A Beginner's Guide to Opera

Do I need to know the story before seeing the opera?

The short answer is 'No'! A good production will be the perfect combination of beautiful music, and compelling drama. You wouldn't read the plot of a new play before you saw it, would you? It’s the same for opera. The only difference is how you understand it. Lots of opera is sung in the language of the composer who wrote it, and for the audience who would hear it.  So Puccini and Verdi wrote in Italian, Bizet in French, Wagner in German, Dvořák in Czech, and Tchaikovsky in Russian. Today, performances in other languages will have surtitles above the stage for you to follow, or in the backs of the chairs so it’s just like watching a foreign film.

Here at OperaUpClose, we think it's important to have the lyrics in the language of our audiences (that was how opera originated after all) so, we commission new English versions, and make sure that singers’ words are clear, so you’ll understand every word, and not miss a single punch line!

Having said all that, there is no harm in being prepared. If you’ll feel more confident about trying opera by familiarising yourself with the story beforehand (and you don’t mind knowing the ending), then you’ll be able to find the plots of almost any opera online.

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What do I wear?

Whatever you like. 

We like to answer that question with ''what would you wear to the pub?''.  If that's jeans, trainers and a t-shirt, that's fine. If it's a suit, that's also fine.

There are some places that will have strict dress codes, like the big summer festivals at Glyndebourne and Garsington etc., when you'll have to wear black tie, but most theatres are much less formal these days. 

When can I clap?

To clap, or not to clap? That is a question that divides audiences, and definitely puts off new-comers. The whole ‘no-applause’ rule was actually born in Germany in the late nineteenth century, and was violently disapproved of by many composers at the time. In the eighteenth century, composers wanted their audiences to clap after arias, between movements in concerts, and even after particularly showy passages within sections. It was a seal of approval. However, by the nineteenth century, some composers began to remove breaks in their music to prevent applause, and clapping started to become frowned upon in all situations. If you fancy reading more about clapping check out what The New Yorker‘s music critic, Alex Ross, has to say. We think that if you like something enough to give it a clap – go for it! Equally, if you are too wrapped up in the story and the music to want to interrupt it with clapping, that’s fine too. There’s genuinely no right or wrong thing to do.

Then there’s the other question of cheering at the opera. Some people will say you can only cheer in Italian, and only at the end.  At the opera, you’ll probably hear people calling out ‘bravo’ and other variations in Italian to congratulate the singers at some point. If you want to show off your Italian skills, it’s bravo for a boy, brava for a girl, brave for gal pals, and bravi for boys or mixed gender groups! Here at OperaUpClose, we do not mind if or when you holla, just don’t boo. If you’re having a great time let us know!

How long will it last?

This will depend on the opera and the production. You can almost always find a rough running time by doing a quick internet search. It you’re going to see an opera by Wagner, it’s worth taking a snack or two as they are generally quite long.

Some of our productions are slightly shorter than the originals (we don’t always include the choruses, or all the repeats of arias), and our running times are usually between two and two-and-a-half hours – including an interval! 

 

Do they sing all the way through?

It depends. There are as many types of opera as there are types of literary styles. Most of these are sung all the way through, but some of these have sections of spoken dialogue. Take Mozart’s The Magic Flute as an example - that has plenty of dialogue. Other operas have recitatives, which are ‘sung speech’, because singing helps the words carry more clearly. Recitatives can either be completely separate from arias, or can be virtually inseparable.

What's the best opera for a first-timer?

It’s a tricky one, this, as it really depends on your taste. The big-name 'romantic' operas by Puccini and Verdi are often recommended as a first encounter with opera, as they have wonderful tunes (lots of which you’ll recognise, even if you think you don’t know the opera) and psychologically realistic characters. First-time opera goers often find themselves astonished to be in floods of tears at the end of La bohème or La Traviata. However, if you’re already a fan of contemporary theatre, or maybe of less tonal music, you might like a 20th century opera by Janáček, Britten or Bartók, tackling some grittier subject matters (murder, abuse, social alienation…). And that’s not to mention escapist comedies like Rossini’s frothy The Barber of Seville, or Mozart’s operas which encompass comedy, tragedy and social commentary all wrapped up together! Like we said, there really is an opera for every taste, and if you don’t like the first one you try – try another!

Where can I see more?

For live performances, you're spoiled for choice in London. Check out the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, The Barbican, The Royal Albert Hall, The Wigmore Hall, Wilton’s Music Hall and plenty of other places that aren’t necessarily opera houses. Outside London there are lots of excellent touring companies, many of which have ‘home’ cities, such as Opera North in Leeds, and Welsh National Opera in Cardiff. Check your local theatre, call them and ask if they programme opera, and if they don't tell them you'd like them to - and feel free to recommend OperaUpClose. If you'd like to see if we're going near you this season, here's our calendar. For non-live performances check out BBC Radio 3 who have full, live from performances weekly, or BBC Four (TV) and Sky both do live streaming productions that you can watch from home.