I feel a bit sick. I have just dropped the biggest load of money I have ever spent on a ticket. Ever. And that's including sitting in the stalls for Hamilton. Like, seriously. I've broken the marathon record by nearly one hundred percent. I can't decide what's making my stomach churn more, the fact that I've spent all that money, or that I did it for the sake of getting a theatre ticked off that isn’t showing… well, Hamilton. No, it's neither of these. That thing that has my belly roiling is that I was given advice about this place, which I failed to heed because I thought I had more time. I thought I had at least another month to get here. I only checked the website a few days ago in order to plan out my August. And I was horrified to discover this summer season was coming to an end this week. And that was it. As an open-air theatre, there would be not autumn season. Once the week was over, I'd lose my chance.
I put in a press ticket request. Of course. But after thirty-six hours with no reply, I knew I had to do it. I just had to buy a ticket. All the cheap "Inspire" ones were gone. The last Friday rush had passed. I had to hand over real money. And lots of it.
Four hours later and I still want to boak.
I could have seen seven or eight fringe shows for that amount of coin. And it was all gone.
Now, I don't mind opera.
I've had some great opera experiences on this marathon.
I've also had some dreadful ones.
But regardless of the quality of the opera, it's not exactly top of my list of what I want to spend a vast amount of money on. Like, fifteen quid: fine. Happy to hand it over. Even twenty. Great. But three times that? No, wait. Even more... oh gawd. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I have limits and we've gone way past them now.
I just keep on telling myself that hey, at least we're in the midst of Camden Fringe right now. All the rest of my tickets are around the seven to ten quid mark. And I've got some press stuff coming up. So hey, at least I'll be able to afford beans on toast to get me through to the end of the month.
But seriously, this must be the best damn opera I've ever seen. And the best damn theatre experience I've ever had. Or I'm going to ugly cry.
But, let's think positive, hey?
The park is pretty.
I've already seen three cute dogs and I've only just walked through the gate.
The instructions on the Opera Holland Park website say to walk up the long avenue, and I'm doing just that. It's all green and sun-dappled and rather idyllic. The sort of place you can imagine a gilt carriage trundling along, a few short scenes before the angry mob start unpacking the guillotine.
At the top of the avenue, I turn left and there it is, in all its white-tented glory. Stone steps lead up to metal scaffolding, and I really hope the mob haven't decided to switch the blade for the noose.
Oh well. A theatre is a theatre. There's no avoiding it. And frankly, after spending so much on an opera ticket, I deserve whatever fate is waiting for me.
A young lady is positioned at the top of the stairs to check these gilded tickets.
"Hi, box office?" I ask as I approach.
But someone else cuts in front of me. "So," she says sharply to the ticket checker. "Do you mind if I also check tickets?" She's wearing a lanyard. She must work here.
The ticket checker indicates that she has no problem with being joined on ticket checking duty, and our lanyarded newcomer turns around, and walks away, without saying another word, or checking a ticket.
"Err," I say, once she's gone. "I'm collecting?"
The ticket checker smiles. "Yup," she says. "Just over there." She points the way to the blue box office, up on the terrace.
I join the queue.
"Now, I recognise you," says one of the box officers to the young man in front of me. "I've seen you in the Ensemble."
They chat back and forth, trying to work out what name his ticket has been booked under. This sounds like it's going to take a while.
"Hello?" says a woman, emerging from the back of the box office. "Are you collecting?"
I tell her that I am.
"What's the surname?"
I give it.
She goes off to the back to check though the ticket box that seems to be living there for some reason.
"Hmm, I'm not finding it," she says as she comes back. "It's Smiles, yes?"
"Yes," I agree. It is Smiles.
"S-M-I..." she spells it out.
"Yup. Exactly as you would think." No fancy spellers in my family tree. A thought occurs to me. "I did book this afternoon though." It wasn't late. Four o'clock or so. But this place doesn't look the type to do things in a last minute rush.
"Ah," she says. "That would explain it. They probably haven't been printed yet."
We stand and wait until the queue has cleared at the counter.
