienna two years ago and has seen all of the big-name opera stars for 3 Euros a show. COC tickets go on sale at 11am on the day of the performance but in Vienna, it’s much closer to performance time.

“You run in – if it’s Wagner, you elbow people, like grannies can bowl you over. It’s fun because the Wagner crowd is more aggressive than any other crowd. You have to know which way to go to your favourite spot and have a Plan B in case someone else gets there first. Then you mark your spot [with a scarf or cravat] and leave. If you come back and someone is there like a poor tourist who doesn’t know better, you just kick them out. If the person doesn’t want to leave the ushers will kick them out. Your scarf is totally legit. It’s as hard as a stone, the rule.”

To avoid this stampede, the COC – like most other opera houses – has numbered the standing places like a regular seat, so once you get your ticket at 11am, you don’t have return until right before curtain. Another advantage COC standers have is that the view with all tickets is unrestricted. This is not the case in most houses.

Because patrons need to line up during the day for standing room tickets, those that stand tend to be retired, students or tourists although everyone I talked to said it felt like a good mix of ages and social classes.

Of course, someone who is willing to queue for hours to secure their preferred place is usually a hardcore opera fan, which –depending on the atmosphere of the house – can lead to some intimidating behaviour. “There’s a lot of shushing going on”, says Gostynski of the Staatsoper. “A lot of stares. There’s often a conservative or very judgemental faction. They definitely get their boos in.”

Wikipedia advises that standing crowds can “become dangerous with the potential of riots occasionally resulting in death or injury.” Even in Vienna, where staking out your territory is a win-at-all-costs endeavour, this is unlikely. The worst you’ll get is some hissing, the occasional death stare and a couple elbow-poked ribs.

What is more of a concern is making sure you avoid exacerbating existing knee or back weaknesses. “Sometimes I come straight from work, says Elleson, in which case I take my shoes off but I do tend to wear shoes with a cushioned insole. Anything that has proper support. It’s not your feet that end up hurting, it’s your lower back and the muscles around the sides of you thighs.

A lot of people have inflatable cushions, like the thin type you get from camping shops and they quite often stand with their heels on the cushion.”

Gostynski has another strategy. “When the act ends, just when it’s over, in the lobbies there are couches and you just zoom for them.” At the Four Seasons Centre, the stairs of the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre are dream for standers looking for a bit of respite.

Another solution is to look for an empty seat. At most houses, this is tolerated although you do need to be wary of the overzealous usher and be sensitive to the fact the people who have the ticket for that seat may just be late.

When I asked the COC if they had a policy about this, Somarriba said, “We hope people will respect that they paid $12 and it is a standing seat. If the ushers need to step in, they will.”

Last Saturday I test-drove the standing room at Ben Heppner’s recital. Midway through the second half, I snagged an end seat in the row in front and was not given any trouble.

A note for shorter women: I found the rail a few inches too high to rest on comfortably. Standing on a thick book may prevent your upper back and shoulders from screaming as loudly as mine did.

For most superfans though, how the body feels is inconsequential. “Who cares about a little bit of pain?” says Gostynski. “For [$12] you get to hear the most wonderful thing in the world!”

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