Like a first kiss, you never forget your first opera. Innocent and perhaps slightly awkward, you go through the motions of what you’ve only heard about: the velvet curtains, the chandeliers, the fancy dress and the moment during the aria when your fingers grip your vintage clutch, feeling strangely alive, and you think, This.
Getting to that moment of enlightenment can be intimidating. The protocol and etiquette that strongly preserve the opera, ballet and recital culture conjure up a slew of questions for the novice attender not wanting to botch the night. The process of prepping for and experiencing such an event can be free of stress and, as unique as the production you’ll eventually applaud, a work of art in itself.
PREPPING FOR THE PERFORMANCE
Choose your tickets well in advance – in some cities, the season begins to sell out shortly after being announced. If you’d like a quieter atmosphere, get tickets for a weeknight or weekend matinee. The costlier seats don’t always mean the better experience – sometimes a balcony seat farther back can offer a superior experience to a closer seat. Look at online reviews or talk directly with the ticket manager for guidance.
Discover what you can beforehand about the opera, ballet or symphony you’ll attend. Although the plot and characters themselves are fascinating in their own right (a hunch-backed court gesture, Paris bohemians, a rat king – I mean, come on), they are best appreciated in context. Learn about the composer. Read about the prima ballerina or tenor or maestro or violinist that will grace your specific performance. You can even find a trove of information about opera houses themselves, many of which offer long and varied histories – like Paris’ Opera Garnier, which inspired Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera or America’s Library of Congress building, which features a 7-ton chandelier and discordant modern ceiling art by Marc Chagall.
Read the opera’s libretto (“little book”) before the show to fully understand what you’ll be watching. Since most operas are not in English, familiarity with the libretto, which is basically the script, will help you navigate the performance. Many operas now display “supertitles” in English above the stage, but it never hurts to come prepared.
Unless you attend a gala performance, which is usually a black tie affair, any version of “business nice” is appropriate. This can mean anything from slacks and heels to a skirt and cashmere top to your little black dress. A full ball gown is never required for a standard performance – though a girl should always feel permission to wear a formal gown and vault-kept diamonds whenever she pleases.
Ditch the daytime hobo bag and carry a sleek clutch that can fit nicely on your lap, since leg space is often limited. Pack only the essentials: a credit card and ID, lipstick, a tissue, a mint, and your phone (turned off, lest you cause mayhem with that unexpected call mid-pas de deux). Bring along opera glasses or small binoculars to more closely admire the performers and costuming. Go classic with a gold-trimmed lorgnette or modern with sleek pocket-sized folding glasses. Check your coat or umbrella and gather them as you exit, breathless with satisfaction.
Arrive 30-45 minutes early. Late-comers usually aren’t admitted until a breaking point in the performance. Give yourself ample time to enjoy the atmosphere. Tour the performance hall and recognize all of those historic and architectural details you so dutifully read about. Casually point out these details to your party and appear unaffectedly cultured. Mingle with the crowd and people-watch – this is one of the most peculiar and fascinating groups around. When the lights dim or flash, take your seat and settle in for the overture.
Audience behavior varies by genre, and you can take cues from everyone around you. The overture of any performance is always listened to in reverential silence. Symphonies and musical performances are applauded after the performance has ended. Ballet audiences will often clap for an impressive solo or duet, and opera crowds love to applaud arias, though operas are in general more conservatively watched. If you love what you see, be ready with your surrounding aficionados to cheer and shout Bravo! Brava! or Bravi!
I remember my first opera. Ariodante in the Opera Garnier. As a student in Paris, I bought “cheap seats” to the performance that fit my schedule. The music was in Italian and the marquee above the stage streamed the libretto in French, which I was still trying to master. I dressed too warmly in a sweater and slacks and sweated through the third act. I knew nothing of the plot and – I can barely admit – didn’t know that Handel had written the piece until I got to the opera house.
I have since learned. Like most things, these affairs take practice. The more productions you attend, the more elegantly you navigate them. Countless nights of applauding in awe, holding your breath or denouncing a subpar performance await you. They are nights of experiencing the beauty of human creation with ease and grace, but you’ll never forget the first performance you gloriously stumble through.
PERFORMANCES TO START WITH
Swan Lake. A narrative-driven ballet with beautiful costuming.
Sleeping Beauty. Recognizable music, recognizable storyline. You’ll be pleased.
The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart’s comic opera with opulent costuming.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ok, you’ve heard it. But have you heard it live?
Anything by Puccini. Even if you find yourself lost mid-opera, you’ll be lost in some of the most beautiful music ever written.
Image by Brassai via Green Eyes 55