The person on the computer taps away, never looking up as she prints out my ticket, checks it, folds the ream, and hands it to me.
I take it from her.
"I think I ordered a programme?" I ask. I can see the voucher sitting there at the top of the ream. I'm just being an arse.
She glances at me. "There's a voucher," she says, before going back to the computer.
I see they hire people straight out of Charm School at Opera Holland Park.
There's another desk a few feet further along. This one has programmes.
Single for £5. A pack of four for £15.
I'm intrigued by this multibuy offer. I don't think I've seen that anywhere before. I try to imagine the type of foursome going to the opera who each want to walk away with a programme, and I'm failing. I love programmes. I always buy programmes. But I don't think I could come up with another three people to not only want to go to the opera with me, but also want a programme of their own when they know they can just borrow mine.
Is this a corporate thing? It sounds like a corporate thing.
"Ladies and gentlemen," comes a very.... sophisticated voice over the tannoy. "Welcome to the Investec Opera Holland Park. The auditorium is now open. Programmes are available in the foyer, and may we ask that you use the entrance marked on your ticket. If you require further assistance please ask a member of staff."
Well, I mean... it's a bit early to go in.
I walk around a bit, but don't get very far. The terrace is covered in white marquees which don't look like the sort to be open to random callers. That must be where people are having their picnics.
Now, I would have liked to have done the whole picnic thing, got the full Opera Holland Park experience. But, a picnic spot cost even more money. And well... that's something rather sad about eating a picnic by yourself. Unless you're sitting under a tree with a packet of doughnuts and a canned gin and tonic, in which case you are doing life to the fullest, and I respect that. But otherwise…
There's a zebra out here. Not a real one, obviously. I don't think even the deep pockets of Investec could run to that (full disclosure I don't know who or what Investec are, but I think we can all agree that their pockets are the type that comes stitched up from the tailor). The fake zebra looks a bit pissed off, now that I'm looking at him closely. His eyes narrowed as he peers under a tent canopy. Perhaps he's not a fan of the opera.
Okay, there's nothing left to see out here. I'm going in.
I walk around the auditorium tent, careful to locate the door marked on my ticket. I don't want tannoy man to shout at me.
Inside a young woman puts on a can-I-help-you? face and I go over to her, showing her my ticket.
"Yup," she says. "You're just up here. Go to H10 on the..." she pauses as she does some mental geolocation. "Right."
I head right, as instructed, but not before I take a moment to appreciate the theatre.
It's... not what I expected.
On one side is the stage. Of course. A good size. Slightly elevated, to allow the orchestra to sit below it. Not sure the park keepers would be overly keen with them digging a pit every year.
Over on the other side, is the seating. And lots of it.
A huge raked bank of blue-grey flip seats. They remind me a little of the ones at Troubadour White City. That same sort of temporary feel. Except I'm betting they don't have cup holders attached to them, and when I go up the steps, they don't shake and groan under my feet.
Sure enough, at H10 I find the entrance to my row.
There aren't many people in here yet.
They are still out in the marquees, quaffing champagne and eating quails eggs or whatever people consume at opera picnics. I don't know. Perhaps it's all Tesco Meal Deals and a 16-pack of sausage rolls out there. I’m choosing to believe the former. Sounds much more fun. Go quail or go home, I say.
Speaking of going quail, let's see what my funds have bought me.
I'm in the cheapest of the non-cheap tickets. Which means that I'm on the side, rather than in the middle. But this isn't some vast opera house, so being all the side really means just being slightly left of centre. It's the Tony Blair of seating.
The rake is excellent, the seats wide, the leg room acceptable.
There's even a great big canopy over our heads, so we're not going to get rained on if the weather gets a touch more British before the night is out. Kinda defeats the point of it being open air, but I din’t think we're supposed to dwell on that.
I don't want to admit it, even to myself, but it is a bit nice in here. If the opera's any good, I could see myself being happy to pay... Oooo, thirty quid to come back again. And that's a lot. For me.
