I was love in with opera music long before I ever went to one. But the first time I ever went to one was like the first time you make love to someone you love. As a young woman I had been in love without making love, and I had made love without being in love. I thought I knew a bit about both, until I made love to someone I was in love with. And then I realised I knew nothing.
Being at the opera is for me right up there with making love to someone I love, holding my babies in my arms as they fall asleep, or standing on a beach in a storm as the waves crash around me. It’s one of the things that defines a good life for me. I would be devastated if I thought I could never go again. I often think it would be lovely to die at the opera, for that to be the last thing I experience (although perhaps not so nice for everyone else there!). But like all good things there is a price to pay. This joy doesn’t come free and I am not just talking about the ticket price.
Going to the opera is something I had to learn about, something a bit challenging. And sadly for a lot of people that’s off putting – it stops them having the opportunity to experience live opera. It’s a world of its own you have to learn to navigate. So if you never been, but sometimes fancy the idea of it, I wanted to share a few thoughts for opera virgins. This first part is all about getting there, being there, and what to do afterwards.
The ‘It’s All Poshies” Myth
Well yes, some people who go to the opera are very posh, or very rich, or both. But equally a large number are neither of those things. Anyway the poshies will all be downstairs in the stalls or the first balcony. It’s like transatlantic planes, you all go in the same door but they turn left and you turn right and you don’t see each other again till the end. The thing to remember is that most posh people are just like you – they are there for the music. A few aren’t. They are there because their partners insisted they use the freebies their employer offers as incentives, as they want a chance to get all dressed up and go out for the night. You can spot them quite easily. The partner is madly overdressed, claps at the wrong bits, and the employee is asleep before the overture finishes.
The “Everyone will be Ancient” Myth
OK there is a good chance this is true. The bulk of the opera and classical music audience is older, and from up in the cheap seats this will be immediately obvious as you scan row after row of grey haired heads. There are lots of reasons for this. None of them have anything to do with whether or not you will enjoy the music and / or performance. One is that there is a stigma attached to opera going amongst many young people, and it can be hard to overcome that until, well, you are older. Another is that some folks work their way through lots of other music genres before they get round to opera. And of course the myth of the astronomical ticket prices (see below) puts a lot of folks off even considering going.
But just think, if you are young everyone will smile at you gratefully and you will attract lots of admiring looks. And if you are a grey hair – why then you will fit right in.
The “I Won’t Know What They Are On About” Myth
OK with a few exceptions no matter what language it’s in and your fluency in said language you won’t catch much of what they “say”. You’ll be too busy listening to the music, trying to remember if the woman dressed as a man snogging the man dressed as a woman whilst singing the most furious aria (song) you have ever heard is meant to be “her” brother or “his” mother, and why there is a giant anus on stage …. if it’s a Bieito production. If it’s a Zambello production you will be wondering if the diva cried when they made her put on a dress made of 1940s curtain fabric and sing while French and Saunders wander around rolling cigars on their thighs. You can respond in one of two ways to this:
– if as a child you obsessively collected every Matchbox car or Sylvania Families character, and then arranged them on your bedroom shelf in alphabetical order, and then used the electrical science toy your aunt gave you for Christmas to make a burglar alarm tripwire to protect your pride and joy from your sibling and their thieving hands… get the libretto (the script) and CD of the opera and listen to it with the libretto a few times before you go. Then you will be able to broadly keep up with what the hell is going, at least until the giant anus distracts you. You can usually find the libretto free online – though not always with an appropriate translation for your language. (PS a by product of opera going is that you pick up surprisingly large amounts of other languages trying to figure out what the hell is going on).
– if as a child you frequently used your James Bond Spy Kit and the penknife your mum wishes your uncle hadn’t given you for Christmas to aid you in your efforts to mess up the arrangement of your sibling’s Matchbox Car / Sylvania Families display in order to amuse yourself watching them go berserk with anal-retentive rage, just go along and enjoy the music and make up an appropriate story in your head to go with it.
The ‘”You Have to Dress Fancy” Myth
I’ve seen people who look like they walked off a Vogue fashion shoot (in fact some of them probably did) and I’ve seen people who look like they were cleaning the streets just before they stepped inside the theatre (that’s usually the director by the way…). It varies a lot from opera house to house, and country to country. Houses in Germany are usually less formal. In France they are a bit more formal but there are house to house variations. For example at the Palais Garnier in Paris you see some pretty snazzy dressers. But audiences at the Theatre des Champs Elysees down the road tend to look more like attendees at a conference on Latest Trends in Agricultural Accountancy.
You will see people all gussied up but you will also see people dressed very casually. Wear whatever you like, regardless of how hard you try you are unlikely to be the oddest person there. Remember – it’s the opera – the people on the stage will most likely look like they fell off the catwalk at the Remnant Fabrics Fashion Show (1974). Unless it’s a Christoph Loy production in which case they will all, male and female performers, be in white shirts and black suits (see White Shirts).
