This article is a reprint of my Epinions.com essay of May 6th, 2007. After a season of questionable audience conducts at the opera (clapping right in the middle of the soprano’s biggest aria of the evening, chatting during Britten’s sea interludes, booing a good performance of a bad-guy character), though, I thought a fresh reminder of how to be a good opera audience is in order. Listen up, dudes!
1. Thou shalt do your homework at home and read up on the story/synopsis before hand. You will enjoy the opera much better if you already know the story and which musical number is saying what… instead of having to ask your companion(s) about it during the show.
Sur-title (or Super-title), the projection of the local language translation of the lyric to the proscenium above the stage (or the back of the seat in front of you if you are going to the Metropolitan Opera in New York), is provided at most opera houses now. This can help you follow what the singers are saying if you don’t understand the language that is being sung… or if the singers can’t pronounce things well (or if they had forgotten the lyrics altogether and are just making a new language up as they go).
The catch is, the projected sur-title is often so high above the stage (especially in the big American auditoriums) that you will often have to choose between watching the action on stage and reading the sur-title. Now, would you really rather be reading a lyric that goes something like; ‘Free and aimless I must flutter from pleasure to pleasure, skimming the surface of life’s primrose path.‘ (from La Traviata ) … when you could be watching something like… this?
2. Thou shalt neither overdo the cologne/ perfume nor shall thou ever leave home without a cough suppressing spray… Fruit scented perfumes seem to be the rage nowadays and sometimes I sit in my seat wondering if I’m in a theater or at the fruit market. There are always some sensitive noses in the house who would already sneeze at anything. Your abetting the fit with exotic scents is not appreciated. Also, a discreet cough or two in 3 hrs may not rile others. But since when do coughs come in that discreet a unit anyhow? If you are a chronic cougher, please, spray yourselves even before you feel the itch!
3. Thou shall not wear glittery dress or big hairdo to the theater. A big fanned up-do or a very tall do may strike your mate’s fantasy, but he is useless for you in preventing ugly looks from others for obstructing their line of sight (aside from making you a big target for flying projectiles).
You don’t have to dress up to go to the opera… well, at most of the USA ones anyhow. Anything from business casual to tux and gown and you’ll blend right in… unless you are wearing something glitteringly light-reflecting. That tends to turn you into a human disco ball once the auditorium lights are dimmed for the performance (need I mention to you that a visible target is a lot easier for others to hit with rotten projectiles than an invisible one?).
In general, the folks in the Orchestra Level tend to dress up more than folks in the balconies (not to mention being a bit further on in years). The standees (folks with the cheap standing room ticket) tend to be more knowledgeable about the opera and singing than one may think. They are the die hard fans who attend lots of shows (and even Bill Gates would consider being a standee if he wants to go to the opera every week like some standees do!).
4. Thou shalt arrive EARLY to the opera house, not at precisely the curtain time or later! Unlike movie theaters where you can go in and out at various time even after the movie has started. If you arrive to the opera after the conductor has entered the pit, you WILL NOT be allowed into the auditorium until the next intermission (and so will miss the entire act… or whole opera if you’re in for double or triple headers like Cav/Pag or Il Tritico). Most opera theaters don’t refund or exchange tickets.
5. Thou shalt turn off all things that have LCD screen, flash, beep, ring, chime, bark, moo,…, etc. That means PDA, blackberries, cellphone, camera, pager, watch alarm, cow bells, lap dog,…, etc. Or at least have them in pulsate rather than ringing mode (believe me, having to sit still with a pulsating dog on your lap is still more pleasant than being bombarded by irate opera fans!). We know you are an important person whose attention is in great demand, but if you chime during an opera when our favorite diva is singing her big aria….
If you wear hearing aids, better check that the batteries will not expire during the performance, too. The only thing more annoying to opera goers than that high pitched humming of the dying hearing aid batteries is the person caught wearing it… whether you can hear our indignation or not.
Opera performance begins at the first note of the overture. In some works like Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, the overture is in itself a masterpiece and a concert staple. Some opera don’t even have an overture. So the arrival of the conductor to the pit is when you should turn off your chatty mode and turn up your ears.
Also, most performance art centers ban flash photography (especially during a performance)… Opera companies usually put good production photos on their website. You really don’t need to take a personal snap shot on your own (who knows, maybe the camera would like to be able to survive that performance to accompany you to other scenic places).
