pOpera the cherry

by Sebastiano Bazzichetto

VENEZIA – Amongst the many things I cannot wait to get back to (after all of this will be finally over), going to the opera, sitting in a gilded, velvet-clad box is undoubtedly one of the first on my list.

A few months ago I penned a vademecum for those who have never been to an opera before. To the lines that you may venture to read below, I’d add only another suggestion: if it is your first time or the first time for someone who is accompanying you, don’t go (only) for the ‘big names.’ Don Giovanni or Le nozze di Figaro are not simple works of art. I’d recommend to look for something shorter and funnier (according to our modern taste): the catalogue of Rossini’s opere buffe will definitely do the job.

The Florentine Camerata de’ Bardi is the first “club” that attempted to restore the ancient Greek tragedy, ending up with the creation of melodrammas and operas

And now, back to Opera and your very first time!

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.

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?

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013 • Photo © Michael Cooper

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 familiarise 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.

Italian soprano Luciana Serra hailed as one of the greatest Queens of the Night of the 20th century in Mozart’s “The magic flute” (Die Zauberflöte)

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 unrecognised 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?”

A masked ball at the opera in the 18th century

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!

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