Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Guide to the Bolshoi for First-time Attendees

It can be a bit daunting to attend a new theater for the first time, so I've assembled a guide for attending the Bolshoi for first-time attendees. I spent eight months living in Moscow, and these are the best practices I know.




Finding the tickets:
This will undoubtedly be the most challenging stage of your mission.  The Bolshoi sells out of affordable tickets almost immediately, so it is very important to be vigilant.  Unless you live in Moscow or are staying there for over two months, your best bet is the internet.  The Bolshoi has an excellent website, available in both English and Russian:


The schedule is generally posted about three months in advance, so about three months before your trip, check the schedule of performances and decide what you want to see.  Around the same time, create an account for yourself on the Bolshoi website.  This will require your passport information and address, but no credit card info.  Having an account will save you time when you want to purchase tickets.


About two months in advance, tickets go on sale.  This generally happens in month-long batches, so the entirety of June will go on sale in late March/early April. (August doesn’t count as a month, so October tickets go up in July, September in June, etc). You should be checking online every day, because once tickets go on sale, the affordable ones will sell out almost immediately.  

On the main stage, I recommend tickets in the middle of the fourth or third balcony, first row.  They’re a little far away from the stage, but you generally have a good look at the entire stage, and you can rent opera glasses from the theater.  Avoid tickets on the sides, since you’ll only be able to see half the stage.  Avoid the second row of the boxes, since the chairs aren’t elevated high enough to see over the heads of the people in front of you.  

On the new stage, you have a much better chance of getting a good seat.  In fact, I recommend new stage productions over main stage productions - same dancers, much better view at cheaper prices.  For this stage, anything in the middle third of the seats will be good - even if you buy all the way back in the top balcony, fifth row.  Also, any first row seat on any balcony will be decent. 

Late tickets:
The Bolshoi posts cast lists for the entire month about one to two weeks in advance.  That means that if there’s a particular dancer you really really want to see, you have to wait until almost all the tickets are gone. Basically, you will simply pay through the nose for these seats. If everything is sold out when you decide on a program, you have a couple of options:

  1. Go to the hotels.  The concierges have ties to the theaters and can probably produce a ticket for you, although at about three times the face value of the ticket.  
  2. Go to the streets.  You can buy a ticket from people scalping outside the theater.  They aren’t hard to find. The Bolshoi, of course, seriously dislikes this practice and warns against it.  If you do buy a ticket, expect to pay extra.  Acquaint yourself with the look of a real ticket so that you don’t buy a fake.  Also, watch out also for tickets marked ‘неудобное место’, this means they have a limited view.  

Student tickets:
The Bolshoi sells student tickets for every performance, about 15-30 for new stage performances and 40-60 for main stage.  These are only available for people with Russian Student IDs.  They don’t take international student cards or student IDs from outside universities.  You know if you have the item I’m talking about - a little navy booklet with Студенческий билет written on the cover.  If you are the fortunate owner of such a priceless artifact, here’s how to get a ticket for 100 R: 

Show up to the theater as early as you can in the morning.  Head over to the theater box office (to the left of the square as you face the main stage - marked Театральная Касса).  There will be a person of studenty age holding a sheet of paper.  Ask to put your name down on the list.  It is very likely that when this happens, the other student will give you the list to hold.  It is now your job to wait with the list until the next student comes by.  This might be 15 minutes, it might be half an hour - probably no more. Once the next person shows up, you can go off and enjoy your morning.

The ticket office sells student tickets beginning 90 minutes before the performance (so 5:30pm for a 7:00pm performance, 4:30pm for a 6:00pm, really early for a noon performance).  You should show up an hour before the tickets are sold.  Take your place in line according to the order of the list.  Now, hopefully someone still has that list.  Sadly, the list might be ‘lost’ during the course of the day.  But that’s why you get there an extra hour early - if it’s every student for themself, you should still get a ticket!  At some point, a very grumpy man wearing a Bolshoi uniform and smoking a cigarette will corral everyone into a pen of police barricades.  It seems scary, but go with it.  Try to preserve the order of the line, or at least know who you were standing behind.  This man will let five students at a time into the ticket office to buy tickets; head to your left inside the door.  When you get to the window, have your 100 R and your ID ready.  Hold the ID up (open) to the window while sliding your money through the window. Take your ticket and go!

