Attending the opera for the first time can be intimidating, but with the right attitude, it's as accessible as a night at the theatre—and a far cry from the sacrosanct experience it's often portrayed to be.
Just a few subway stops from the marquees of Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera is gearing up for its 2017–2018 season with a collection of five new productions and 19 returning favorites. The lineup begins September 25 with a new staging of Bellini's Norma.
Opera offers a grand variation on traditional theatergoing, but if those massive arches seem daunting, here are a few tips and tricks to make your night at the opera one to remember.
What to See
With over 25 productions per season, the Met’s lineups are an eclectic mix of familiar favorites and adventurous picks, classic stagings and the avante garde. Here are just a few suggestions from this season’s offerings:
Stories you know: Cendrillon (the French Cinderella story); Roméo et Juliette (the operatic answer to Shakespeare’s starcrossed lovers); Madama Butterfly (the inspiration for Miss Saigon); La Bohème (you’ve seen Rent, right? Think that but with a set ten times larger and a donkey).
Broadway names: Così fan tutte (Tony winner Kelli O’Hara’s return to the opera world); Die Zauberflöte (Julie Taymor’s colorful staging of The Magic Flute); The Merry Widow (Susan Stroman’s English-language adaptation of a can-can-filled comedy).
Star power: Norma (the Met’s season opening, led by two divas of the bel canto genre: Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce Didonato); Lucia di Lammermoor (soprano Pretty Yende makes her Met role debut after appearances on The Late Show and The Wendy Williams Show—check her out below); Luisa Miller (Maestro James Levine conducts a cast featuring Plácido Domingo).
For the daring: The Exterminating Angel (Thomas Adès’ 2016 operatic take on the 1962 Luis Buñuel film of the same name, which is also the basis of Stephen Sondheim’s next musical); Parsifal (the production of Wagner’s final opera clocks in at five-and-a-half hours); Electra (considerably shorter, but with plenty of mother-daughter drama).
The Metropolitan Opera sells tickets in the back of the family circle for around $30. While you’ll want to bring binoculars, opera buffs claim these seats offer the best sound quality.
Doing Your Homework
From the potential language barrier to the grandeur of the staging, opera can risk a sensory overload. If you’re not bothered by spoilers, go ahead and read opera’s summary on either the Met’s site or Wikipedia.
The Met does offer individual translations (located on the seat-back in front of you, more on that later). However, if you're already loosely familiar with the plot, you can follow the captioning casually, and you’ll recognize plot points on stage without relying too heavily on them. This will also free you to take in what’s most important: the music.
Speaking of which, get hyped for your night at the opera by giving a key aria or two from the show a listen. You may be surprised by how much you already know, and it’ll make the unparalleled experience of hearing that unamplified sound live all the more special.
What to Wear
Dress up as much or as little as you want. For some, the opera is an opportunity to go all out; no matter what you wear, there will be someone more opulent than you. Some still wear gowns and gloves. Others treat it as any other live experience; if you’re comfortable wearing it to a show on Broadway, that’ll do here as well.
People-watching around the Metropolitan Opera House it just as much a spectacle as the story unfolding onstage. If you’re looking for an occasion to wear that bold statement necklace or don that flashy suit, this is a safe bet. You’ll fit right in while still getting the attention you want.
For some opera attire inspiration—from jeans to floor-length—check out the Met’s style blog: LastNightattheMet.com.
What to Drink
Sparkling is the drink of choice, but not your only option. There’s also coffee, which could be a blessing during even the most exciting of Wagner epics. Keep in mind: unlike a Broadway theatre, drinks are not allowed in the auditorium itself. Drink up in the lobby.
Taking It All In
Unlike most opera houses, the Met’s captioning system is as an individual experience, located behind the seat in front of you. As the performance commences, press the red button once for English captions, or continue pressing it to scroll through additional options.
The screens are tinted, so your neighbors’ screens will not be visible to you. If you’re leaning over to press their button in an attempt to help, chances are you’re doing just the opposite.
As for applause mid-performance, opera scores are generally more fluid than musical theatre, so read the room before clapping. Applause following an overture, a notable aria, or a particularly impressive vocal performance is common (especially at the Met), and in some rare cases, could even lead to an encore. Lucky you.
In general, operagoing etiquette is akin to theatregoing etiquette: Don’t do anything Patti LuPone would disapprove of.
If you're late, don't expect to be seated during a lull in the first act as you would during most Broadway ventures. If you arrive after those auditorium doors closed, you'll instead be sent to a separate viewing room, where you'll be able to watch a live feed of the action (sans subtitles) until intermission.
Most productions have at least one intermission, oftentimes more. Unlike a majority of Broadway houses, there’s far more to do than browse through your Playbill and wait in line for the restroom between acts.
As previously mentioned, people-watching is an opera tradition, so grab a spot overlooking the staircase (or on the staircase!) and catch the varying degrees of fashion. The Met also has displays and exhibits scattered through the entire house; walk around and take a glance at the galleries on the lower level or inspect some costumes up close on the grand tier.
Many intermissions are longer than the standard 15 minutes—sometimes as long as 45; those set changes are no joke. Check ahead of time to plan your breaks accordingly.
Do some hand stretches now; opera curtain calls run long, with the singers, occasionally the chorus, conductor, and—on premieres of new productions—design team each enjoying their moment center stage. But don’t leave. See the rule above concerning Patti LuPone, and it can be fun to see how dramatic an opera singer can make just one bow (or several).
Occasionally, and particularly at premieres of new productions, operagoers who fancy themselves connoisseurs may “boo” the creative team. Don’t join in—especially if you're new to the scene. The only thing more cringe-worthy than a severely misguided production is someone thinking a “boo” is a legitimate critique.
If you feel compelled to accompany your applause with an exclamation, a quick glossary of what to shout and for whom:
To commend a male performer: Bravo!
To commend a female performer: Brava!
To commend a group: Bravi!
Take a look at the Met's opening night production of Norma below. For a full season lineup, visit MetOpera.org.