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December 29, 2010 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to the opera! Will I be able to see okay? What about when I get fidgety? What do I wear?

I'm going to see John Adams' Nixon in China at the Met in February, it's my very first opera and I am awfully excited but have a few questions:

My seat is in the Dress Circle boxes, listed as partial view. What does that mean? Am I behind a column? Will I need binoculars?

I have trouble sitting still for long periods of time. I know there are intermissions, but....? Any tips for staying focused?

What does one wear to the opera? I'm a 25 yr old girl on the poorer end of the scale.

There was a similar question asked not that long ago [here], but I know the story and music here - I am asking more for direction on what happens once I am there, not how to prepare (though honestly anything you want to suggest about any aspect would be appreciated).
posted by troika to Society & Culture (17 answers total)
Bring a small pair of binoculars, but don't feel you should use them. You've got them simply in case you end up wanting some and wishing you'd brought them. (You can also look at the rest of the audience if you're curious how many people use them at your distance).

Small and with low magnification is better than high (opera glasses are usually about 3x while regular binoculars usually start at about 8x) because it gives wider field of view and less shakiness, but still a fair magnification for person-watching at stage-distance.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:45 AM on December 29, 2010

I went to the opera several years ago and agonized over what to wear as I was poor and the tickets were a gift. I ended up with a skirt and top I might wear for a job interviews. After all my worry (since I was in the 3rd row), a girl with giant massive dreads and patchwork cords was in the very front row. Nothing against that, just saying no one threw tomatoes at her or made her leave or pointed. She had paid to be there just like everyone else.

As long as you are wearing something comfortable and generally neat and clean, you don't have to worry about it. There has been a move to make opera less a classist thing and to move away from the furs and pearls dress code.
I normally can't sit thru a movie without getting up but I found myself absolutely fascinated and riveted during the performance. Intermissions help of course.

Bringing a pair of field glasses probably wouldn't hurt. I hate going to see something on stage and then not being able to see the costumes closely.

Have a wonderful time and enjoy the show!
posted by sio42 at 6:47 AM on December 29, 2010

Read the plot before you go so that you're familiar with the story. This will help you be much less fidgety as you will know where the story is going and you can focus more on appreciating the singing and the beautiful backdrop.

Bonus points if you read a tiny bit about the history of the Met. This will make you an exciting conversationalist and also help you enjoy the experience itself.
posted by fantasticninety at 6:49 AM on December 29, 2010

For me, a big part of the fun of the opera is dressing up. I'd totally use this opportunity to put on my finest finery. Which is not to say that you have to. The opera is definitely a dressy occasion, so wear what you might, say, to an anniversary dinner at your SO's parents' (don't mean to presume, just giving you an idea).
posted by Dragonness at 6:54 AM on December 29, 2010

If your tix are Dress Circle/Partial View, you will have an obstructed view - the question will be which side of the stage you can't see all of, and how the opera is staged will obviously affect that - the performers are never always singing center stage. The nice thing is that since everyone in your box is in the same partial-view boat, they'll all want to scoot left or right to maximize the sight lines for everyone.

I've been to the Met and to the WNO in DC several times, and there's always a fairly wide range of clothing/dress styles unless it is opening night - opening night tends toward a little more dressy. I've honestly seen everything from shorts or ratty jeans to fur, pearls and gowns. I tend toward nice black trousers and a sweater. Take a wrap in case it's chilly, and take quiet mints/candy/gum.
posted by ersatzkat at 7:06 AM on December 29, 2010

From what I remember, the dress circle at the Met are really nice seats. It's not the nose-bleed section (which is the "family tier" or something). "Partial view" means that you are probably off to the side a bit, and that you may have trouble seeing things in the wings because of the angle. This is different from "obstructed view" which is a pillar in front of you.

Just like Broadway shows, there are people in all levels of dress who go to the Met. The last time I was there was about 10 years ago, and I went in a sport coat and slacks (with no tie) and I felt totally fine and in place. (I'd probably wear a tie and nicer suit if I went today, but that's more a reflection of how I usually dress now as opposed to 10 years ago.) There are some people that dress to the nines, but there are others who go in jeans. As Dragonness said, it can be a lot of fun to dress up, but it is certainly NOT required.

You shouldn't worry about lack of intermissions! Opera is a very physically demanding thing for the singers, so intermissions are an absolute must for the performers. (In fact, it's in the union contract. :) ) I'm not familiar with Nixon in China, but for most operas there are several intermissions.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 7:14 AM on December 29, 2010

The opera is definitely a dressy occasion

If you mean that most people expect others to dress up, you're wrong. If you think the Met expects people to dress up, you're also wrong. From their site:

What is the dress code?

There is no dress code at the Met. People dress more formally for Galas or openings of new productions, but this is optional. We recommend comfortable clothing appropriate for a professional setting.

There are definitely people who love to dress up, and I'm not here to say that there's anything wrong with that. And some of the dressier people really wish it was still customary for everyone to dress up. I sympathize, because I understand they are wishing for a specific aesthetic experience. Older folks used to HAVE that experience.

