Beginners Guide to the Opera

The classic Italian operas are time capsules allowing us to see and feel what influenced, inspired and infuriated audiences of the past.  The performing arts have a tendency to capture the feeling of an era and often serve prophetic of the events to unfold.  The classics like Marriage of Figaro or the Barber of Seville, Madame Butterfly are constantly re-imagined and re-focused for modern audiences who may also be experiencing the tumult of the time as our world becomes noisy and more “connected.”

note the LA Opera used a mostly white set to highlight the characters and make them the centerpiece of the show rather than the typical elaborate sets
LA Opera used a mostly white set to highlight the characters rather than the typical elaborate sets

The Opera is a great way to pause out daily routines and enjoy little pieces of history.  This year I have been fortunate enough to visit the opera on several occasions.  The most surprising thing about the opera itself is that some old timely rules like…be nice and courteous are often forgotten in the hype of the experience.  Thus, I wrote a handy list to keep in mind to make sure your experience does not negatively affect those around you while still ensuring that you have a great time.  This list can be applied to any performance but it written with the performing arts in mind…

1. Arrive On Time

Generally, if you arrive to the opera late the ushers will not let you in until the conclusion of a major aria or a scene change.  Some of those arias are the sounds we typically associate with “the Opera”.  For example… “Figaro fi, Figaro fa, ha ha aaaa!!” (LINK) or “Ridi pagliaccio” (LINK); all of that is in there.  Even if you do not recognize them by the name once you listen its like bells going off remembering a childhood commercial or random snippet.

Those arias are some of the most beautiful pieces  you can hear and certainly not something to miss because you did not plan ahead.  Be sure to give yourself extra time to find parking and not be rushed when you arrive.  It does take a few minutes to find your seat and you don’t want to be that person who climbs over everyone during the opening scene.  You also would not want someone who is rushing and is a sweaty mess to sit next to you for a few hours so do unto others and you want them to do unto you.

2. Dress Comfortably

It is a common misconception that everyone at the opera dresses in bow ties and long gowns with little monocle.  Although I would love a monocle that is not how it works.  On opening night you will undoubtedly see couples or families dressed up but there is no dress code per se.  Personally, I enjoy wearing a suit and making it a date night with my wife because it gives us a chance to dress well and enjoy each others company…and lets face it wives like dates.

3. Be Courteous

Many of us forget that performing arts are for the masses and there will be a cast of characters both on and off the stage, so remember to be kind to other patrons.  You never know who you will have to ask to snap a picture of you…it could be the driver of the car you cut off in the parking lot.

4. Don’t lean Forward during the performance (just don’t)

The leaners have a special place in my heart right along side standardized tests.  Concert halls are angled in such a way that the singer’s voice will carry all the way to the furthest reaches of the balcony, but in an effort to aid the acoustics the seats are closely organized and steeply staggered.  When a patron leans forward in their seat they are actually blocking three or four lines of sight behind them.  Its rude and honestly 30 inches of “closeness” will not make a huge difference but it can ruin someone else’s experience.

5. Silence Technology

Duh, no one wants to hear Little John scream “YEAH!!!” or some Lady Gaga ringtone during the show.  I am not knocking anyones choice in music but the point of the opera is to experience the sights and sounds and no one paid to listen to your cheeky ringtone or to be blinded by the light emanating from your phone.

6. Have a general sense of the plot

Gianni Schicchi – 2015

I know that most people will not like this point because it involves doing some homework before the show.  But, let’s be honest a huge percentage of us do not speak Italian, the native language of most operas, and without some sense of where the story is going we will be hopelessly lost for most, if not all of the opera.

Many opera houses have a translation on a screen across the top so anyone can follow along, but these translations are synopsis of everything being said.  It is enough to get the gist, but the clever quips and witty lines get missed if you only base yourself on the language in the prompter.

Also, knowing the plot allows you to appreciate scene adaptations.  Although Barber of Seville is a simple set many companies will modify the set to fit the audiences expectation or go overboard and set the whole opera in a different era and without knowledge of the general plot you will miss the fact those changes are for your benefit and show the flare of each particular company producing the piece.

Don’t forget, enjoy it and support the arts.

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