Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

The High-Low Traveler: Evening at the theatre

Velvet ropes, champagne and ballerinas at the State Opera House in Prague – for less than the price of a movie ticket in New York?

There’s one thing that’s becoming clearer to me as I get older: it’s a big mistake to sit around waiting for someone to invite me to do something special. Sometimes the people in my life just aren’t available or interested in what I want to do. That’s why I’m becoming pretty good at ordering room service for myself and surprising myself with invitations for weekend trips. I ask myself out to lunch. I recommend the chocolate souffle to myself. Then I pick up the check.

So after wrapping up a month’s worth of research in Prague for an upcoming Lonely Planet book, I thought, ‘I’ve been working hard. What would I like to do on my last night in this city?’ I found out it was opening night of Swan Lake at Státní Opera Praha (the State Opera House.) Tickets were going quickly. I studied what was available on the seating chart.

I was just about to choose a seat on the orchestra level, in the center, about a third of the way back (price = about US$45.) Then I thought twice. I’m not a starving student anymore – but for years and years, I either went to the theatre for free or I got the cheapest possible ticket. From the age of twelve, my mom recruited my sisters and me to accompany her to the Hershey Theatre, our small but elegant hometown venue, and serve as volunteer ushers on Sundays. I had to wear a stiff black vest and a white blouse. After everyone was seated, we watched Carousel and South Pacific, ballets and traveling symphonies, leaning against the back wall of the mezzanine. When I was in college, translating operatic arias from Italian to English for my literature professor, I’d come back to Hershey and volunteer to usher for opera performances.

Later, living in Europe, I realized that many of the grandest theatres offered dirt-cheap seats way up in the highest section of the upper balcony. Good enough for my friends and me! We would take the subway to Narodni Divadlo, proudly bearing our six-dollar tickets to see Carmen or Giselle. We drank the house-brand champagne under the glittering chandeliers at intermission. We thought we were living the life. (And we were!)

I’ve called myself a High/Low Traveler because I really believe that on so many occasions, cheaper is better. So it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I carefully chose the very best seat out of the row of the very cheapest tickets at the theatre. It cost US$6. And when I arrived at the opera house that night, I realized that this seat was actually preferable to many of the more expensive options. True, it wouldn’t have been the right seat for my grandmother – my seat was at a high angle over the stage – but the proximity afforded spectacular views of the stage and orchestra.

I could clearly see the expressions on the dancers’ faces.

I could see the delicate individual feathers on the bodice of the Swan Queen.

I could see the manicured pink fingernails of the clarinet soloist.

It was a gorgeous performance. I had the no-name champagne at intermission. Afterwards, I took the subway back.

Total price for the evening? Ten dollars.

(Thank you, self.)