But, I promise you, when you look around, you'll see people in all sorts of clothes -- anything from expensive designer gowns to jeans with holes in them. And -- except for some traditionalists -- no one cares.

As you say you have trouble sitting still, I recommend dressing for COMFORT above all else. If, like me, you're bothered by fabric that bunches under you or behind your back, think about that when choosing an outfit. You don't want to have to constantly be adjusting your clothes.

Bring as little with you as possible. You don't want a to have to hold a big bag on your lap or have it down by your feet the whole time.

Do everything you can to think -- ahead of time -- about your comfort. Are you sensitive to temperature? You might want to bring layers. Do you get thirsty easily? Bring a bottle of water. Also, bring kleenexes and anything else like this you think you might need.

Please note that I'm NOT suggesting you mess with stuff during the performance. If I was sitting next to you and you started donning or doffing clothes, I would get pissed off. But, if you're too hot or too cold, you'll be less fidgety if you know you'll be able to do something about it during intermission than if you think you're screwed for the whole evening.

Oh, and if you MUST do some sort of personal business during the show, just do it quickly. Don't slowly and agonizingly unwrap a candy, under the assumption that it's less distracting than just doing it all at once -- it's way, way more distracting.

One more thing: go to the bathroom before the show and, if you drink water during the show, at intermission. It sucks to realize ten minutes into an act that you need to pee. The whole rest of the act will be about holding it in for you.
posted by grumblebee at 7:26 AM on December 29, 2010

If it's a partial view you'll only be able to see part of the stage. If you need opera glasses, you'll be able to get them there.

As for what to wear - ideally, show up in something better than jeans. Think not business casual, but evening casual, as the minimum; but remember that people are there to look at the performers, not you. So it really isn't that important. It's just better not to show up looking grungy if you can help it. Also, don't show up carrying great hulking bags, but check them if you have to.
posted by tel3path at 7:28 AM on December 29, 2010

If there's a pre-show lecture (I live in Chicago and we've got them an hour before showtime), DEFINITELY go to that. And read the wikipedia page beforehand, too. Though you're seeing a modern opera, so it might not be as necessary for you.

As for what to wear, I've seen people wear everything from jeans and flip flops to full-on evening gowns. And about equal numbers of both. If you want to get all fancy, you're certainly allowed to, but I certainly don't. I just wear "nice" clothes. Last time I went (in the dead of winter) I wore a nice-ish sweater, a denim skirt, thick cable-knit tights, and huge, warm, clunky boots. (So pretty much I was an eskimo from the waist down.) It was perfectly fine. The only problem is finding somewhere to put a bulky coat if you're too cheap for coat check. (Which I am.)
posted by phunniemee at 7:29 AM on December 29, 2010

This will be superfun but maybe a little bit challenging! It's nearly four hours in total running time. And also it's John Adams, which as you know already means it's extremely beautiful but also there is... well let's say a lot of the music has a "slow build"!

It'll help you that you know the music a bit. It's much more pleasant to feel that sense of familiarity, like "Oh I know this part a little!" than to be totally confronted by a new piece of music.

I have been to the Met in a (nice) polo shirt and (nice) jeans. It really ranges what people will wear. Do not worry! Don't wear a sweatshirt! You should dress in a way that makes you feel fabulous, is my advice for the opera. You want to feel gorgeous and swank and also comfortable, and whatever makes you feel that way is how you should dress. It's a gorgeous location, and feeling gorgeous is the point.

You can look at the seating chart here. I prefer the Grand Tier and the Dress Boxes myself. What the seating indication means most likely is that you are on the side, and as the stage is recessed, you will probably have the back corner of the stage nearest you blocked from the angle. Not a big deal at ALL. In fact being on the side is enjoyable for me, not facing straight-on.

There's a lot of attention being paid to how this is directed. The last John Adams production at the Met, of "Doctor Atomic," which was weirdly not its original production, was really really terribly staged I thought. I HATED IT. I mean basically people came forward, stood center stage, and interminably sang their songs. But! The good news is that people expect this to be better. Peter Sellars, the director who did the original "Doctor Atomic" production, the good one that did not come to New York, is doing "Nixon in China."

The other good news that you may not know if you haven't been to the Met is that, even though the opera is in English, there'll still be super-titles, available in English as well as other languages, on the back of the seat (or the front of the box) for you. They're very unobtrusive but they help you follow along, even if the text is somewhat... well the libretto is very beautiful, at least.

As for tips on staying focused, hmm! I would say, don't over-caffeinate, don't come hungry, but try not to feel stuffed either. I have fallen asleep at the opera before myself! Heh. And also (at "Doctor Atomic" in particular) have felt incredibly fidgety, but that's because it wasn't sweeping me up, it was just pissing me off. And boring me. The best way to stay focussed at the opera, I think, is to be familiar with the cast beforehand. That way you are accustomed to the way they sing, and you can involve yourself in what they are doing, how they are singing, and listen to the nuances of interpretation and direction. And that way you can watch yourself, and you can analyze: are you being swept away by the total product, the gorgeousness of production and effortless musicality--or are you distracted by technique, mishap, bad acting and bad staging? Being involved is the answer, I think, on whatever level you prefer.