Anyway you’re going to be in the cheap seats and people rarely dress up much more than “clean clothes and a good wash” (latter optional). The key thing to remember is that that no matter how you dress no one will make you feel uncomfortable, or if they do everyone around will think exactly what you are thinking… It begins with P, ends in K and there is a RIC in the middle.
Regarding clothes one thing to bear in mind is that opera houses are usually uncomfortably hot – especially up in the cheap seats (heat, and all the posh people’s hot air, rises). Winter or summer, make sure that at some point you can strip down to a comfortable layer without frightening the slightly obsessive older gentleman fan of whatever diva is singing that you will inevitably have found yourself sitting next to. Oh by the way he will frighten you a bit later by screaming Brava at the top of his lungs whenever said Diva pauses for breath. Don’t worry, it’s normal. Well, common at any rate.
The Myth of the Astronomical Ticket Price
There are indeed some eye-watering ticket prices out there for opera goers with independent incomes, or employers who sponsor tickets. I have paid over a hundred pounds for tickets yes, but that is very rare. More usually I am paying between £10 and £40 pounds. There are a number of ways to avoid financial distress in the pursuit of opera going:
- Go high – generally speaking the higher you are, the further back from the front row in your section, and the further to the side you are in any opera house, the cheaper. There are reasons for this – the higher up, the less you see the stage. The further to the side, the more obscured your view of the stage regardless of how close you are. It depends what you are most interested in but as for me it’s mainly (though not exclusively) the music I tend to go for a seat higher up (usually the top balcony) but as close to the centre of the front row of the balcony as I can get. The acoustics of opera houses mean that most times the best sound is up there anyway. And though in most larger houses you won’t see so much from up there you could always bring some binoculars (I am being serious – small binoculars or “opera glasses” will be in evidence up in the top balcony).
- Stand – that should be “stand” really. Most opera houses have spaces for standing but they usually come with either a bar to rest against or a perching spot. These spaces often have very limited stage views but they are very cheap.
- Go while you are travelling. Opera houses in Eastern Europe, and in some Western European countries, often have cheaper tickets than their equivalents in the UK.
- Watch out for concessions and deals. Many houses are aware of the need to replenish the audience. Some offer cheaper tickets on certain days, or for certain groups of people, or reserve some for purchase on the day of the performance at a cheap rate for people who can queue for them.
The “I Won’t Know What To Do Myth”
OK let’s be honest – quite a lot of folks who go to the opera are a bit, err, weird. There are rules in audiences you need to learn. When to clap, when to clap rhythmically, when to shout, and what, when to stamp your feet. When it’s over. To make things worse, different countries have different audience cultures. In Italy they are very happy to shout loud abuse at the cast and crew if they feel they deserve it, or if they just feel a bit cranky that day and need to de-stress. In the UK shouting (Bravo, Brava, Bravi) used to be very rare and will still occasion a “must be a foreigner” wince from some of the natives. In Germany people often stamp their feet in appreciation, which can be rather frightening if you don’t know what is happening! Don’t worry and follow these simple rules:
– If you are in the middle of a row sit down early to avoid the awkward “make half a row stand up and then wiggle uncomfortably intimately across them all to get to your seat” situation. Unless you fancy someone in your row in which case hey knock yourself out.
– Do not cough, I know sometimes it can be hard to stifle, but you can and you WILL. It’s bloody annoying. If you really must – wait for a loud bit! Cough sweets (unwrapped before the opera begins!!) are very handy for cough stifling.
– Wait till others clap before you do. But count to five before you join in. Go too fast and you might end up with the premature clapper group. Not easy to live down.
– Take a hanky. I don’t care who you are or what the opera is, there’s a very good chance you will have a good cry at some point. Quiet sniffling is the only acceptable noise at the opera unless you are very elderly or very young and in the top balcony in which case humming along a bit is cute as long as it’s not too loud.
– If you loved it, wait till the applause is well established and then make any noises you like. Whoop, shout, sob. Show your appreciation and let the pent up emotion rip. This is also a good time to get chatting to your seat neighbour who, if you are British, you will probably have been studiously ignoring until then.
– Afterwards, make time to keep the feeling going. Don’t rush home. Go for a drink, take a wander, or (if you are not British) hang out at the stage door for a glimpse of the diva (if the elderly gentleman from earlier doesn’t obscure your view with the giant teddy bear he has brought for her). If you are British and with “continental” friends be wary of their attempts to lure you into an autograph queue or the to the stage door. They can be very devious, just run away shouting “I’ll see you at Bar Such and Such later”. It’s better for everyone.
So there you have it – a guide to getting to the opera for the first time. If you know anyone who is into it, ask to tag along. Opera fans and football fans have a lot in common, the average opera fan will be delighted you are interested, only to happy to share everything they know and all their passions with you, and will do everything they can to make sure you have a great time and come again.
No matter what you think you think about opera, if you have never been then the odds are highly stacked in favour of you have an amazing and life changing time. Happy opera going!