** A note on Swan Lake: For this masterpiece and symbol of Russia national pride, ALL BETS ARE OFF.  The first time I tried to get a student ticket for Swan Lake, there was a fight in line - a real, pushing, shoving fight and the winners got tickets.  The second time I tried, everyone was well behaved.  I showed up two hours in advance, and I still missed out on a ticket because the winners had waited two and a half hours.  Easy, you might think - anyone can wait two and a half hours. Then it’s possible I neglected to mention that this was outside. In Moscow. IN FEBRUARY. 

The only way to get tickets to Swan Lake is part of a group effort.  Show up early (really really early, as soon as the subway opens or before), put your names on the list, and then tag team hanging out by the box office to make sure that no one throws this list out.  As long as one member of your team is always there, you have a pretty good shot.  Everyone from your group should be there for the last 60-90 minutes of waiting.  

Dress Code:
The audiences at the Bolshoi are generally quite dressed up.  I recommend cocktail-length dresses for women and coat and tie for men (obviously women can wear pants too, but Russian society is very gender conscious and you will stand out - so just be prepared).  In the summer things get a little more casual because of temperatures and tourists, so men could downgrade to just slacks and button-up shirts.  I’ve seen people in the theater in jeans, but it’s not common.  I’ve never seen anyone denied entrance for casual clothing, but I haven’t seen anyone with shorts or athletic sandals inside the theater either.



Day of the performance:
If you have already purchased a ticket online, print out your receipt, with the barcode, and bring it to the theater.  Actually, you can do this any day up to the start of your performance, but I like to do it the same evening so that I don’t lose the tickets.  Head over to the box office (to the left of the square as you face the main stage - marked Театральная Касса).  Enter the box office and look for an available window.  Sign and date your receipt where it’s marked.  Slide that under the window; you’ll probably have to produce either your passport or your credit card. 

I recommend eating dinner on Kamergersky Pereulok (Камергерский Переулок). It’s all restaurant chains, but it is very close to the theater and it can accommodate lots of different budgets and time frames.  For a fast dinner, head to Prime. For a slower, more fun one, I recommend Счастье.

Try to arrive at the theater 15-20 minutes in advance (unless you want to eat at the buffet, in which case 45 minutes). 

Main stage:
Your ticket will list your entrance on the top.  Orchestra and Bell Etage seats enter through the front portico, upper balconies enter through doors on the sides of the building.  There are coat checks on every floor.  These coat checks also rent opera glasses. They’ll probably have them laying out, but if you have to ask the word is beeNOOOOKL (like Binocular- Бинóкль).  The price is 100R, in addition to which you’ll have to leave 1000 R which you’ll get back when you turn the glasses in.

You can buy a souvenir program (called a libretto) or a copy of the cast for your performance (called a programmka) from any of the ushers in the theater.  I highly recommend the libretto!  These are beautifully assembled and contain many informative essays about the productions in both Russian and English.  There are usually around 20 pages of full color photos of all the major Bolshoi dancers in the main roles.  These are great mementos to keep forever.

Take some time before the performance starts to wander around a bit.  It’s a beautiful building with lots of twists and turns.  You can also take time to explore during the intermission.  The Bell Etage level often has a museum exhibit of old opera costumes and photos.  The big cafe/buffet is on the top floor.

Before the start of each act, the theater rings the bell three times.  The first time you’ll hear one ring, the second time two, the third time three.  Once the second ring goes off, head to your seats. About one to two minutes after the third bell, the doors will be shut and no one allowed in for the duration of the act.  Also - the inside of the theater is beautiful!  You want some time to admire the seats, the boxes, the curtain and the ceiling, not to mention your fellow patrons. (But, um, don’t film strangers, as I once saw someone do. That’s just creepy.)

New Stage:
The new stage is located to the left and back from the main stage, up the gray steps.  Everyone enters through the front doors.  The coat check is on the first floor.  I don’t recommend opera glasses here because everything is so easy to see.  The only bathroom is in the basement - so get there fast during intermission!  Other than that, everything I said about the main stage applies.

Enjoy the show!

3 comments:

  1. hi Swanilda, I love your blog and especially this post! I'm planning to visit Moscow in the fall and really appreciate the tips. Just one thing: I hope this isn't a stupid question, but what is a cocktail-length dress -- would that hit at the knee? Thanks!

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  2. Yep! Cocktail length hits at the knees. I have to say I've seen shorter skirts there as well. Mostly, I wanted to say that people aren't wearing long ball gowns (although I did see a woman in a beautiful floor-length skirt with a button-up shirt once).

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