Covent Garden Piazza, from the Royal Opera terrace © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Covent Garden Piazza, from the Royal Opera terrace
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Here are David and Mark's tips on going to see opera in London. London opera means the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and English National Opera and it’s always really expensive, right?

Wrong.

Hardened London operagoers have a choice of approximately 60 opera companies - yes, that's SIXTY - without counting some top quality concert performances at venues like the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican. Lots of these, to be fair, are small companies doing only one or two specialist productions, but the mix also includes serious full scale professional companies like English Touring Opera, Glyndebourne and Opera Holland Park.

If you want high class opera on a budget and you’re prepared to stray outside the ROH/ENO beaten track, my personal top recommendation is to try one of the performances by students at the big music colleges. These are sung by young singers on the brink of their professional careers: the performances are always full of freshness, a full size orchestra is packed with aspiring soloists and it’s always exciting to see singers who might just turn into megastars in the years to come. The conductors and the directors are professionals and can be at the top of their profession: I’ve seen Jane Glover and the late Sir Colin Davis conduct and John Copley direct at my favourite venue, the Royal Academy of Music’s Susie Sainsbury Theatre, built on the site of the Lyons Theatre, with a reshaped auditorium and a new balcony. The transformed Theatre sports a massive under-stage orchestra pit and seats about 309. They do a production each term, with full price tickets running around £20. The Royal College, the Guildhall and Trinity Laban have similar programmes, while University College London is not a music college but has an enthusiastic amateur company which specialises in operatic rarities. The venues are small and these performances sell out, so you have to be well organised to get tickets.

Fulham Opera's <i>Ring</i> © Richard Carter
Fulham Opera's Ring
© Richard Carter
Many companies put on opera on a small scale with reduced orchestration. Sometimes, the results are exceptional, as in Fulham Opera’s complete Ring Cycle, played on just a piano, which achieved huge critical acclaim on these pages and others. Many companies give you access to opera without having to travel into the West End: my local company, Hampstead Garden Opera, operates on a tight budget but always produces high quality. There are plenty of groups set up to play specialist, rarely performed repertoire. One of the more interesting of these is Opera Rara, which, each year, picks an underperformed masterpiece, engages top performers to record it, and puts on a live performance.

Going back to the big stage at Covent Garden, it’s worth noting that the Royal Opera’s ticket prices vary substantially from one production to the next. If you don’t want to pay three figure seat prices and you don’t like the idea of being up in the amphitheatre, one of the better things you can do is to pick a contemporary work (where “contemporary” means anything from newly composed back to, say, Berg’s 1925 Wozzeck): the prices are often below £100 even for the best seats.

Simon Keenlyside and Karita Mattila in <i>Wozzeck</i> in 2013 © Royal Opera House | Catherine Ashmore
Simon Keenlyside and Karita Mattila in Wozzeck in 2013
© Royal Opera House | Catherine Ashmore

If, however,your heart is set on a performance at the Royal Opera, you’ve tried the online box office and only the top priced seats are left (or none at all), you still stand a chance. If you’re able to sit in front of your computer at 13:00 sharp on a Friday, the Royal Opera offers an online-only scheme called "Friday Rush", whereby tickets are released at 13:00 on a Friday for performances on the following week. Mark’s and my favourites for these are the standing places in the Balcony – yes, you have to stand and there will be sightline problems with some productions, but you’re really close to the action and how else do you get to see Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais for £17? And keep checking the website through the day: returns will inevitably crop up at some point.

If, however, in spite of all this advice, you’ve blown your going-out budget on expensive tickets and you need to economise on food, here are a some tips.

When going to ENO, particularly on a nice day in summer, go to Gaby’s on Charing Cross Road, just outside Leicester Square tube, buy their take-away falafel and go find a bench in Trafalgar Square to eat it on. Gaby’s isn’t the greatest place to eat in, but (speaking with the authority of Israeli parentage) I reckon they do the best falafel in town.

Alternatively, if you’re a carnivore going to Covent Garden, the hamburger chain Byron’s does a decent job. However, the branch outside the Royal Opera is invariably packed to the gills in the evening, so avoid the crush by going to the branch on High Holborn just across from Holborn tube. It’s quiet in the evenings, only a few minutes walk from the opera house, and you get the added benefit of avoiding the notorious lifts at Covent Garden station.

Otherwise, if time is your problem and you’re unconcerned about the effect of your breath on your neighbours, Masala Zone on Floral Street is about as close as you can get to the ROH, serves a more-than-adequate thali very promptly, and has such a vast number of tables that I’ve never yet seen it full.

From Adams to Zaide, if you love opera and live in London or can easily get here, there's really no excuse... And to find it all, don't forget to search our pages.