Have a good time! (Or have a bad time!) But definitely have a time.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:40 AM on December 29, 2010

Hurrah, Nixon in China!

A modern opera tends to attract a more dressed-down crowd than a traditional one. Especially a minimalist opera. You can't go wrong with black.

The boxes tend to be way round the side of the Dress Circle. As others have said, this means that you have a good view of the far side of the stage and will have to crane your neck to see the near side. The view is vastly, vastly better from the front row of the box. If you don't have a front-row seat, wait and see if someone who does leaves during intermission. (This happens a lot, especially with corporate tickets.) Then nab it.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:41 AM on December 29, 2010

Dress however you want. People tend to dress up, but people also show up in jeans and a t-shirt. You'll be able to see fine -- a good opera is designed to be seen from a distance, and the stage action is about the placement of a figure or group of figures on stage, generally, rather than about subtle movements of an individuals. If you want to get opera glasses or a monocular, go ahead, but they're not needed and I find I almost never use mine.

Operas are pretty big spectacles -- Nixon in China can be pretty subdued, but has its spectacular moments. If you find yourself getting fidgety, look around the stage for something that catches your attention. If I get really bored, I look around the opera house, or at other patrons.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:49 AM on December 29, 2010

Oh and another thing: I like operas more if I've listened to them a couple of times while reading the libretto. That way I can enjoy the whole show instead of wondering what the warbling is about.
posted by tel3path at 10:49 AM on December 29, 2010

Opera is a very physically demanding thing for the singers, so intermissions are an absolute must for the performers. (In fact, it's in the union contract. :) )

Principal artists aren't union, and the chorus certainly has no such provision, at least not here in San Francisco.

OP-Welcome! In this production it looks like there will be two intermissions. You'll have plenty of time to get up and get the squirmies out. Wear whatever you'd like. Dressing up is fun, but I've seen audiences in ripped jeans before. Bringing some sort of cardigan or wrap is probably a good idea. Not sure what the Met's air handling is like, but the ability to take a chill off is always good. Read at least a synopsis beforehand--I often watch an opera a dozen times and still only have a vague idea of what's going on. The Met Titles (on the back of the seat in front of you) will be helpful. Yes, the libretto is in English, but even in a language you understand, opera is hard to understand.

This webpage ( from the SF Opera has a lot of good advice for new operagoers.

Feel free to memail me with any questions--I've worked backstage at the San Francisco Opera for 5 years.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:39 PM on December 29, 2010

As everyone said, wear what you want. Over the course of the season, I see people in elaborate ball gowns, jeans, and everything in between. Opening night is generally dressier than the other performances. I usually wear a cocktail dress.

Bring a wrap. Temps at the Met vary. It's generally chillier at the start of the evening and warmer as the house fills with people. (However, if you get stuck in a particularly drafty spot, you may feel the icy breeze every time the HVAC blows.)

If you need binoculars you can rent them at the Met.

Do not be late. Opera is much less flexible regarding latecomers than other types of shows. You will not be seated if you are late; you'll watch the performance on tv screens in the lobby until intermission. Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the pre-show people watching.

Have fun.
posted by 26.2 at 3:02 PM on December 29, 2010

The great thing about the opera is it is impossible to dress "wrong". Some people do wear casual clothes, and there is no way that you will be the MOST dressed up of the audience, even if you wear a ballgown and diamonds. So you can wear whatever you like and feel comfortable. I find it a great opportunity to wear posh clothes that otherwise get no airing, but YMMV. Don't wear anything constricting, though, since that will become uncomfortable when you sit still for too long.
posted by lollusc at 4:41 PM on December 29, 2010

I once attended a production of the Ring cycle in Seattle (where I live). Because Wagner operas are so long, the operas (with the exception of Rheingold, the first) start at 7:00 PM instead of 7:30. Two minutes before the start of Die Walkure, the second opera, a guy came SPRINTING into the theater wearing a sweatsuit that had clearly been just worked out in, vaulted over a row of seats, and landed in his seat. Seattle is notoriously casual, but that was a bit over the line for me. Because it smelled bad.

So, there you go: wear something that doesn't smell bad. Oh, and preferably without rips in it; I saw a young lady wearing jeans with a rip across the back thigh, large enough and high enough to make speculation about her underwear unnecessary. That got a bit of an eyeroll from me, too. But apart from that, honestly, wear something in which you feel like you look sharp, and you'll be fine.

DEFINITELY read the libretto beforehand. If you can read music, it might be worthwhile to purchase or borrow the score and a recording, and pre-listen to it. Nixon in China is NOT your bog-standard opera, and you may find yourself enjoying it more if you have a couple of chances to familiarize yourself with the musical conventions.
posted by KathrynT at 8:43 PM on December 29, 2010

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