Attending the Opera

I attended a smashing performance of Madame Butterfly last night. It was the first opera I’ve seen in awhile, and it occurred to me that if I hadn’t worked at an opera house for a few years, negotiating the quagmire of “classical arts” etiquette might be completely overwhelming.


I couldn’t help but notice a more-than-usual amount of young women who looked like they were dressing to go to The Viper Room instead of the Opera: tight, gold mini-dresses and matching gold lamé stilettos, or worse, fake cheetah print jackets with bright red lipstick and huge sunglasses that they wore pushed back on their heads the entire time.

Now I know that Opera is lauded as an “anyone can come” type of event, because we want fine arts to be accessible to everyone, yadda yadda yadda, and I still truly believe that. But I also believe, if the Opera house is going to be kind enough to extend you the courtesy of taking you “as you are,” then you should be respectful enough to dress reverently. Or at least take a stab at it.

A formal dress is never out of place at a traditional Opera – in fact, it’s a good excuse to break out the stuff too fancy to wear to regular events. For example, last night I wore a Grecian-styled black Halston. It was simple and elegant – because it is long, it is a bit too elegant to wear to cocktail parties, but because it is simple, it doesn’t run the risk of hitting the Opera dress ceiling. It’s an all-around safe bet.

Many people say that you should dress for the Opera how you dress for church, but I find this problematic for two reasons: 1) I’m atheist, and 2) have you seen the way young girls are dressing for church lately? I like to modify this rule, instead, to “dress the way you would dress if you were meeting your conservative mother-in-law for the first time.” In essence, leave your Forever 21 see-through mini-dress at home.

If you’re anti-dress/skirt, for whatever reason, you can get away with slacks and a nice blouse. (And by blouse, I mean “possesses either sleeves or a collar.”) If you’re at a traditional opera house, and not a black-box, then opt for nice but comfortable heels unless you have orchestra seats – negotiating three flights of stairs six times in a night can be treacherous.

My rule for men is that they can wear jeans if they are neat and clean (no rips, tears, or paint splatters), but they need to dress that up with a tie. If they’re anti-tie, like my husband is, then that calls for slacks with your dress shirt.

Buying Tickets

Here’s the thing about ticket pricing – the most expensive tickets are not always the best seats. In fact, the most expensive tickets are usually box seats, which are set very far off to the right or left side. This is because the sort of people who sit in box seats usually come to the opera to be seen by others, and almost everyone in the house can see the box seats.

Orchestra seats right up front may not be your best bet, either, if you’re interested in acoustics. The best sound is often directed at the first or second balconies. And be careful of any seat set far left or right – operas often have large, fantastic sets, and you want to be able to see everything straight on! Most of the time, a center seat in the balcony is much better than a far-sided seat on the floor.

When in doubt, drop by the box office in person a day or two before, or call and talk to a box office representative. If you’ve never been to the house before, you’ll have questions about the seating chart, run time, intermissions, and parking.


Get there early. The Opera is not the place to be fashionably late – in fact, many managers won’t admit late patrons until the first intermission (usually an hour into the opera!) In addition, operas are long, as are the lines to the ladies rooms; get there early enough to use the facilities, get a drink, and talk to people you might run into. Last night was the first night my husband and I had been to the opera together, and we still ran into half-a-dozen people that we knew, all of whom require 2-3 minutes of polite conversation.


Don’t talk or hum. No air-conducting. Turn off your cell phone – check it twice.

Leave the yelling of “Bravo!” to people who know the difference between “Bravo,” “Brava,” and “Brave.” If you’re nervous about when to clap, wait for others to begin clapping. (Usually, clapping doesn’t happen until the end of each act, but sometimes it breaks out spontaneously after a particularly impressive performance.) Tis better to have not clapped at all than to have been the only person clapping.

Opera seating, especially in balcony levels, can be tight. I am a big believer in shedding my high heels and sliding them neatly under my seat or slightly to the side as soon as the lights go down. But do this quietly, and don’t wait for the performance to start before you begin clattering around trying to get those strappy stilettos off.

