How To: Understand, Select, and Attend an Opera
© The Flash List
Watching Romeo and Juliet from the balcony of the Music Hall at Fair Park may have piqued our interest in opera at age fourteen, but it was definitely Julia Roberts’ character Vivian in the movie Pretty Woman that really captured it. After Edward (Richard Gere) takes Vivian to the San Francisco Opera to see La Traviata (about a prostitute who falls in love with a wealthy man), Vivan (dressed in a spectacular full-length red gown, white gloves, and exquisite diamond necklace) exclaims, "It was so good, I almost peed my pants."
What is Opera?
Thinking that opera is a boring, antiquated art form patronized only by wealthy snobs who pretentiously critique eighteenth-century melodies sung in foreign languages until the proverbial “fat lady” sings is a sad misconception that couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, opera is an exhilarating showcase of ornate costuming, elaborate scenery, dramatic singing actors, and racy plots about life, death, sex, political intrigue, mistaken identities, star-crossed lovers, and much, much more.
Opera is one of the fastest growing performing art forms in the country right now with many venues specifically catering to the 20 - 40 year old audience demographic. And that makes experiencing this time-honored cultural tradition fairly easy for anyone, especially with a little knowledge in your back pocket.
Opera is a type of theater production in which all the words are sung instead of spoken. The words for an opera are called its libretto (Italian for "little book") which is similar to a play’s script or a movie’s screenplay; and while the text itself is authored by a librettist (similar to a songwriter or lyricist), the accompanying orchestra music (the score) is written by a composer. The orchestra conductor directs the musicians beginning with the very first note of the overture (a musical introduction which sets the mood).
Singing actors are classified by gender and vocal range (how high and low a singer can sing). Males generally fall into the categories of bass (lowest), baritone (middle range), and tenor (high); while females are specified as contralto (lowest), mezzo soprano (middle), and soprano (high). Sometimes mezzo soprano females are cast for trouser roles in which they play the part of a young boy whose voice has not yet changed.
Operas consist of acts and scenes featuring songs and recitative (sing-speak dialogue), and two common types include opera buffa (a comic opera) and opera seria (based on a serious topic). But unlike movies or typical plays, operas feature a number of diversions including arias (solo vocal performances expressing a character’s emotions), musical interludes (instrumentals played between scenes), and several minutes of applause after especially moving performances. Therefore, it takes longer to move through the plot; so most operas are about 2½ to 3 hours including a 20 minute or so intermission which allows time to stretch, chit chat, get a snack, and run to the restroom.
While some operas are sung in English, most are performed in their original language (usually Italian, French, or German) in order to preserve the musical value of certain syllables which may not otherwise translate fluidly. However, audiences can easily keep up with the storyline just by reading the English supertitles (also called surtitles) which are projected above the stage during the performance. Note that supertitles don’t necessarily repeat when the singers do.
Selecting an Opera
Many operas tend to have complicated or controversial themes; so in order to choose one that is suited to your personal tastes, you might listen to CD’s, watch DVD’s, or review plotlines beforehand (though you may want to watch out for spoiler alerts). Listening to an opera (or parts of it) before attending a performance is like listening to an album before attending a concert. It’s just more fun when you understand the words (although you absolutely mustn’t sing along at the opera).
You can also subscribe to opera news magazines, browse opera related websites, or utilize opera reference books such as The Grove Book of Operas by Stanley Sadie. Sometimes movie theaters broadcast live and encore performances of currently running opera productions which you can view for a nominal price, or you could just consider buying tickets for inexpensive seats if you are new or would like to check your level of interest.
It doesn’t really matter how you access information; you just don’t want to be so wrapped up in trying to follow the plot that you miss out on appreciating the intricacies of the music.
Be prompt and in your seat well before the performance is scheduled to begin. Give yourself enough time to navigate traffic, park the car, check your coat, and find your seat. You will want to have plenty of time to get settled in, read over your program notes, and do a little people-watching before the house lights dim. In consideration of other audience members, latecomers are typically not seated until there is a pause in singing or a scene change which means that they may have to wait until intermission and watch the performance on the television monitors in the lobby.
Arriving early allows you to stroll the lobby, get a drink, attend any pre-concert lectures, check out the warm up action in the orchestra pit (the sunken area right in front of the stage), and go to the restroom (some operas are quite long, so it might be a while before you get another opportunity).
Dos and Don’ts
Do bring binoculars or opera glasses, especially if you’re on an upper balcony.
Do turn off your cell phone, pager, and/or watch alarm.
Do refrain from talking during the opera including the introductory overture.
Do unwrap cough drops or small pieces of candy ahead of time.
Do applaud after all the arias and chorus pieces but not in the middle of scenes.
Do experience the music, but only on your inside …
Don’t tap along with your fingers or feet, especially on someone else’s chair.
Don’t take photos during the performance.
Don’t read your program during the program.
Operas are notorious for using silent pauses to create dramatic effect, so be careful about clapping. If you are not sure when to clap, just wait for others in the crowd and follow their lead. Otherwise, feel free to lavish your applause after the overture, after a well-executed aria or duet, at the end of a particularly moving scene, anytime singers come out to take a bow, or at the end of the show. Operagoers are extremely enthusiastic; and to express fervent appreciation, they may scream "Bravo!" (for a male performer) or "Brava!" (for a female performer) or “Bravi!” (for two or more performers).
When to Eat
Most operas are quite long, so you will definitely want to eat before the show. The size of the meal is the variable though. If you feel that a full stomach might cause you to get sleepy during a show, then eat something light beforehand and have dinner afterwards. You can always get a snack or caffeinated beverage during intermission if necessary. Otherwise, you may choose to eat a full, early dinner at the opera house or a nearby restaurant before the performance (and maybe go for dessert afterward!)
What to Wear
Dress at the opera these days covers the gamut all the way from ball gowns to blue jeans. Tuxes and long dresses are quite common on opening night of the opera season each year; but they’re certainly not required, and business attire is considered the norm. Dress pants or a nice skirt would be perfectly suitable, though patrons do tend to dress more casually for mid-week performances and Sunday matinees. Feel free to dress up or dress comfortably, but remember that just because you can dress casually doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Wearing flip-flops and a t-shirt may not get you kicked out of the opera house, but it’s not exactly appropriate and it’s sure to get you some disapproving glances. Also, it may be cool in the theater; so if you get chilled easily, you may want to take a wrap or wear something with long sleeves.
Opera companies often make open casting calls for supernumeraries (which are like movie extras). Supers do not sing or have speaking parts, but are rather used onstage in large crowd scenes or in background roles such as guards, peasants, servants, etc. Now that’s delving into the action! Free show seating is also sometimes offered for volunteers who help with ushering, ticketing duties, etc. Just check with your local arts venues.
No matter how involved you get though from spectator to performer, always feel free to formulate your own opinions about opera despite what any of the critics might say. Like books or movies or food, personal taste is extremely subjective and the best operas are the ones that you love the most.
La boheme, Puccini
Carmen, Georges Bizet
The Magic Flute, Mozart
Don Giovanni*, Mozart
The Marriage of Figaro*, Mozart
The Barber of Seville, Gioacchino Rossini
Madama Butterfly , Puccini
La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi
Cosi fan tutte, Mozart
L'elisir d'amore, Donizetti
Il Trovatore, Verdi
Pirates of Penzance, Sullivan, Aruthur
Romeo & Juliet, Gounod
Porgy & Bess, Gershwin
*Considered to be one of the greatest operas ever written.
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