Time to look at the programme. It's nice. Matt paper. Lots of white space. Large font size, presumably to aid the… traditional opera audience. And a preference for artwork over photography. There's a bit of Renoir illustrating the synopsis and a Van Gogh opposite a page of written extracts about... I don't know... rural France, I think. That must be where the opera is set.
The programme notes are interesting enough. Although I suspect they are aimed a reader considerably more knowable then me, as I can't even identify the writers. They are presumably familiar to the Opera Holland Park audience, as they make no effort to explain who they are. "Robert Ticknesse looks at the life and work of Alphonese Daudet," one says, but who Robert Thicknesse is, or what his expertise on the matter of Daubet is, is not something the programme chooses to illuminate. A few pages earlier, a poem is credited to "Leanora Volpe, on the occasion of her father's thirtieth summer at Holland Park," as if I know who Leanora Volpe or her father is.
As my flick through continues, I find another Volpe signing off the welcome note. Ah. The mysterious father, I presume. That's one person identified. Still not sure about the others.
Someone is walking through my row.
"Are you going past?" I ask, half rising from my seat.
"No, no," he says. "You have the misfortune of being next to me."
I want to tell him that I'm rather afraid it's the other way around. He's stuck next to an opera ignoramus for the evening, but instead I just mutter something to the effect of me coping with his presence.
"Ladies and gentlemen," comes that sophisticated voice over the tannoy again. "Please take your seats. Tonight's performance is about to begin."
"Rubbish!" says my neighbour venomously as he sits down.
He's not wrong. It's only twenty past seven. Unless the conductor is keen to get to the pub early tonight, we won't be starting for another ten minutes.
But the announcement has seem to have done the trick, as there's now a trickle of people coming in and taking their seats.
"Ladies and gentlemen we ask for you to please take your seats because the performance will begin in three minutes and please use the entrance marked on your tickets."
He's getting desperate now. That's a lot of pleases. The conductor must be raring to go. A three-minute warning at it's still only 7.25pm.
"Ladies and gentleman, " says the sophisticated man over the tannoy. "Please take your seats the performance will begin in two minutes. Use the entrance on your tickets. May I remind you latecomers will not be admitted."
He barely takes his finger off the button before he's ready again.
"Ladies and gentleman. Please take your seats the performance will begin in one minute. Picnic baskets may not be used and latecomers will not be admitted."
I kind of wish I stayed outside now, watching all the front of housers running around and begging the picnickers to please leave their baskets and come outside. Those quails eggs will still be there in the interval.
There's another tannoy annoucement. This time we really are, cross-our-fingers-and-hope-to-die, about to begin. Filming and photography are banned. And thank you for our cooperation.
"It's very baronial for a farm," snorts an older gentleman as he takes a seat in the row behind me.
I look over at the set.
A stone ruin leant grandeur back the backdrop of what remains of Holland House.
Down by the orchestra pit an usher holds up an A4 laminated sign covered in text.
The lady sitting on my left peers at it. "There. Will. Be. Loud. Gunshots," she reads.
"Yes?" says the man she's with.
"Can't read the rest," she says with a vocal shrug.
Nor can I. I suppose I better put on my glasses.
The conductor emerges from the side of the stage, all bouncing and smiling. He must really be looking foward to his pub outing.
We all dutifully applaud as he takes his place in front of the pit, the lights dim, and we begin.
As the music pours out of the pit, the lady sitting next to me sneezes.
She leans forward, reaching under her seat for her bag. She groans as she lifts it up and pulls it open and starts rummaging instead. She pauses, drawing in a sharp breath, then sneezes again.
Someone sitting in front of us turns around to see what's happening.
The sneezing lady whispers "sorry" in return, and pulls out a tissue, which she snuffles into.
As she drops her bag back down to the ground, I begin to feel a tickeling scratch in my throat, and I realise the one flaw with the whole opera-in-the-park thing.
Did I take an antihistamine this morning? I can't remember. Which probably means no.
I thought the worst of the pollen was over.
But sitting in a tent, in the middle of a park, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of trees... my eyes are beginning to itch.
I smoother my cough, but it's no good. There's another one waiting in the wings.
