Cheap or free opera and classical music in London
The major companies are of course the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and English National Opera (ENO). Covent Garden give operas in the original language and have international stars; ENO sing in English and are less starry. They both have surtitles in English for everything these days (well actually there are times when surtitles would be useful for the ballet), so you don’t have to worry trying to work out what they’re singing about. Ignoring special offers of various kinds, you could say that Covent Garden does better performances and is also cheaper, since you can get a perfectly decent seat in the Amphitheatre for £ 40 or so, while there is no real equivalent at the ENO. Except that they do now have the Secret Seat scheme, where you get allocated an unsold seat on the night. Reports on this one are encouraging, and I got jolly good seats for both ‘Otello’ and ‘Mastersingers’ for my £20.
ENO do often have tickets to dispose of cheaply, since they have a very large theatre and lots of overpriced seats. Cheap tickets (for the same day only) can often be found on the tkts booth in Leicester Square (and also in Brent Cross).
Similarly, the same sort of tickets often turn up (for advance purchase) on sites like Travelzoo and lastminute.com. It’s free and quite easy to register on these sites. The theatremonkey site has a useful round-up of special offers, covering opera and ballet as well as plays and musicals.
You sometimes get deals at the Royal Opera House on the discount sites, but it’s not especially common. One thing to be aware of generally is that all theatres (even Covent Garden) end up giving out tickets to deserving causes like hospitals, social workers, their own staff and (less intuitively) language schools, so it’s worthwhile making lots of friends and making sure they know you like opera.
The other general point is that nearly all opera companies and orchestras and venues have a free email list which you can sign up for and which will occasionally produce reduced price or 2-for-1 deals. And of course the same goes for Facebook–most places have a FB group these days, and it’s easier for them to post a special offer there than send out a mass email (likewise Twitter!)
As for other companies, Opera Holland Park is not as cheap in general as it might be, but they do offer some £17 Inspire seats round the edges, and those are fine. OHP also tend to end up offering cheap or 2-for-1 details via their email list when they have the temerity to put on something decent (Janacek, Britten) as opposed to the Franco-Italian repertoire dear to their hearts. And English Touring Opera has generally reasonable prices.
Moving to a more student/training level, the performances at British Youth Opera , GSMD, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music are possibilities. In my experience, these tend to be most rewarding when there’s some slightly non-mainstream repertoire involved (meaning both that somebody had a definite idea in putting it on and that you might not see it otherwise).
And there certainly used to be a lot about cheap stuff and free deals to be found on the very wonderful Intermezzo site, more specifically here, but it seems to be inactive at present. It also gives lots of useful background information about the Royal Opera here and about ENO here.
If you just want to know what’s going to be on in London, the bachtrack site is probably the most useful source at present; there’s also Time Out and operabase. And there’s the Fringe Opera blog as well…
The other approach
The other possibility is that there are people who’ve been left with spare tickets late in the day and want someone to go with. It happens, at least to me. But it’s not clear how the two parties would make contact…
If you just want to find out what is on where and when as a first step, then my investigation into the various listing sites is here.
Cheap classical music is quite like cheap opera, except the initial prices aren’t so frightening and there’s no West End ticket booth that I know of. Sites like Travelzoo and lastminute.com may have some offers. As with opera, it’s always worthwhile signing up for everyone’s free email lists, which will produce bargains from time to time (the last one I recall was a series of £10 concerts at the Wigmore Hall–and Alina Ibragimova was already sold out of course). The same goes for Facebook–most places have a FB group these days, and it’s easier for them to post a special offer there than send out a mass email.
Then there’s the stuff that is meant to be inherently cheap or free, as opposed to being so by accident. The Conway Hall Sunday Concerts are still quite good value at £10 (or possibly free for young people), while the South Bank Sinfonia do some free rush-hour concerts in Waterloo. The Time Out website has a flag for free concerts, and there’s also a lot of free stuff goes on in churches, and also the LSE for instance. With a bit of clicking and scrolling down the pdf file, you can find a listing of musical events in City churches here. Outside of the City, St James’s Piccadilly has quite a full programme of free lunchtime concerts(and unfree evening ones), and the same goes for St Martin-in-the-Fields. Similarly, some lunchtime concerts at St John’s Smith Square are free to members of their Friends scheme.
Other possibilities may depend on where you live. In South East London for example, as well as the South Bank Sinfonia there are various events at Trinity Laban or the Centre for Russian Music , not to mention St Paul’s Sinfonia.
Do email me if there’s anything you think should be added to this page! (As of March 2016, Mary Nguyen has a posting on cheap opera tickets from a young-and-enthusiastic perspective, emphasising the virtues of sensible shoes…)