First time at the opera
September 8, 2010 3:35 AM   Subscribe

First time at the opera: How can I get the most out of my first trip to the opera? On the weekend, I'm seeing Marriage of Figaro in English. Will it help to read up on the plot, beforehand? What can I do to make the experience as enjoyable as possible? What aspects should I keep an eye/ear out for? I have no experience with opera in my adult life.
posted by surenoproblem to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're in for a treat - Figaro is a romp! You'll enjoy it more if you read the wiki - knowing the plot and knowing that it was controversial at the time for the way it lampooned the aristocracy will add to your enjoyment. The lyrics will probably be projected which will help. Have fun!
posted by leslies at 3:58 AM on September 8, 2010

Best answer: Yes, I'd read the plot before you go. Not because you won't understand what's going on (although that's a possibility), but because opera isn't opera isn't really about the plot as such - the stories are pretty much standards, like fairy tales or the like, and it's a given that a large portion of the audience knows what's going to happen. Also, if you go in expecting satisfactory storytelling, you may well be disappointed - the structure of an opera is really dictated by the songs and music, such that fairly minor plot points can take up a lot of stage time, whereas dramatic turns can often be over absurdly quickly (or could be squeezed out for way too long).

I think if I had two pieces of advice in terms of enjoying opera, they would be:

1) Think of it as a audio/visual experience, rather than a play. The music and singing is the most important thing, followed by the staging, acting, costumes etc. It's a concert with acting, not a play with singing.

2) Go with the absurdity of it. Opera has it's own musical and visual language that's pretty silly at times. But that's part of the fun. Even though opera looks like it should be taken deadly seriously, the serious appreciation is for the singing - even the most hardcore opera fan will admit that there's some proper silliness involved.

A few small things that you might find useful:

- Where are you seeing it? Due to the way the lyrics are phrased and repeated, even operas sung in English can be hard to understand. But, a lot of venues (the majority?) will have live subtitles (or surtitles, since they tend to be above the stage). Generally you scan these and keep your eyes on the stage - I wouldn't worry about understanding every single word, you just need to get the idea of what's going on at any moment.

- If you're worried about when to clap, don't sweat it at all, just follow everyone else's lead, there'll always be some old timers who know when applause is expected.

- Depending on where you seeing it, opera venues tend to be pretty dressy (especially say in the Royal Opera House in London). But smart-ish is more than smart enough in my opinion. Ultimately you're there to enjoy the music, and that's the most important thing.
posted by iivix at 4:01 AM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

* opera isn't opera isn't - looks like I had a virtual stutter there for some reason :P
posted by iivix at 4:02 AM on September 8, 2010

Yay I'm excited for you! There's something for everyone to enjoy at the opera.

It might be a good idea for you to read up on the plot beforehand, but I wouldn't spend my time reading a detailed one, and unless you're the kind of person who can't stand it when they think they've missed something, it's probably unnecessary. The plot of this one is pretty simple to keep track of, although it is technically a sequel, of sorts, to Barber of Seville, and if you're super detail-oriented it may interest you to know the plot of that play too. Really, though, I think the key to liking opera is to sit back and relax and let it wash over you.

It comes down to what you like about theater. Do you like stage design? Are you into costumes and makeup like me? Do you get into the orchestration choices, or the performances of the actors? Maybe you haven't figured out yet what you like about live performances, but chances are something in this show will be particularly pleasing to you. I suggest paying attention to that aspect of the experience, because a well-produced opera is going to take everything into account, providing something pleasurable to notice on every level. It really depends on what type of person you are. You might just get into the funny satirical plot - that's just as legitimate of a way to enjoy your time as the person who is waxing poetic about some detail of the vocal performance.

Mostly just go in with the intention of enjoying yourself. If you're all worried about not having a good time, that's a great way to make that happen. Since this is in English, you don't need to worry about translating anything, and since this is by Mozart and quite famous, you don't need to worry about the music feeling inaccessible or daunting. I'd also suggest checking out the website of the location you'll be seeing this opera in. Chances are they'll have a page with a FAQ for first time audience members - many orchestra halls and performance spaces have suggested dress codes and etiquette guidelines that will dispel any worries about not fitting in.
posted by Mizu at 4:04 AM on September 8, 2010

Opera rocks. People might think it's all snooty and stiff but done right it's like any art-form and it will take you away. With opera this is a little harder because so many people are involved in any one production, when it's done just so it's freakin' awesome. (Like a perfect game in baseball.)

When it's not done just so it can still have many things going for it, (as Mizu notes) I've seen more than one production when there was one stand out singer or the sets were superb or the orchestra exceptional, that saved an otherwise so-so production.

I would avoid listening to any one single recording before going - so you don't sit there thinking, "Oh, man, it's not supposed to sound like that." And feel free to laugh when you feel like it.
posted by From Bklyn at 4:19 AM on September 8, 2010

Sounds like fun! I enjoy knowing the plot and some of the backstory about its composition and composer beforehand.

