Covent Garden may not be the most beautiful of opera houses – I suppose the Fenice would carry off the prize – but we grew extremely fond of it, as one does for any theatre which plays a large part in one’s life (I felt and feel the same way about the Old Vic, and that most beautiful of the world’s theatres, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket). But the Garden certainly has provided me with enough anecdotes to fill a gap in any conversation. The booking queues were always good for a story. In those days the fruit and vegetable market was still alive and kicking all around us as we lay in our sleeping bags on the pavement (three nights a minimum for, say, the first London appearance of the Kirov company). There was plenty of banter with and from the market porters. ‘You’re all mad,’ one guy said cheerfully as he stepped over us. ‘Well,’ someone said, ‘you’d sleep out for a cup final ticket.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘but then you get a result.’
Then there was the moment when I was greeted in the crowded crush bar one evening by a young man who clearly knew me; I knew him, too – but couldn’t for a moment remember where or why. I heard myself say, in a voice loud enough to cut through the hubbub, ‘Oh, I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.’ I usually saw him in the sauna at the gym (I knew no good would come of going to a gym). There was a certain frisson in the air as people cleared a space around us. No gays ever went to the ballet in those days, but the crowd clearly thought there might be an exception.
Fellow members of the audience in our favourite stalls circle (usually £2 10s a seat – round about £60 now) were usually well behaved, but occasionally there were exceptions, such as the lady who munched chocolates and talked audibly to her companion through the first act of Giselle. In the interval I asked her if she would mind perhaps not talking quite so much during Act II. ‘Why?’ she said incredulously – ‘it’s only music.’ To which I could really think of no reply.
I’m a fairly inoffensive person and not given to violence; the only time I have almost hit someone was at the London Coliseum when Reginald Goodall was conducting his magnificent, but decidedly leisurely Ring. The two seats in front of us were empty until the very last minute, when a couple shuffled into them. It soon became clear that the man disagreed fairly violently with Goodall’s tempi, for he began ostentatiously conducting the first act of Valkyrie. After a while his movements became really irritating, and I prepared to deliver a karate chop to the side of the neck when he turned to speak to his companion and I recognised the unmistakable profile of Leonard Bernstein. My hand stopped in mid-air. I might have been banned for life.