My first night at the opera was Tannhäuser at Covent Garden in 1975 and I was blown away by the art-form on stage (having until then only listened on records). As an impoverished youngster, I’d really pushed the boat out and bought a ticket for £4, in a seat that now costs around £150.
That was followed later the same year by the Reginald Goodall-conducted Ring cycle at the Coliseum. I think I paid £10 for the four evenings of that one. Since then, a number of productions, out of many hundreds, stand out in the memory.
The first production of Britten’s Death in Venice, with Peter Pears, just a couple of years after the composer’s death, was one. Then there were uplifting evenings with a Flying Dutchman and Gounod’s Faust at English National Opera. The same company’s original production of Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus in 1986 (NOT the recent atrocity) was a special event. At the Royal Opera, I remember being bowled over by a Khovanschina in the early '80s and a performance of Dialogues des Carmelites, with Regine Crespin, (at a time when Poulenc’s opera was a great rarity) was a real treat.
Star performers inevitably feature in one’s most cherished memories, such is the nature of opera. I was lucky enough to see such amazing artists as Jon Vickers, Nicolai Gedda, Lucia Popp and of course Domingo on many occasions. One of the most astonishing singers I saw was German soprano Gundula Janowitz, such a combination of beauty and power. Today, there are some great singers working—Terfel, Kaufmann, di Donato among the best—and we get plenty of chances to see them live.
There were lost opportunities too. I could kick myself for not seeing Janet Baker when I could have. I clearly remember considering going to her final performances at ENO and thinking “Nah”. The folly of youth! But my biggest regret was not waking up to the artistry and beauty of Carlo Bergonzi and leaving it too late to see him, although he performed at Covent Garden until well into the 1980s.
A few years ago, I had a transcendent experience with Parsifal at Covent Garden, despite an indifferent staging, when for some reason the wonders of Wagner’s score reached parts other performances hadn’t.
And my Top Pick of all these attendances goes to the Royal Opera too. The first night of a new production of Otello in 1988, with Domingo at the absolute top of his game, pips everything else. Carlos Kleiber was in the pit and the other principals were Justino Diaz and Katia Ricciarelli (both reuniting with Domingo after appearing in the Zefferelli film together a couple of years earlier). The performance was electric and it had everything that a great night of opera needs; well worth queueing half the night for.