So -- Marriage of Figaro spoiler alert here. This information is often in the program, but if you know what's going on/what to expect in terms of plot, I've found that it's easier to pay attention to the music, which is why you're there in the first place.

Wikipedia entry for "Marriage of Figaro."

If you really want to get into it, watch "Amadeus," the 1984 movie about Mozart which contains a few historical inaccuracies.

But you don't have to do any of that. The music was written to be enjoyed live. You could just walk right in, sit down and soak it up. Have fun.
posted by Buffaload at 4:22 AM on September 8, 2010

My wife is huge into opera, and insisted I go with her. I have little personal appreciation for non-modern forms of music, but I didn't mind the opera so much. There's an entertaining spectacle there. I'll see if I can get her to give me some comments to post.

I found it very helpful to know the plot going in--it's not designed to be picked up from the action, really, as iivix says. And the form usual favors music over lyric (e.g., repeatedly singing lines for the total effect, as opposed to using time to move the story forward), so I would tend to agree that letting the entire experience wash over you is the way to go. Don't worry about picking out individual pieces, see if you enjoy the form and you can learn to focus your appreciation and understanding on any future visits.
posted by stevis23 at 4:39 AM on September 8, 2010

Read the plot, listen to the music, beforehand.
posted by orthogonality at 4:55 AM on September 8, 2010

With opera there are 4 things to keep track of: the words, the music, the staging and other people in the audience. Try to enjoy the experience of all 4 but don't expect to be able to focus on them all at the same time - instead follow whatever interests you at each moment.
posted by rongorongo at 5:23 AM on September 8, 2010

Best answer: Yeah, knowing the plot definitely helps me with seeing everything from ballet to opera to Shakespeare, but that wikipedia plot summary might be a bit much to remember. Basically, Figaro wants to marry the Count's maid Susanna, but so does the Count. This saddens the Countess, who has some truly beautiful arias about the love she's lost. Meanwhile, Figaro is the target of a trap by Dr. Bartolo and the Count to get him to marry Marcellina, to whom he owes money. Figaro and Susanna in turn plot to shame the Count into rekindling his love for the Countess, which involves crossdressing the excitable young page Cherubino and some great comedic moments. It all gets manic and balances pathos and humor in a way no one else had done before, with Mozart and Da Ponte elevating comic opera in new ways with more complex, recognizably human characters.

I'll disagree with stevis23 on one point; it might be useful to know that certain individual bits are considered high points - e.g., the extended group finale of the 2nd act, which many folks consider one of Mozart's finest moments and one of the peaks of opera, period.
posted by mediareport at 5:53 AM on September 8, 2010

p.s. Beaumarchais' play is a quick fun read, and the opera follows it fairly closely (minus the more pointed criticisms of the nobility and inherited wealth, as the Wikipedia page notes). Reading it might be a fun way to prepare yourself.
posted by mediareport at 5:56 AM on September 8, 2010

I'm going to disagree with everyone else here, and say that you don't need to study the plot beforehand. Summaries are incredibly confusing to me, and I just don't bother. Luckily, the pace of the opera is such that it's easy to work out what's happening to whom as you go along. Dude with the black cape wants to get with the woman in the red dress, only she's married to beard-guy, but she's not happy about it. Works for me.

That said, subtitles or supratitles or whatever they're called -- they help a lot with this. I don't know if your venue has them or not -- if it's a bigger outfit, chances are that they do.

In any event, just be open to the whole thing, and roll with it. Enjoy the music, enjoy the production. Even if you find yourself nodding off, that's not the worst thing, either. Some of my best naps have been at the opera.

Roll of peppermints or some other quiet candy will help you get rid of a case of the fidgets.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:57 AM on September 8, 2010

Oh -- one more thing -- if you can bring along a small pair of binoculars, do it. (They don't have to be "opera glasses" as such, just not humongo night-vision scopes.) Not only will binoculars help you see some of the details of the production and a better view of the singers, it'll give you something to do during some of the slower stretches.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:09 AM on September 8, 2010

In addition to knowing the plot beforehand, it helps to be familiar with a couple of the key songs beforehand. You'll probably recognise some of them anyway, but try listening to them shortly (a day or so) before you go as well - this will help you appreciate what the director and conductor have done with this particular production.

And being able to hum along always helps my enjoyment of the opera. That humming happens inside my head though. Of course.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 7:18 AM on September 8, 2010

I love the Marriage of Figaro although I'm unsure how well the English version is as I've only been to the Italian. As much as I love it and listen to it regularly on my ipod, man does that opera go on and on and on. It's about an hour too long though there's really no aria you can cut. Be prepared for that and have some coffee at the intermissions -there's two I think in Figaro. It's better experienced as a matinée for me because of its length.

Rent Amadeus between now and then. There's bits about Figaro in it and the main tune that Mozart modifies from Salieri's march is my favorite aria in the piece (and one Mozart also uses at the end of Don Giovanni).
posted by yeti at 8:43 AM on September 8, 2010

jph's Rules for Enjoying Opera:

1. Choose Wisely! This doesn't apply to you, since the show has already been chosen and you're off to the races. But I can't emphasize enough how important a choice of show is to a first-time opera-goer. There is no hard and fast rule about what you want to see as a first time opera, but there are at least three considerations that you should explore before making a choice.