The singers are coming out. I try to concentrate on the surtitles, displayed on a trio of screens above the stage, but it's no good. My throat is rebelling and I can't follow along.
They're singing about goats? I don't know.
But as soon as it starts, it subsides again.
And I'm able to concentrate on the performance.
Along with the rest of the audience.
L'arlesiana. An opera I'm not even sure how to pronounce, but seems to be about a bloke, who is engaged to a city girl, which seems to be opera-code for being a bit of a slut. And by that, we mean she had an ex-boyfriend.
Not that we ever get to hear her side of the story. By the end of act one, she still hasn't made an appearance.
We have met the ex though. And frankly, unless this baronial farm is in a great school catchment area, I'm not sure I agree with this mystery girl's life choices. Swaggering bloke in a bomber jacket who keeps hold of your love letters, or mopey farmer in an ill-fitting suit who squicks out at the thought of you having kissed someone else? I know which one I would have rather gone for.
I go back out onto the terrace and find myself surrounded by my own set of ill-fitting suits, with not a bomber-jacket among them.
I decide to hang out with the zebra.
I now know why he isn't looking too happy. It's cold out here. I never thought I'd ever feel cold again. I'm not sure how I feel about it. Other than a deep and severe regret for leaving my jacket on my seat.
I settle for crossing my arms and shivering.
But I don't have much time to think about it, because the tannoy annoucements are already starting up.
"Ladies and gentlemen. The performance is about to commence. Please take your seats."
Well, all right then. If you insist.
As the audience begins to saunter back in, and the tannoy messages grow ever more desperate ("please take your seasts. The performance will resume in three minutes. Two minutes. One minute”) I begin to worry about the staff here. Corralling opera audiences is a high-stress occupation. No wonder the box office lady prefers to sight of her screen. Screens don't scowl or moan or dither or elbow.
My sneezing neighbour wraps a great big pashmina around her shoulders, sticking her elbows into my ribs in the process.
She doesn't seem to notice.
Nor does she pause when she flaps her arms about, choking me with her pashmina as she sets about getting comfortable in her seat.
I don't know what it is with women getting all elbowy once they put on a shawl. It's like they think the excess fabric increases their wingspan or something.
I decide the brave the cold. Make the most of it while it lasts.
The conductor is back. We do the whole applause thing again.
And here it is. Act two. And there's the thot (as the kids say…) Finally. In red dress and heels, because of course she is. She peels her dress away from her shoulders as she stands with her back to us. And never says a word before she is engulfed in a grey housecoat and becomes one with the chorus.
Honestly, the most interesting character in this whole damn story. And we don't get a single note out of her. We get an entire song from the “innocent” (I think this is a euphemism for having special educational needs) whose presence has no relevance to the direction of the plot. But the catalyst of this entire story? Nope. It's not like she would have an interesting spin on the situation...
Seriously, fuck the patriarchy.
As the story darkens, so does the sky outside the tent. The wind picks off, blustering against the sail-like side of the tent.
And just as I'm seriously regretting not getting all eagle-winged with a shawl of my own, it's over.
The cast all bang their heels on the stage in appreciation as the principals come out for their curtain calls. The rest of us settle for just clapping.
House lights go up, and it's time to leave.
Except, there's one more tannoy announcement to see us off.
"All the entrances to the north side of the park are now closed," says the sophisticated man. "In consideration of our neighbours, we ask you to leave the park as quietly as possible."
Amongst a loudly chattering crowd, I retrace my steps down the long avenue, to the south side of the park.
It's only when I'm half-way back to the tube station that I realise I could walk back to Hammersmith from here. Gawd, it's weird staying somewhere walkable. I can't get over the idea of actually living somewhere within walking distances of places.
Maybe next time.
A few days later (yes, I'm behind on writing these things... hush you, I've had a really intense week at work) Opera Holland Park get back to me, offering me a press ticket to that night's performance. Honestly, I really need to sit down and get my spreadsheet sorted. And next year, I need to get on that rush thing. And remember to take my antihistamines…