What if it were as easy and cheap to see world-class opera as to see a movie? In Budapest, world-class opera is actually easier and cheaper than a movie–at least for the tourist. I have not seen a single movie theater as I’ve wandered Budapest. But at the Opera Metro stop, sure enough, I found myself outside the grand headquarters of the Hungarian National Opera. With no advance planning at all, I walked in and bought same-day tickets for my very favorite opera, La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini. Tickets were available for just a few dollars. I splurged and snapped up two seats that must have been returns, 3rd row center. The cost was still about 1/6 to 1/10 what I’d expect to pay in New York, Paris or Vienna.
The gilded auditorium holds about 1200 seats, and the acoustics are generally considered among the very best in the world, after La Scala in Milan and the Opera Garnier in Paris. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria shared the cost with the city of Budapest, once he became King of Hungary in a political compromise that put an end to years of bloody conflict. The first performances in the neo-Renaissance auditorium took place in 1884.
From my seat, I could look over the shoulder of the conductor into the orchestra and marvel at the perfect coordination between about a hundred instrumentalists and the sublime singers onstage. Sets, costumes, acting, music–all combined to tell a simple but moving story. I love this particular opera because it deals with ordinary humans making ordinary messes of their lives, and doing it in the most musical and poetic way possible. There are no dead spots in this opera–there’s either lively action or an achingly beautiful piece of music at every moment.
What about language? The opera was sung in its original Italian. Hungarian translations appeared above the stage. No matter! I knew the story and even most of the lyrics well enough to follow along.
Of course no photos were allowed during the performance. I had to be content with the photo above, from an earlier performance. Teodor Inincai was a wonderful Rodolfo, and Letay Kiss Gabriella was transcendent as Mimi. I was happy to share a glorious performance with an appreciative audience. Afterward, I didn’t want it to end. I happily sat through many curtain calls, complete with shouts of “Brava!” and “Bravo!” and their Hungarian equivalents.
What’s next, before I leave Budapest? A performance of the ballet The Nutcracker at the Hungarian State Opera House. I can’t wait!