Wanderlust

Considering that my operatic travels to date have been comparatively rare – London alone being packed with so many performances that I already struggle to find the time or money to see everything I’d like to – 2012 so far has been something of an odyssey. Following a flying visit to Birmingham in January for the final Meistersinger of the Royal Opera run, and a trip to Hamburg at the beginning of February for La traviata and Aribert Reimann’s Lear, March took me on opera trips to four different corners of the UK (from Scotland to the south coast) as well as to the usual range of venues in my home city. A further excursion awaits next weekend.

This frequency of travel is not sustainable. I have a full-time job, Monday to Friday office hours on the whole, without a particularly generous leave entitlement. And travelling at the weekends causes me loss of income from my Sunday-morning church singing job, without which I would struggle to afford such trips in the first place. I’ve now built into my budget an allowance enabling me to lose an average of one Sunday’s choir fee every two months – but even then, I find myself wanting to use up many of my free Sundays on weekend singing events elsewhere. Plus, I love my Sunday job – it’s an important part of my life, and I don’t like missing it too often.

But the Hamburg trip in particular – which turned out to be a good deal cheaper than I had feared it could be, and which could easily have been cheaper still – made me yearn to travel more often than I have to date. Before that point, I hadn’t left the UK to see an opera since 2008 when I spent my birthday in Paris with friends, seeing Don Carlo at the Opéra-Bastille.

I work 15 minutes’ walk from London’s Eurostar terminus. Getting to Paris or Brussels is fast, easy, and under certain circumstances cheaper than a trip to somewhere like Edinburgh. If only the Opéra-Bastille, Châtelet or La Monnaie would do Saturday matinees, I might be nipping off on a Friday night on a fairly regular basis, getting back to London by Saturday evening. But no, sadly the standard matinee slot across much of Europe is Sunday, which is far less convenient. There’s another problem, too – few of my favourite singers and directors seem to be in favour in Paris or Brussels! It tends to be a choice between chasing them further afield and waiting for them to pop up in the UK. Until now, I’ve almost exclusively done the latter.

While I’m on THAT subject, wouldn’t it be nice if my favourite singers always worked with one another, and with my favourite directors, to create a brief and well-co-ordinated list of things I long to go overseas for? Or at least in concurrent productions on consecutive evenings, in the same easily-accessible European city…

For now, having worked out a wish-list on the back of an old envelope, I note with some dismay that almost all of my annual leave allowance for next leave year, which runs July-June, is provisionally spoken for. A couple of favourite-singer/ideal-role combinations here, a couple of favourite-director/interesting-project combinations there, and all my time – never mind all my money – is swallowed up. And that’s before some companies have even made their season announcement… At least I know I’m going to have a brilliant time!

A little mid-week day trip

Scottish Opera will always be dear to my heart. When I was growing up in Durham, which at the time had no theatre suitable for professional touring companies, the Newcastle Theatre Royal was a regular port of call for Scottish Opera. So when I had a compulsion to see my first opera at the age of 17, it was to Scottish Opera that I turned, and to Scottish Opera that I ran back two days later to see the same opera a second time! But for as long as I can remember, the state of the company’s finances has been parlous, and over the years their operations have eroded further and further, shedding full-time personnel and no longer touring regularly to venues south of the border – though they do now pay the odd visit to Belfast. It is a matter of wonder and relief to me that they are somehow still managing to produce, cast and tour several full-scale operas per year at a level which never seems to have diminished.

Sadly for me as an itinerant audience member, one recent casualty of Scottish Opera’s circumstances is the practice of running two or three shows at a time. I used to be able to make more of an occasion out of a visit, staying two or three nights to see Norma and Rigoletto, La traviata and Così fan tutte, Inez de Castro and Il trovatore or Die Fledermaus and Orfeo ed Euridice. Nowadays, while I can still make a long weekend of a trip to Opera North or WNO, I can no longer make more than a one-opera stay out of a Scottish Opera trip. It can seem an awfully long way to go, and time to spend travelling, for a possibly brilliant but all-too-short treat at the destination.

Some things, like their current Rake’s Progress, are appealing enough to justify the effort. And as it happens, there’s an inexpensive and non-time-consuming way of doing it from London – the Caledonian Sleeper rail service from London Euston, on which fares are available for as little as £29 per person each way. Supposedly the starting rate is £19 but I can’t say I’ve ever seen one of these available, even booking almost the moment they’ve come on sale! The sleeping-quarters are tiny twin cabins with reasonably comfortable bunk beds and a washbasin; there are clean shared toilets and a comfortable lounge/bar which serves hot snacks, and in the morning you get a cup of tea or coffee delivered to your cabin.

The Sleeper isn’t for everybody. It doesn’t run on Saturday nights. If you travel alone you may have to share a cabin with a stranger (unless you’ve paid a much higher fare to guarantee you won’t have to) and there are no showers on board, so check if your destination station has facilities – Glasgow and Edinburgh both do, London Euston doesn’t (though nearby King’s Cross does). It’s also probably not suitable if you sleep lightly. But if you don’t mind roughing it a bit and you’re organised enough to book when the cheapest tickets are released, the Sleeper can be a great way to travel, especially with a friend. No hotel bill, only one day off work required, and the dullest part of the trip happens while you’re asleep, leaving a full day of waking hours to explore your destination. It turns 800 miles of travel into what is effectively a day trip. I was out at an event at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday night, and back in my office by 8:30 on Thursday morning, having had a lovely day in Glasgow in between. There’s also the crucial point that a morning arrival means you won’t be late for the show if your train breaks down – a realisation born of bitter experience.

On this occasion we did have just such a delay on the outbound journey, and arrived in Glasgow at 9:30am. Having not eaten for nearly ten hours by that point, we immediately sought out a restorative brunch at the Tea Rooms upstairs at The Butterfly and The Pig – Scotch pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for me, Eggs Benedict for my companion, both washed down with substantial quantities of coffee. We wandered westwards and spent the rest of the morning exploring the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. An early-afternoon snack and proper, excellent-quality coffee was tracked down at Tinderbox on Byres Road. After a look around the architecturally-impressive but confusingly-laid-out Riverside Museum in the afternoon, we convened with a friend from Scottish Opera in the café-bar at the Centre for Contemporary Arts before heading to seafood restaurant Gamba for their pre-theatre meal deal. Not one morsel that passed our lips over the course of the day was anything short of delicious, so many thanks to the people on Twitter and elsewhere that pointed us in the right direction!

Then of course we went to see The Rake’s Progress, of which more in a separate post…