Howard Jacobson: Go to the opera and a man with a bald head is always blocking the view

Couldn't they reserve a few good seats for our society's cultural vagabonds?
Click to follow

Just blown the best part of two hundred smackers staring into the back of someone’s bald head. This is called going to the opera. More precisely going to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I visit Covent Garden infrequently for this very reason: if I’m going to spend my children’s inheritance on a seat, I believe I should at least be able to see something from it.

I can just about reconcile myself to the cost. Seats for a coming Madonna concert at the O2 are said to be changing hands on eBay for £700, which makes an upside-down bucket with your back to the stage of the Royal Opera House cheap at half a million. In fact, I’m lying when I say I can reconcile myself to the cost. I am of the generation that believes paying £100 for anything is irresponsible. I grew up in a house that cost half that.

For £100 my parents were able to feed and clothe a family of three from the moment of our birth to our leaving home 18 years later. And have enough left for a celebration party when we’d gone. Like everyone else I eat at expensive restaurants – what choice do I have? – but I still find any bill over £20 for two (three courses, champagne, shiraz, but no dessert wine) criminally exorbitant, whereas people under 40 we dine with consider anything under 10 times that amount a snip.

But all right, opera’s different. You’re paying for more than a night out. You’re paying to be reconnected to civilisation and, if laziness and too many dinners have stopped you listening to the music you loved when you were young, you’re paying to be reminded of who you once were, what you once felt, the melodious idealism which once made your heart flutter like a caged bird. And the building is exhilarating. And the bar is good. And people make more of an effort with their appearance than when they go to any old theatre, though still not a sufficient effort in my view.

Grand opera requires that the audience too be grand. Dinner jackets should be mandatory. Would you want to be Rigoletto howling for his daughter in a sack while looking out at an audience in jeans and cardigans?

All the more reason, then, when you’ve gone to the trouble and shelled out more than a banker earns in 30 seconds, to expect a view of something other than the bald head of the person in front of you. I know there are seats in the Royal Opera House from which you can see the singers, but these, like a place at Eton, have to be bought for you before you’re born. I exaggerate only slightly. Turn up at the box office a month before a production expecting a seat you can see from and they look at you as though you’re insane.

So how is a man with a life to lead supposed to know where he is going to be a month from now? Opera itself teaches that our lives change from happy to sad, from purposeful to pointless, in the course of half an aria. But the decent seats at Covent Garden are bagged years in advance by people prepared to bank a) on their continued existence, b) on their precise whereabouts, and c) on the music they’re going to be in the mood to listen to.

Couldn’t they reserve a few good seats for opera’s natural audience – the existential chancers and cultural vagabonds of our dull society? And couldn’t they, at the same time, insist that anyone over six foot three – actually, five foot three is where I’d draw the line – sits on row Z?

The bald man in front of me is, I would guess, six feet dead. I know I should thank my lucky stars he is bald. At the opera you get many a shock-headed person trying to look like Simon Rattle – for all I know it half the time is Simon Rattle – which means you can see neither over him nor past him. But as it happens there are two shock-headed people in front of the bald man, so although I can twist in my seat to see either side of him, all I get to see is them, twisting in their seats to see round the Simon Rattles in front of them.

I tell myself I’m here for the singing not the acting. I spend a quarter of any opera I like with my eyes closed anyway, so what the hell – just spend it all like that. But this is a notoriously raunchy production that’s been kicking round the repertoire for years – a Rigoletto that’s all humping (the pun is not mine) – and I want to see if it’s as naff as it’s been made out.

The sexing-up of opera rates as one of the great absurdities of our time. See an opera in Germany and it’s invariably set in a fetish club and sung in shiny leather sado-shorts. Even Mozart’s Requiem. But this is London where we are meant to have a keener sense of the ridiculous. Only not on this occasion. Naff it decidedly is – fellatio and cunnilingus to music, or at least I think what they’re doing is fellatio and cunnilingus, but given how far back from the stage I am and how many impediments to seeing anything there are, it might just be a more than usually excitable bridge evening at an old person’s home in Pinner.

And now, of course, it becomes positively unseemly, my bouncing about in my seat, craning my neck, lifting myself up by the roots of my hair, to ascertain whether those really are bare breasts on the serving wenches, or just flesh-coloured bodices. Do I care? Does it matter if that’s a nipple or a brooch? Thwarted, whether it matters or not, I fall to counting the hairs on the bald man’s head, all 117 of them. Three warts. Four liver spots. And a bruise, sustained, I imagine, the last time he ruined an orgy at the Opera House for someone less sweet tempered than me.

And yet in the end, somehow, somehow, the music works its magic. By the time we reach the magnificent quartet, mixing mellifluousness with cynicism, answering hope with desolation, tempering rage with love, I have forgotten where I am and it is worth it after all. Art doing what it’s supposed to do – making life supportable. But must there always be these obstacles to refined emotion? Does sublimity have to be quite so bloody expensive, uncomfortable and fatuously staged?