With its formal dress, foreign languages and shouts of bravo, attending the opera can seem a bit daunting to the outsider. But it doesn’t have to be. If your closest brush with the art form is Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in “What’s Opera, Doc?” here’s a quick, dirty and highly subjective guide on how to attend.
Why I like opera: In a sense, it’s a combination of the best of all art forms — the best music, sets, costumes and dancing. Furthermore, it gets darker than many other art forms. I’ve seen musicals in which nearly every character dies, only to have them come back for one last rousing number to send the audience into the streets humming. Not so with opera, where the stories often end with the most devastating things imaginable happening.
Starting off, stick with the classics: I’m not trying to wave you off of Richard Wagner or any other composer, but if you’re worried that one bad opera experience will scar you forever, the tried-and-true audience favorites are the way to go.
Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” may seem like opera’s equivalent of ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” But it’s popular for a reason. “Carmen” has a fantastic story, great characters, Spanish dancing and a score that you can probably already hum most of.
Georges Bizet is my favorite — I think the tenor-baritone duet in “The Pearl Fishers” is the most beautiful piece of music on the planet — but Giuseppe Verdi is generally considered the gold standard. It’s hard to go wrong with Giacomo Puccini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as well.
Do your homework: Like William Shakespeare, your enjoyment of the opera will be magnified by how much effort you make ahead of time. It’s common for audience members to listen to a recording of the show or read the libretto beforehand to refresh themselves. I recommend at least reading a synopsis of the plot.
Wikipedia can do the trick, but if you prefer your synopses in book form, I’m a fan of Eyewitness Companions’ “Opera,” by Alan Riding and Leslie Dunton-Downer. It’s accessible, attractively laid out, and provides a good synopsis of the most popularly performed operas. For something more in-depth, try Sir Denis Forman’s “A Night at the Opera.”
Supertitles: Worried that you don’t speak French or Italian? Don’t panic. Most opera companies — including the Virginia Opera — project the dialogue above the stage in English (it’s usually someone ranting about love or jealousy). Even operas in English like “Porgy and Bess” often have supertitles, because it can be hard to make out the words. At some opera houses, the supertitles are displayed on small seat-back screens.
Tickets and seating: If you don’t mind sitting in the nosebleeds, tickets are less expensive than you think, starting around $25 for the Virginia Opera. While closer seats might give you a better view, opera is such a showy medium that you won’t miss as much of the action as you would at a standard play. The visuals translate well, and you can still hear everything perfectly. Also, just because a seat is more expensive doesn’t mean it’s a better spot. In many opera houses, the best place to hear is at the front of the balcony, not the orchestra level. Savings also come from subscribing or buying group tickets.
Run time: Though it won’t be exact like a movie run time, a little research can let you know how long an opera will be. Most operas are in the two- to four-hour range, with a varying number of intermissions. Take advantage of the restroom during these breaks.
What to wear: Traditionally, opera garb consists of tuxedos for men and formal wear for women, but Richmond prides itself on being a casual city. Friday openings will have a few tuxes, but mainly business suits for men and formal or cocktail dresses for women. Sunday matinees are very casual here, with anything other than jeans and a T-shirt seemingly OK. Perhaps business casual or casual chic is the mark to hit. Virginia Opera performs its shows in three cities: Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax. If you happen to attend an opening night in Norfolk, many men will wear tuxedos, so dress appropriately.
Audience participation: When it comes to clapping, simply do what everyone around you does. A pause in the singing is sometimes only for dramatic effect, or to bring attention to an orchestral interlude. Just relax, and wait for everyone else.
After an aria — a long-song solo — shouts of “bravo!” are meant to applaud male singers, “brava!” for female — though “bravo!” seems to be fine for both sexes in modern times.
Just don’t shout “bravissimo.”
It sounds pretentious.
The Fall Season
Virginia Opera is staging three performances this fall, starting with a doubleheader of “The Seven Deadly Sins” and “Pagliacci” (Oct. 14 and 16), followed by “The Barber of Seville” (Nov. 18 and 20). Both are at the Carpenter Theatre.
Best known for “The Threepenny Opera,” Kurt Weill collaborated again with playwright Bertolt Brecht on “Seven Deadly Sins.” This sung ballet is about sisters, named Anna I and Anna II, who travel through seven American cities in seven years to encounter each of the seven deadly sins. Virginia Opera’s production will star Weill specialist Ute Gfrerer in her American operatic stage debut.
Meta before meta was a thing, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” tells the story of Canio, a clown who must play an onstage character who’s been cuckolded after finding out about his wife’s real-life infidelity. Before things end horrifically for all involved, we’re treated to “Vesti la giubba,” one of the best tenor arias around.
Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” is an opera buffa, or comic opera, about men seeking the same woman’s hand in marriage. Figaro, Italy’s answer to Falstaff, is a mischievous barber who helps the Count Almaviva woo the beautiful Rosina. Filled with comic antics, disguises and such great Rossini tunes as “Largo al factotum,” “Barber” is considered by many to be the greatest comic opera ever written.