7 Tips for Seeing the Opera

7 tips for seeing the opera
The Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain.

One of my most faithful passions in life is opera. Nothing I have ever experienced in life moves me the way that seeing an opera does, not even a really amazing meal. (And I’m not even 30 years old!) I love sharing my passion with people, but I’ve discovered that a lot of people find opera intimidating.

The misconceptions of opera are enough to scare people from ever trying it out. They think: The prissy attire! The foreign language! The hard-to-follow story! But in reality, those misconceptions are exaggerated and attending the opera isn’t as intimidating as you might think.

This weekend I’m traveling to Los Angeles to experience the legendary Placido Domingo perform one of my favorite operas, La Traviata. If that wasn’t enough to have me ecstatic, my aunt and uncle are joining me for their first opera. Every time I bring beginners with me, I give them a rundown of what to expect.

So here are my 7 tips for seeing the opera.

7 tips for seeing the opera
The Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain.

1. Relax! There’s probably English subtitles.

Yes, most operas are in a foreign language. (Call me biased, but the English operas I’ve seen weren’t exactly the best.) But don’t worry, every theater I’ve ever been has had English subtitles (actually called supertitles) projected over the stage or on the seat in front of me. Even the opera in Barcelona and at Palais Garnier in Paris had English supertitles.


2. Read the synopsis beforehand.

Even though you’ll get handy supertitles, your best bet is to read the story beforehand so you know what’s going on. Operas are often full of complex, crazy dramas best digested before the show. (Wikipedia is a good resource or the opera company’s website will have it.) The synopsis will always be printed in the program but save the pre-show time for taking in the theater or people-watching instead of reading the story.

Supertitles at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
The subtitles are on personal screens in front of each patron at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

3. Dress accordingly and don’t wear loud jewelry.

The attire for opera houses varies by city but everywhere I’ve been (now 15 cities around the world), the consensus is to dress up a little bit. Please don’t wear jeans and absolutely do not wear shorts. Try not to be a slob! You don’t have to wear a tux or a gown (in fact, I was very overdressed in Barcelona in a gown) but use your best judgement.

Ladies, if your jewelry makes noise — you know, clangy bangles or dangly earrings that clink when you move — don’t wear it. These theaters are designed to emphasize noise, projecting the tiniest sounds throughout the theater.

And finally, forgo the heavy perfume and cologne, too. There is nothing worse than sitting next to someone for three hours who overdid their perfume causing everyone around them to have a headache. Those of us prone to migraines will thank you.


4. Arrive early.

There is no late seating at operas and late-comers will not be allowed in the theater until intermission. If the opera doesn’t have an intermission, you are out of luck and will miss the performance. Don’t take your chances! Most theaters have bars in the lobby, so arrive early and have a glass of bubbly or a cocktail.

Palais Garnier staircase in Paris.
Most opera houses are designed for people watching. The Palais Garnier in Paris is a perfect example.

5. Be quiet. No seriously, don’t even whisper.

It seems so simple, yet people find it so difficult. Don’t make noise. Don’t talk. Don’t even whisper. If you need a cough drop, use wax-wrapped ones that don’t make crinkly noises and if you need a tissue, have it easily accessible and preferably already out of the loud plastic wrap.

Once I caught a terrible head cold right in time for the Ring Cycle, the four-day/17-hour opera series. I’d get all my tissues ready before each opera so I wouldn’t make noise and unwrap cough drops at each intermission so I wouldn’t disturb those around me.


6. Show your appreciation.

I’ve heard that singing opera is as physically demanding as running a marathon (especially the 5- and 6-hour performances). The only way to show your appreciation of the singers is with applause — at appropriate times, of course. At the end of the performance, don’t sneak out of the theater early to beat the traffic, applaud the singers to show your appreciation. It’s the respectful thing to do.

A costume from the opera Aida on display at Palais Garnier in Paris.
A costume from the opera Aida on display at Palais Garnier in Paris.

7. Have an open mind and enjoy it!

Like all experiences, have an open mind. The first opera I saw was terrible but something about it intrigued me, so I went again and liked it, then went a third time and fell in love. And now I’m officially obsessed!

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