- Genre: For some people, a lighthearted romp or comedy is just what the doctor ordered. For others, the gore and misery of a revenge drama will keep them riveted. And still others crave love or tragedy or debauchery. Opera has it all, so stick to a subject you know you like.

- Style of Music: This goes double for musical styling! If you like Mozart's frantic classical sound, then Figaro will be great for you! (He's a safe bet, since few people really listen to Mozart and think, "Meh...") Some people prefer the sweeping romantic sounds of Puccini or the dissonance of the 20th century, or the regal plink-plunk of Handel's baroque harpsichord, or the simplicity of Monteverdi's proto-operas. "Opera" is a very large umbrella term, and the music can be greatly varied.

- Location, location, location: By which I mean... who is producing or performing it. I have seen some really spectacular opera productions. And I have seen some really stunningly bad productions. And the level of "professionalism" is rarely indicative of the performance you'll get. Anthony Dean Griffey got top billing as Florestan in a production of Beethoven's "Fidelio" in Philadelphia, and while I'm sure his performance was fine - the production itself was offensively distracting. Seriously, if they had asked middle school students to create the sets and costumes, it couldn't have been worse. I'm fairly sure they told the woman playing Leonore to just go to TJ Maxx and pick up some nice slacks and a blouse. And the prisoners were all wearing what I guarantee were pillowcases sewn together. Conversely, the Academy of Vocal Arts (students!) in Philadelphia put on an excellent concert presentation of Resphighi's "La Fiamma" - and while it wasn't fully staged, it was a terrific performance. So if a production seems amateurish, avoid blackening the entire artform with that taint. But in the future, checking out an opera company's reputation is not a bad idea.

2. Dress nicely. This isn't the movies.* Based, of course, on venue. Dress for the Metropolitan Opera is necessarily more formal than for a high school production of La Boheme. If you're new to the opera, and if you're prone to anxiety, blending in will help alleviate the feeling that you don't belong there. "Sunday best" is probably just fine for almost any opera production. If you're going to the opening of a season for a major opera company, a tuxedo or gown isn't going to be out of place. (*The Met DOES, in fact, simulcast some performances to movie theaters. If you find the rigors of a concert hall performance too much, the safety of a movie theater might be for you! Usually the production is great - high definition - and the best part: you get to sit in those supremely comfy chair and eat popcorn.)

3. Do your homework. Preparation for an opera can be as deep or a light as you have time or inclination for. It is important to build your homework around what you know will help you have a good time. Do you hate spoilers and grow bored with stories when you know what is going to happen? Then avoid the synopsis! Does historical context interest you? Just about any opera that is being performed today has been studied by musicologists and musicians and reviewers and has been written about extensively. Do the opera stars themselves interest you? They are larger than life characters who you can follow and keep track of just like sports fans keep track of players. Or will you be wowed by the technical abilities of the singers - do you care that Tonio in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" has to hit several high C's (very difficult!), or that Natalie Dessay can slide around on the floor while somehow managing to keep her voice completely precise as she belts out notes in the stratosphere of human vocal range (AMAZINGLY difficult!)? Choose what things interest you, and then look a bit into them.

4. Learn a bit about opera etiquette. It differs from some other classical music performances. And while I wont get into the minutiae here, it's safe to say that sometimes it is counterintuitively informal. Spontaneously cheering at the end of a notoriously difficult or moving performance? Totally okay. Go figure! Whereas, you will be strung up with violin strings if you clap between movements of a symphony performance.

5. Plan accordingly in terms of making it through the performance. Know how long the performance runs. Arrive early. Make sure you wont be struck with an insatiable hunger in the middle of the performance. Go to the bathroom beforehand so that you're not squirming or having to excuse yourself (you may not be re-admitted until intermission).

And a few words of warning:

While I wont tell you *not* to do it, I would cautiously mention that I am not a fan of listening to a recording before hearing something performed live. Call me a snob. Fine. But recordings... suck. And recordings of opera.... doubly suck. Slightly more than half the magic of opera is seeing it live. (Just the same way as hearing a recording of Stravinsky's Firebird will NEVER match the experience of feeling that bass drum reverberate through your core during those most recognizable moments.)

Be courteous to other operagoers. Perfume or cologne is increasingly frowned upon at events such as this - it can often irritate the allergies or sensitivities of those around you, and nobody wants a Sneezer to ruin the whole show for everyone.

Anything more complex than a mint should be avoided as far as food goes, and make sure that it isn't wrapped in cellophane!
posted by jph at 8:44 AM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wear something really glamorous
Don't clap ,or do it along the audience
Read the subtitles
Read the plot before going (Wikipedia)
Enjoy and relax
posted by anamcara at 10:55 AM on September 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the feedback! We ended up having a blast.
posted by surenoproblem at 5:19 AM on September 14, 2010

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