To a lot of people, opera is about women wearing horns, Elmer Fudd singing "Kill the Wabbit," and maybe Russell Crowe groaning in Les Miserables. It seems daunting. Even worse, you might think opera's not bad, but really dull: It seems dingy, obscure, and pretentious.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Opera can be fun, audacious, and actually gloriously stupid if you read any of the plots. So what do you do if you don't want to learn deeply about opera, but just want to take the plunge?
To find the answer, I talked to Fred Plotkin. He's the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera and writes extensively about the subject.
He generously shared tips that a total opera neophyte can follow. This guide isn't about name-dropping composers or trying to look smart, and it's not even about appreciating opera's artistic value — it's about helping you just try one out.
1) Pick your first opera for maximum fun, not for what the curriculum says
Picking your first opera can be paralyzing, but don't just choose one from the canon. When you take a kid to her first movie, you'd opt for a kids' movie rather than jumping into Citizen Kane. Same here. You don't need to earn a PhD, you need to get your money's worth — and that means picking a show you might like.
Since your opera options depend on where you live, look at what's offered and get some advice. "Call the company," Plotkin suggests. He says the box office will be happy to simply tell you which opera in a season is best for a neophyte. And his book also features 11 operas to start off with, including Verdi's popular opera Rigoletto. A good starter opera will be relatively short, with catchy music and maybe a story you're familiar with.
Also, see if there's something you have a natural affinity for. To take one example, this season the Washington Opera is premiering a revised version of Philip Glass's Appomattox. You won't find that on any Wikipedia lists of classic operas — but if you're obsessed with the progression of civil rights or the sound of Philip Glass, it's probably a better first opera than a classic like Carmen.
Are you into comedies or heartbreaking tragedies? Something completely intelligible or something super weird? Operas come in all kinds of flavors. Between the human you've called and Wikipedia, you should be able to find something to try.
2) Your seat doesn't have to be expensive to be good
There's something particularly daunting about an opera seating chart. All those levels! Plotkin's advice? "Get a really good pair of binoculars," he says. "That means I don't have to sit in $150 to $200 seats that I can't afford anyway." Sitting upstairs is less expensive and has great sound because an opera performance — and the opera house itself — is designed with a big audience in mind.
If you do have the cash for better seats, avoid side boxes and sit in the center on the first level (a.k.a. the orchestra level) to get the best view and sound.
Yes, opera can be expensive. Even with a discount, you're going to pay more than you would for a movie (especially in the United States, which doesn't subsidize arts as some countries do). Depending on where you live, there is hope — the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for example, has $25 rush tickets as well as standing-room tickets.
Still, there are some workarounds on price. There are plenty — operas want to reach young people, and when it comes to operas, "young people" can be pretty old. The Washington Opera, for example, lets people up to 35 join its youth outreach program, which offers special discounts.
3) Listen to the music and Wikipedia the plot
Avoiding spoilers is the wrong approach for opera. Often, operas are in another language, so you want the plot in your mind already. That will help you appreciate the performances, setting, and spectacle instead of trying to parse who's actually talking. Your program book will have a summary, too, but it's best to just glance online the night before you go.
We're trained to expect prestige entertainment to have emotional nuance, challenging intellectual themes, and difficult narratives. Opera doesn't have that. It's like the best episode of Scandal you've ever seen, so just don't sweat the plot and enjoy everything else. People who like opera can make their enthusiasm seem pretentious, but opera isn't pretentious at all. It's literally screaming for you to love it.
For the music, listen to it in the background a bit in order for "earworms" to flourish. "Find it on YouTube, do whatever you're doing, and hear the music," Plotkin says. It will prepare you for greater enjoyment, the same way listening to music before a pop concert does.
4) Hit the bathroom before it starts
"Get there a half hour before," Plotkin advises. "You can take in the environment of the theater and go to the bathroom ... my desire is to rule out anything that may distract you from the opera."
Booze is in the personal preference department. You can buy it there, or you can get an espresso — just make sure you leave enough time to drink it, since as with most live theater you probably won't be allowed to bring it into the theater. Plotkin's on the conservative side because he likes to stay alert: "You don't want to doze off. I'll have a sandwich or yogurt and a cup of coffee."
5) Don't worry about the dialogue
Operas are going to tell you what the people are singing, whether it's in another language or not. Usually they do this with supertitles — words projected above the stage — but sometimes there are even fancy seat-back screens, like on an airplane.
That said, don't worry about the dialogue. Opera's not rocket science. "We're a very literal society," Plotkin says. "The chief emphasis is on the music, not the words."
This is one major way in which an opera and a foreign film differ. "It's not like going to a film with subtitles," Plotkin advises. "Listen, listen, listen. All the emotional messages come in the music."
To keep up with the plot, you can read summaries in your program book before the opera starts and during intermissions (there's often more than one).
6) Appreciate the things that make opera like a Broadway show on steroids
This is a spectacle that bests every show you've ever seen. Most of us have a big musical as a reference point, and operas blow them out of the water. That includes:
- Better singers: On Broadway, the singers are great. In opera, they have no microphones, they have a much bigger range, and they sing in a wide array of languages. "These people are singing with their natural sound, over a hundred instruments playing loud for hours," Plotkin says. They're artists and athletes at the same time.
- Better sets and a bigger cast: Opera sets are epic, and often there's a huge chorus, extras, and dancers. Plotkin notes that Broadway looks like "basic chicken feed compared to what happens in an opera." That's in part because operas aren't trying to make a ton of money — unlike Broadway plays, they're usually nonprofits.
- Better scenery: You are probably seeing an opera in a world-class building instead of some Times Square fire hazard. These opera buildings are adorned with tiny little allusions to the past, like odes to the Greek muses and pictures from the past. There are also practical Easter eggs, like the prompter's box, where a person sits under the stage and feeds lines to singers when they need them. Opera is simply a richer experience than Broadway because of its history, the passion of the people involved, and the difficulty of the enterprise.
- Check out the people: You'll see all sorts at the opera, from old and distinguished to young and eager. Yes, some will be wearing tuxes and ball gowns, but you don't have to if it's not opening night. Business attire will work just fine, and you won't feel out of place.
7) Talk about it. And get more people to come.
Plotkin resists the notion that it's an art form only for rich white people. Historically, opera was a popular art form, and it should have the chance to be that way today. We used to realize that: Soap operas have that name for a reason. They were sponsored by soap advertisers, but the content was intended to evoke the extreme, salacious, and overdramatic camp of an opera. "We have to think of opera as being by the people, of the people, and for the people," he says.
Opera actually isn't inaccessible or obscure, even though it has that reputation. Most operas are about well-dressed train wrecks, waiting for somebody to ogle them. And that's why Plotkin wants everyone to be a fan and, eventually, an opera buff — including you.