How to attend the Paris opera on a budget
When my husband and I visited Paris for the first time in July, we knew that we would go back. As delightful as the trip was, we felt that visiting the place in the middle of tourist season meant that we were missing out on the real “Parisian” experience. Most of the locals flee the city during the summer months, and only return when the cooler weather and start of school has sent the tourists back to their homes.
So it was that we boarded a train on a cool October evening, and sped along the railway through the nighttime French countryside toward the glowing lights of Paris.
Our itinerary was similar to that of our first trip, but had much more time for the leisurely enjoyment of sites we had to rush through previously. We now had the chance to spend a whole morning in the Musée d'Orsay, a day at the Louvre, and an afternoon just lounging around after a late breakfast of baguettes.
I finally felt I had met the real Paris — the one with rain puddles that reflect soft cafe lights, and the locals who give each other a cheery “bonjour” as they pass in the street. The true surprise of the trip, however, came from our visit to the Paris opera.
My husband is an excellent researcher and is really good at finding neat, non-touristy things to do when we travel. He makes the trips we take feel more like pilgrimages and less like another bucket list item to check off, or another picture to post on Instagram. During his pre-Paris research, he discovered we could purchase standing-only tickets at the modern Bastille opera house for 5 euros, or the same at the famed Opera Garnier for 10 euros. There is an admission fee to get into the Garnier for a tour, so getting an opera thrown in seemed too good to be true! The Garnier is the opera house featured in the “Phantom of the Opera” book and musical, and it is every bit as gorgeous as it is portrayed in the movie.
Unfortunately, there was no show in the Garnier the night we had planned on spending at the opera, but there was one at the Bastille. The opera there was “Samson and Delilah” by the famed Frenchman Camille Saint-Saens. I was a bit worried about how I would enjoy the show — I had always viewed operas as musicals with too many frills and trills.
What I was not expecting was the riveting, thrilling, emotional performance by the cast of the Paris Opera. The show was set in Cold War era Eastern Europe, and the modern opera house fit perfectly into the gritty and cold feel of the show. It was much more like a play or musical than I thought it would be. The only real difference was that songs replaced all the lines, but the music was so fantastic I did not feel the need for spoken words.
We entered the crowded building about 45 minutes before the show started. After asking around, we found out we could purchase our tickets at a machine by the door. There were still a few standing-room only tickets available for the very highest balcony. We purchased these, delighted to spend less on them than the normal price of an inexpensive meal in Paris. As we waited for the doors to open, we observed the theatregoers. They were a mixed group: from young people, likely students, dressed in jeans and sipping espressos, to a group of older ladies gossiping in rapid French.
We entered our balcony and found it empty except for a young woman. After some conversation, she told us she was Greek, though whether she was a student or refugee we did not ask: her worn-out shoes, plastic bag of clothes, and intense love of opera made me suppose she was one or the other. When she learned it was our first time at the opera, she smiled and explained the best way to get good seats.
“As soon as the light dims, you can sit down in any of the empty seats up here. After the first act, if you see an empty seat below, you can sit there.” She explained she had done this many times, and had never spent the whole of the show in the upper balcony. “If you come often enough, you will learn the way of the operas,” she said.
I asked her what her favorites were, and she told me she loved Wagner and any Italian operas. “Although Wagner wouldn’t have liked that,” she said, smiling. “He hated Italian operas.”
Soon enough, the lights dimmed. There were a few seats open in our balcony, so my husband and I squeezed through to the middle. We were able to see everything quite clearly even though we were hundreds of feet above the stage below. The opera opened with an intensity of drama that held us all the way through its three acts. The live music was breathtaking, and the acting and singing superb. The stage was not the sumptuous affair of the Palais Garnier, but it had a sterile power that perfectly captured “Samson and Delilah.”
After the first act, we spotted two open seats below, and hoping that our Greek friend was right, we made our way down to them. No one opposed our sitting there, and looking around, I saw that most of the others in our top balcony had done the same. Now we were in tolerably good seats, and we were looking straight down at the stage.
There were pretty lengthy intermissions between each act. Most of our neighbors left for the bar outside in the halls to meet up with friends, shoot the breeze and exchange views and comments about the opera. During one of these breaks, I leafed through the opera news booklet I’d picked up outside. There was a section talking about the opera, explaining the vision of the current opera leadership to inform guests and Parisians that the opera was neither as expensive nor as crowded as people believed. The majority of tickets cost less than 50 euros per person, and very few shows sell out completely.
The opera was in French, but a small digital board over the stage displayed the words in French and English. Not only were we able to keep along quite easily, we also learned a few more vocabulary words along the way. It helped that we were already familiar with the story, but the stage directors created the opera in such a new and interesting way that our attention was held all the way to the explosive finish.
After three incredible acts, we left the opera building, where many people still chatted animatedly, and wandered out into the clear, cool evening air. We returned the cheerful calls of “bonsoir!” and entered the close, warm air of the metro tunnels, soon speeding along to our lodging and feeling, rather unexpectedly, that we had just had a most exquisite Parisian evening.
Meg Sanders recently moved to the Eifel region of Germany where she works as a children’s librarian and continues to build her career as a writer and artist. Sanders has already published original poetry in several smaller journals, and blogs about her European adventures at experienceisanarch.wordpress.com.