6. Thou shalt not eat in the theater. But if you must smuggle in candies, please unwrap them before the show starts. Opera singers sing without the aid of microphones, so the opera auditorium are really acoustically sensitive. Not only can you hear someone whispering from 5 rows away, they can also hear you unwrap that candy.
And no, unwrapping it slowly doesn’t help any. It just prolongs the agony and increases your chance of being sniffed out as the culprit. And if the candy is of the crunchy variety, god helps you, because no one will bear witness in court as to who your murderer is. We will all develop acute amnesia and only offer congratulations to your vanquisher. Smorg has spoken!!
7. Thou shalt clap when the conductor enters the pit, after the overture (if it is well performed), and after the music has stopped after a spectacular aria or ensemble piece. After the music has stopped, please!! And while booing when one disapproves of a performance has long history in the opera, it really isn’t nice and is more likely to demoralize the singer into performing even worse. If you dislike the performance, simply withhold your clapping. Also, you DO NOT boo the guy who plays the baddie in the opera when he comes out for the curtain call. Especially if he did well as a baddie!
If you are attending a German opera; however, do not clap at all until the end of each act. The German opera are musical drama and the music tend to flow from the beginning to the end without a pause for you to clap without interrupting it. In some cases, like Wagner’s Parsifal, the convention is to stay your hand until the end of the opera.
8. Cheering is cool. But perhaps much of your fellow audience isn’t really up to the crowd wave. If the female singer had done really well, yell ‘Brava!‘. If the male singer has won you over, yell, ‘Bravo!‘. If a bunch of guys (or maybe with a few gals as well) have overwhelmed you with delight, yell, ‘Bravi!‘. And if you have been smitten by a pack of singing women, ‘Brave!‘ (pronounced bra-vay!)is the proper congratulations for those sirens.
Try not to whistle if you are approving. Whistling is perceived by many Europeans as booing. And even when you aren’t in Europe, chances are the German soprano you are now in love with won’t be very thrilled with you if you whistle at her.
9. When possible, stay for multiple curtain calls (or at least after all the performers have had their solo bow). Walking out while the singers are still taking their first bow is really quite rude. If it would cause you to miss the last train home, well, I’m sure that can’t be helped. But if there is no real hurry, why not hang around a bit and let the joy of the performance sink in while making those singers work a bit more by keep coming back to beg you to stop clapping? This could be really fun, you know. ;oP
On the other hand, don’t dilute the meaning of a grand gesture of appreciation by giving every performance a standing ovation regardless of its quality! A praise like that is only grand when its recipients know that it means that the audience considers the performance extraordinarily spectacular. If you overuse it, they will expect to get it even after a mediocre showing. And that doesn’t do anyone any good. Make your praise count by being judicious with it!
10. Thou shalt not record a performance that is being recorded for commercial release! Look, I’m an opera-fanatic, so I’m not bashing the pirates here. But if the performance is being recorded for commercial release and for posterity, why would you risk becoming persona non grata at opera houses by getting busted taping it? Even when the show isn’t being officially recorded, pirate recording is already banned (and they are often of poor picture/sound quality anyhow). And if you like these artists, you wouldn’t try to cut into their royalty pay check, would you? They aren’t robots and can keep singing for only so many years.
An Extra Tip For The Good Fans
Artist’s Entrance or Stage Door…. That’s where you can go during the intermission and leave your name with the sentry/guard/doorman/watch dog/secret service agent/diva handler to see if your favorite diva would consent to allow you to go in and visit them after the performance.
And even if you didn’t make the list, there’s no rule against hanging around there after the show to catch a glimpse of the divo/diva as he/she leaves anyhow. Maybe you’ll even get an autograph. Just be nice and don’t make him/her talk with you too long. Singing and acting on the opera stage is a tiring work. Speaking much after a performance is tiring for them, not to mention that these guys probably hadn’t eaten much that day. Singers live in deadly fear of making noises that don’t come out of their throat (or even some that do but unintentionally) during the show… for good reasons, I think.
O, do enjoy your experience at the opera. It is an art-form like no others. All the spontaneity of good stage play with some of the most beautiful and difficult music ever written. And I don’t care how good your stereo system is, there is nothing like hearing the orchestra and those singers live in the hall, undistorted by the microphone (ah! the raw beauty of unamplified voice!). And opera singers are good to great actors these days (you will be amazed at how they can continue to sing all those marvelous songs while doing all the things the stage director have directed them to do). The ticket to the opera in the USA is expensive, but you get so much for what you pay for.