Most opera houses now have what’s called “super-titles” on a screen directly above the stage. This translates the lines in English, so you can keep up with the plot. In addition, they’ll offer a synopsis (a summary of what happens) in the playbill, which is usually pretty detailed. Some people don’t read the synopsis because they want to be surprised; I read the synopsis before each act so that I can be carried along on the music without worrying about who’s sleeping with who, who’s taking revenge on who, etc.

A Final Note

That being said, don’t be afraid! The opera is a completely unique experience, which means that even if you only see one a year, it’s still a nice break from the every-day. Make it an outing with friends – gather up your closest fellow music-lovers, make reservations at a nice restaurant beforehand, and then trek over to the opera house. Many operas are now putting together what is called YP (young professionals) groups, which usually have pretty chic after-parties at local establishments.

3 Responses to “Attending the Opera”
  1. Joe Anonymous says:

    This is a rather good description of what goes on in an opera for the non-musician.
    I play violin and have for many years for musical comedy, symphony orchestras, string quartets, mariachi groups and, yes,operas.
    Operas were entertainment in their day for the upper class and since the upper class are interested in what other people in the upper class were doing –this is what opera is all about.
    I believe the same motivations and emotions are still the same no matter how trite, trivial or just plain stupid the plot may be. These guys were writing music and lyrics and sometimes, it seems, they weren’t very interested in a credible plot. THE MUSIC and THE ORCHESTRATION have always appeared to me to be the main things about opera.
    I think it is nothing short of miraculous that the production companies wardrobe and stage manners and propmasters are able to duplicate the settings of times gone by –especially the powdered wigs that would have got you a one-way trip to the guillotine back in the day… And there is something in me that rebels against a nobility and an upper caste in the first place..the same thing that makes me pay my AFM dues every year. I am LABOR and I don’t trust MANAGEMENT…
    But somehow I manage to overcome all that and truly enjoy playing my part in the orchestra pit. I DO know what is going on and it would be presumptive arrogance on my part or anyone else’s that people just come to the opera to be seen.
    Live performances of opera are the ONLY way to have the FULL experience –the spontaneous, interesting, simply amazing experience of the LIVE PERFORMANCE, especailly if the chemistry between the performers and audience and orchestra magically clicks and it becomes a shared, quite communal experience.
    Personally, I despise “yuppies” and have observed those who were tossed out of the hall for gabbing away on their cell phones, trying to videotape the performance without prior permission to sell later,talking loudly though the softer musical dynamics of the performance, getting drunk and obnoxious and,in general, becoming the nouveau riche, boorish stereotypes that the word “yuppie” has come to signify.

    Worse is when they bring their “yuppie spawn ” who howl, run through the aisles annoying the audience members who have paid very good money to see the show,throw items at people and are finally put out of our misery because they are put out onto the street with their idiot parents while the yuppie parents wail about “child unfriendliness” and “discrimination,” etc.
    If yuppies can come and watch the performance and act like everyone else (the cravat is they do not think they HAVE to act like EVERYBODY ELSE -the RULES are made for EVERYBODY ELSE but them.
    I want to know where these “yuppie” people are going to go after the performance. I want to know where these restaurants are so I can warn everyone I know to stay away from there! Yuppies make inordinant, arrogant, belittling almost constant demands and then THEY DO NOT TIP! So says a head waiter and three house managers I know personally from my own part time job as a server and I know it from experiencing them every so often. I try to avoid waiting on them at all.
    If only the serious music lovers come to the opera or those who want to learn to become serious music lovers come to the opera and leave the yuppies and their spawn at the play parks or wherever they go to learn and spread their new buzzwords and soundbytes, THE BETTER IT WILL BE FOR ALL CONCERNED.
    Thank you for letting me have my opinion of all of this.

  2. Real Live Theater says:

    Thank you for the informative article. I had to laugh at your description of box seats — its so true – from the directors box you can usually only see one-third of the stage area, but everyone in the audience has 100% view of you. Cheers and keep up with your blog posts!

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  1. […] by attending what people think of as “the fine arts?” See my article on Attending the Opera, which is equally as useful for the symphony and […]

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