Opera – a curious art form for the curious.

Well, the Asheville Lyric Opera is about to start another season, this time with the fun but slightly cryptic The Magic Flute by Mozart under the baton of Asheville Symphony Maestro, Daniel Meyer. So it’s time for a few remarks on opera the art form and Opera the Social activity.  

I am a long time opera buff, my first exposure in Saint Louis in 1988, my most recent in Asheville in the 2008-9 season and my experience has gone from neophyte to upper intermediate, I hope to advance to expert some day but right now have some health issues dragging me down…BUT that does not mean that I still attend the shows I enjoy and gleefully boycott the ones I hate. 

Opera is like any other art – it has tricks, layers, nuances, and styles, but it should in the end come down to what you like. Anyone treating it solely as an intellectual problem or a status symbol is missing the point. 

Opera was the TV of it’s day, you brought the family, laughed at the jokes, ate from the concessions stands, applauded a good scene and booed a bad one. 

And most of that is still acceptable unless you are a “culture vulture” opera snob – more on those in a bit, but there are still some basic rules and some good ideas. I’ll break it down into “student” levels for you readers out there. 


Okay, you have never been to an opera before. Perhaps some family member insists? Or you were just curious? Or maybe you are a theater hound seeking some cross-over experience. Well, relax. There is nothing to worry about. It’s just another show. And while there are rules in concert going , there always are and they are always usually just common sense. (Don’t wear a tux to an AC/DC show, don’t bring beer to an opera.) 

At first all the glitz and the cliches might be intimidating but trust me, everyone here, from the Maestro on down, puts their pants on the same way. The primary reason to be here is to enjoy the experience and have some fun. 

Let’s start with some basic preparedness, however. 

It’s a good idea to find out a little about the opera before you go. There are as many types of opera as there are movies or TV shows and that means that some of them are short, some long, some tragic, and some blow your wine out your nose funny. 

Barber of Seville by Rossini is very much the latter, Madame Butterfly by Puccini is much more the former. And then there is Wagner – which is both a whole category unto itself, long, bombastic, full of women in metal underclothes and horned helmets and weird half quasi-androgynous Aryan warrior types, and (unfortunately) what most people think about when they think of opera. 

Most first time opera goers are surprised by how very little other operas resemble this snapshot impression formed by commercials, books by culture vultures, and poorly written TV shows. 

So find out the name of the show and Google or Wiki it. Then you’ll at least have some idea what to expect. Remember that most operas are also in a foreign language – usually French, Italian, or German. There are English ones but they are few and far between. Some solutions to this problem are to

  • learn some basic terms. “Maestro/Maestra” is the conductor. “Pit” is the recessed area for the orchestra, “score” is the book of the music, “libretto” is the “lyrics” and so on.
  • read a plot synopsis or summery (available online)
  • read the libretto. It is a translation of what the singers are saying into English and sometimes even English idiom
  • some theaters now offer supertitles – a running translation of what’s going on on an LCD screen positioned above the stage. (A word of warning on relying on these, sometimes the tech misses lines and sometimes the screen fails.)
  • listen to a CD (many come with librettos) or get a DVD of the show before you go.
  • read your program notes before the curtain rises – these usually include a summery, a cast list, and some background 

The next thing to worry about is how to dress and how to act – and here I will insert a note on culture vultures. 

A culture vulture is a person who comes to the opera for one of three reasons(well that is a vast simplification but for simplicity’s sake we’ll hold to three). 

  1. They are a wealthy usually white -but not always – individuals from a prominent family or who wish to create one and thus contribute to the Arts (always capitalized for them) and who attend “the performances” because that is “what is done.” They will almost always be dressed in formal attire, will usually be above forty years of age, and will usually be WASPs. Beware, these WASPs sting. They are opinionated, have a smattering of opera education, are often snobbish, and will drop names and performances going back centuries. They will also use shortened forms of the shows’ name, as in “the Met’s Boheme was better than Saint Louis’s this year.” and “Butterfly is such an overrated piece, it is just Puccini.” They will know how the composer’s name is pronounced and the show’s, but they will also have read just the summery or a Cliff’s Note version of the libretto at most.
  2. They are opera snobs who believe that a little opera makes them better than the common “ilk”. These types know the composer, the title, a few things about past performances – “bloopers”, opening dates, and so on, and a rough shotgun history of opera in general and tonight’s offering in particular. They will also shorten titles, but worse, they will shorten singer names and refer to them as if they knew them.
  3. They are wannabes and wish-they-weres. They know a lot about the singers and about past “shows”. They will have opera programs and schedules and occasionally even librettos in their bags. The more pretentious ones will have the vocal scores – but and look for this – in good condition. A working singer’s score will contain page markers, pencil markings (never pen since arrangements and cuts change), and notes on what the orchestra and stage crew are doing; not to mention coffee, makeup, chocolate and other unidentifiable stains all over it. So will a real student’s copy. Wannabes read the English, sometimes the music, but almost never the foreign parts, or all three – notation, English, foreign. 

So as a beginner it is wise to avoid these guys if possible and to indulge in a little protective camouflage. 

