Fifty years ago, I was at the centre of an Unfortunate Incident at Covent Garden Opera House.
On May 4th I caught the night bus from Notting Hill at 3.30, arrived in Bow Street at four, and was 264th in the queue for tickets to hear Callas and Gobbi in Tosca. Orderly queue, as always, but alas the queue leader had only brought 280 tickets, and made the mistake of telling late arrivals that they could just sign his book, safely go away, and return later to take their places. After a while, he went off himself for a slow half-pint at the Nag’s Head. Sure enough more and more late- and later-comers came to join the end of a queue which they were surprised to find considerably shorter than they had feared. At half-past seven or so those who had left, returned, shocked that ‘their places’ had been taken by other opera enthusiasts extremely reluctant to give them up. When the queue-leader returned at a quarter to eight or so, he was quickly surrounded by unhappy queuers. The discussion became extremely heated, and despite typically humorous attempts to break the tension (‘If you don’t shut up, all we’ll get is tickets for Moses und Aron!’, one wag shouted) I began to fear that the incident might eventually be concluded in the courts across the road. Only the appearance of the much-loved and usually amiable Sergeant Martin, the Major-domo of the House, quietened things down. You didn’t argue with Sgt Martin, late of the Guards.
I got two tickets for the first Tosca after the Royal gala performance, and turned up on July 12th to find another Unfortunate Incident had occurred: Madame Callas, having sung for the Queen, had decided that enough was enough, and gone off to Paris about other business. However, once George Pretre raised his baton we still heard a marvelous Scarpia from Gobbi and an excellent Tosca from Marie Collier.
The refund the management arranged, on the spot – queue at the box-office as you leave - was extraordinarily generous: we got £3 15s back on our £5 stalls tickets , which was a help later in the year when I was 82nd in the queue for a Fonteyn-Nureyev Giselle, and Cinderella at Christmas with Helpmann and Ashton as the Ugly Sisters. In the end, everything comes to he who queues.