Dedicated to those who have never been to the opera before.
My first encounter with opera took place when I was seven years old. As you know, seven is a magic number. And that encounter holds something prodigious, if not miraculous.
The chandeliers dimmed. The conductor entered the pit and the audience clapped. He lifted the baton. A sudden, electrifying fragment of silence and then the notes of the overture began to flow.
To many people opera seems an esoteric art but even for its neophytes, with the right tricks, opera may become an enticing form of entertainment and much more than that.
As the COC (Canadian Opera Company) is about to kick the last part of its season (and with one of the most popular titles of all time, Puccini’s La Bohème), many of my friends – knowing that I am an eager melomane (in Italian, opera-lover) – have asked me to provide some advice about their first time at the opera. An art form that seems stiff, luscious, obsolete and, ultimately, boring.
Beyond the charm of a night out sporting some fancy clothes and an even (hopefully) more charming date, what is to appreciate in an opera? How should opera virgins navigate the score, the plot, the arias, the singing and so on and so forth?
At seven years old, I voraciously witnessed the love (dis)adventures of a late-Nineteenth-century poet in his famous “The Tales of Hoffmann” – “Les contes d’Hoffmann”, an opéra fantastique set to music by Jacques Offenbach.
I remained glued to my seat for nearly 2 hours and a half listening and contemplating Hoffmann’s chronicles and his many, ill-starred loves. It was one of the most mesmerizing experiences of my whole life, an event that sparked my imagination and made me dream for many years to come. No surprise that a year later I decided to start learning how to play the violin. But this is another story…
If your ears are used to staying under someone’s umbrella (ella, ella, eeh, eeh), if your eyes are familiar with only certain types of darkness and not that of an opera house where it is never really completely dark, where in silence you perceive the outspoken excitement of your neighbour for the overture as soon as the lights dim or the next aria, if you are planning to go and see the adventures of either Mimì and Rodolfo or Otello, then the few tips below may be of great help.
The 7 opera key tips
1. An opera is not too different from an old film, and as a film it is always good to watch the trailer and get informed beforehand. Contrary to a movie, opera is often in a language you may not know, mainly in Italian (or German or French), hence it is vital to read a brief synopsis if you want to enjoy the full drama and understand what goes on on stage. Reading and knowing the plot helps a lot. Surtitles are always provided, but sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy the singing.
2. Have a look at the article regarding the opera on Wikipedia, it is the best and easiest way to familiarize with it.
You can read about the main characters, who they are, what they do, and also some more technical details: what their role entails, if they are a soprano, a tenor or a mezzo, if they have a particular range, if the orchestra has to face some exceptionally challenging musical pieces and the like.
3. Listen to the overture, the opening musical piece that ushers the audience to the whole work. It often presents some musical themes that recur throughout the drama, without mentioning that some of them are great pieces in their own right.
4. Following the plot line, listen to the most popular (and beautiful) arias, perhaps a couple of times each (and read the translation), thus you can train your ear and become familiar with some musical pieces you’ll look forward to listening to. In other words, it won’t be all new, exotic and foreign.
5. Get some information about the composer and the librettist to get a better sense of the whole work.
Interesting enough, operas are usually referred to by the name of the composer alone (that is, the musician). The name of the unrecognized librettist (the wordsmith who wrote the libretto, or the verses, or the lyrics) remains often in the dark. But you should know that rarely a composer is also a librettist and viceversa: one is a professional note-smith, the other a (more or less) refined poet. A few instances in the history of opera bear the names of both composer and librettist, as in the case of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, a duo that had fruitful collaboration (giving birth to some brilliant operas).
6. Given the fact that operas are often adapted to contemporary taste and time, you should always get some info about the production you are going to see: who the director is, what her or his style entails, who the conductor, who the singers, “have they sung this role before? Is this a new production or a re-staging?”. This will give some context to what you are going to see. Many opera companies and opera houses provide well-written notes to introduce the patrons to the production, but I find always nice and useful to arrive sufficiently prepared.
7. Finally and foremost, go in with an open mind, heart and ears. Decide to go with someone who is as excited as you are for this new experience that interweaves music, singing, costumes, lighting and props.
How to dress
Another common question that I am usually asked is “what should I wear?”
In North America, the vibe is pretty laid-back. Something that, I have to say, I ultimately appreciate: it allows a sense of comfort and easiness. For the gentlemen I would recommend a (blue) suit, for the ladies something pretty and elegant but never too extravagant or cumbersome, unless there is a gala or a party following the show. Trains can remain on the railways and should not shadow your heels.
What to avoid
Don’t clap at the end of every single aria (a musical piece sung by one or more singers). The opera has to flow. Your clapping is only going to detract from the beauty of the stream of the music and singing. If it is your first time, wait until the others do so.
Don’t chew during the spectacle. No gum (and guns) allowed, a sign should read at the entrance of opera houses.
Thank God popcorn and pop are forbidden in most North American theatres, but your minty breath is less important than the enjoyment of a “Nessun dorma” or “Casta diva” paced by the torturous chewing coming from your mouth.
And please, do not stand up at the end of the show – unless it is wholeheartedly felt – especially if you have someone behind you, therefore you may obstruct their views.
I know, we all want to cheer and give a great round of applause to our favourites on stage bust standing up does not magnify your appreciation. But it can jeopardize that of those around or behind you. As per the same principle, wear considerately: no big hats, no funny feathers in your coif, nothing towering from your head or from the back of your dress: you are there for the music and the singing, it is not a runway show. Let’s save trains and feathers for another occasion!