Dress well. While it is not unusual to see Goth, cyberpunk, anime, and other clique wear at an opera as it is unusually popular with these intellectual and retro misfits, it is guaranteed that no matter how genuine their love of opera or the fact that they bought a ticket that they will receive some hostile looks and even collect a few uncouth remarks from the vultures. Not to mention from the ushers – usually aging vultures, and from security people whom best I can tell have been told to harass everyone but wealthy donor patrons. 

You don’t have to wear a tux, or even a tie, but leave you tee-shirts and jeans at home. Try to wear things that fit known patterns as well. A polo and slacks and loafers, or a button down, tie, blazer, slacks, and more formal shoes. Wearing a suit coat over a “F#ck you” or other “clever” tee-shirt makes you stand out even more than the full Goth kit. 

Turn off your cell phone, leave the iPod, iPhone, Android, etcetera in your car. 

Be polite, try not to swear or to hold incredibly loud or rude conversations, and have your tickets ready.

Here in America, we are oddly a bit more formalized about audience response than our European cousins, so some things are good to know. 

  • Americans and Europeans both applaud after a good aria, scene or act and at the conductor’s entrance, curtain rise, and curtain calls. Americans tend to stick to applause whereas in Europe you will still hear booing or whistling (which is the European equivalent of a “boo”) if someone messes up. They will also stomp their feet. The loosest Americans get is that we will indulge in levels of clap volume from a light patter for “okay you did your job” to heavy applause for a good scene and we will whistle for a real good performer.
  • If you think the performer did well then shouting “Bravo” is encouraged. It’s technically “Bravo “ for the men and “Brava” for the ladies. “Bravissima/o” is just pretentious and ignorant.
  • Laughter is perfectly acceptable…except at a Wagner opera for some reason.
  • Cameras and especially flash photography, and cell phone pics are gauche, rude, and often against the rules. Operas are copyrighted and performances are unique. Would you take pictures of a movie screen? Show the real people that much respect at least.
  • Don’t put your feet up on the chair in front of you, don’t eat or drink, and if you absolutely must cough try to do it before, at intermission, or after. Many theaters provide free cough drops at the door. Take some.
  • And keep the paper rattling to a minimum. Real aficionados do not read programs, scores, librettos, or their emails and texts during the show. The sound and the lights are distracting to the audience and the performers.
  • It is acceptable to talk to the conductor, the musicians in the pit and to the performers but it is usually best to do so after the show or during the prearranged “meet-n-greets”. Before the show a lot of study and last minute rehearsal is going on, at intermission the conductor and the orchestra are usually making corrections and notes of what they just did and on what needs to come next or have gone back stage for a much needed rest, and scenes are being changed and costumes prepped. So if you have a question, compliment or something that needs to be shared or want an autograph try going up in the first five minutes after the last curtain call…or go to any arranged lectures, receptions, and so forth.
  • Oh, and opera singers/players/conductors do not wish each other luck but rather “toi toi” (sounds like “toy toy”) which comes from a rather obscure bit of theater, entertaining, and opera ritual originally from Italian Rome where each performance was referred to as “entering the Wolf’s mouth” (in Rome, wolf=state=guy who funds you) and was a fervent wish that at the end of the show the wolf would spit you out alive and able to preform another day (rather than canceled at best or executed by a capricious and disapproving state at worst.) ptooi, ptooi – and “toi, toi”. 

And that’s really all you need to know as a beginner. 


Well, obviously all of the above applies to you as well, but there are a few things I might add. You are either here because you are an actor, a singer, a stage technician, a musician, or an addict. To you I would recommend some extracurricular studies. You might want to get your hands on some more advance materials. (Aaron Copeland’s “What to Listen for in Music” is a good start.) I would also suggest a copy of the libretto, preferably a bilingual one, the vocal score, or even the score. You might want more than one copy of the CDs and DVDs so that you can compare stylistic differences and nuance and the might want to look into some basic history in your field. Some books on music or theater theory, and an attempt at a backstage pass might also be in order. For the last, befriend someone in the cast and buy them a drink or a meal after the show…or look into educational access programs in your region. You might want to learn a little of the original languages as well and maybe try to read along to a DVD in those. It adds a level of meaning -jokes, inside dramas, etc, that are often missed in English. And subscribe to some newsletters…find out about when and where very opera related events are happening and go to them. And muck up your materials, take notes, ask questions, be attentive. 

You might also choose to attend any open dress rehearsals. This is the full show but with interruptions where the singers, conductors, stage crew and technicians can all stop at any time and clean up last minute errors or oddities. It’s a great way to look behind the scenes and see some of the actual work behind the illusion. And it let’s the various performers refine their acts in the face of a real audience. Did you laugh at Don Pasquale’s butt? Moan upon Scarpa’s dreaded entrance? Laugh at Falstaff and cry at Madama Butterfly’s death? They are watching you as you watch them and your reactions have much to do with how the show opens. 


(Note: Advice here will be limited as I am not really advanced.) 

All of the above applies to you, of course, but you are definitely going to want books on theory, documentaries, CDs, DVDs, scores, librettos, lecture schedules, and as much immersion as you can get. For you, the languages are a must. You would not believe how much is lost in translation and how much a good singer or conductor’s interpretation of the show depends on what the composer actually wrote. And then, depending on how serious you are, you might want to consider some college courses in your field as well. 

Et Voila. And now with all that said, go get dressed, find a partner and go off to the show. Have a great evening of wine, women/men, and song, and “toi,toi.”

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: