LONDON (Reuters) - Not everyone would fly 5,600 miles for an opera whose set consisted at times of two chairs and a cheap-looking table, but Johannesburg lawyer Emile Myburgh did it for Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at London's Royal Opera House -- and he'll be back.
For the $2,000 or so Myburgh said he spent on the trip instead of buying a new iPhone and iPad, he heard Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, the world's leading Isolde, and American tenor Stephen Gould in a spare but overwhelming production of Wagner's paean to doomed love that sold out every night, commanding top prices and earning five-star reviews.
"I think Covent Garden is the best," said Myburgh, 42, topping off his two-opera trip on Thursday with Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera", in a new production by German director Katharina Thoma making her Royal Opera House debut.
This has been a tough year for opera. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York almost had to curtail its season due to a labor dispute, while some European houses have suffered budget cutbacks, forcing them to revise productions and cancel some.
But midway through the 2014-2015 season, Kasper Holten, Covent Garden's director of opera, said with pride: "I think we are in a good place."
Holten said the Verdi was also a sellout. It featured powerful Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Riccardo, Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia and authoritative Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato.
This comes after the ROH took the daring step of opening its season by selling seats that sometimes go for as much as 200 pounds for a tenth that to students and people under 25 for a revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Anna Nicole", about American lapclub dancer Anna Nicole Smith whose silicon breasts helped her land a billionaire and made her a celebrity.
The pay-off? "More than 30 percent of our audience is under 45, which is quite extraordinary," Holten said.
And it may be a smart strategy for the ROH, which does not take as many risks as some European or U.S. opera houses in mounting operas by contemporary composers and is sometimes accused of relying too heavily on revivals.
"In a season of operatic turmoil, with the Met staggering from crisis to crisis and some of Europe's most prestigious houses -- Brussels, Madrid -- making deep cuts, Covent Garden appears to be an island of tranquility," music critic and journalist Norman Lebrecht told Reuters in an emailed comment.
Myburgh is certainly a happy customer. After reveling in Wagner and Verdi, he plans to fly back next year -- for Rossini's "William Tell".
(Editing by Gareth Jones)