Vienna - Standing room at the Vienna State Opera costs 3.50 euros. For the rich people metres away in the royal balconies, it costs almost 10 times that.
The line for standing-room tickets starts early, and you wind through the narrow hallways from a dark 19th-century side entrance. We fall in with the crowd of euro-pinchers: artistes, youngsters, oldsters, gay blades and internationalistas. Serious uniformed Viennese ushers make sure no one reserves a space or scalps tickets.
My Peruvian muse, she who must be obeyed, speaks with a group of wandering Colombian ladies bravely spending their life savings on the last leg of a European tour. A scary thing about Vienna is that it's easy to hand over your life savings in the blink of an eye. The cake at Café Central, for example, sensuously clouds the mind, making you forget economic constraints.
Shuffling through the Opera's labyrinthine halls allows time for meditation on the ghostly history of the place.
This marble music box was created in the 1860s and became the lyrical heart of Vienna. In a city with a history of uncanny musical creativity and mad artistic hysteria, the Opera has inspired many famous souls, good and bad.
When the Opera House opened in May 1869, Emperor Franz Joseph gave it a bad review, calling it a musical railway station. One of the architects, Eduard van der Null, responded by committing suicide. Architects in those days must have been more sensitive than our current batch of cement-blockhouse profiteers.
The pale marble halls have no cracks or holes to hint of the 1945 bombing that signified the end of Vienna's darkest time. Repaired by 1955, the Opera House sang out again, part of the rebuilding of Vienna as a creative, liberal, neutral island in a Europe divided by the Cold War. Recently, the Opera was a focus for demonstrations and political theatre: symbolic refugees in a wall of transport containers sang to protest the right-wing politics of Jörg Haider.
We finally reach our cozy standing platform and marvel at our direct view of the rainbow-coloured set of Jules Massenet's Hérodiade, a wild potboiler about political unrest, John the Baptist, Salome, immortal love, freedom, spiritual passion and miserable family values. The lurid colours go well with the Babylonians, Judeans and Samaritans chanting a message to our own chaotic time.
Standing room can be a conflict of political proportions. The tiered standing areas are separated by brass rails. Hanging at each standing spot is a flat screen translating the French lyrics into German and English. You reserve space by tying a silk handkerchief to the rail. Don't mix up your handkerchiefs. I got the evil eye from a formidable fraulein when I encroached on her hanky.
At intermission, rest your feet and curl into a ball against the rails. Informal lounging in such formal surroundings is a pleasure.
Once the swirl of the operatic drama begins, we standees are almost dizzy from the visual and aural extravaganza.
We avoid the show's end, fearing John the Baptist's decapitation and Salome's stabbing herself in despair. We wander with the Colombians to the grand staircase buzzing with gossiping Viennese dressed for musical heaven, then dance out of the theatre under soaring arches and massive chandeliers, intoxicated by our bargain opera adventure.