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Top 10 Tips For Your First Opera or Ballet

Mathilda . . . Comments

So you’ve been reading all of the List Universe lists and have decided that you too would like to attend an opera or ballet. The trouble is you have never been to one, and are a bit intimidated. Fear not! As always, List Universe is here to the rescue and with just a few quick tips you too can behave in a pretentious, snooty fashion and impress and/or annoy friends and family. Trust me, nothing will get rid of that obnoxious coworker faster than saying, “Wow – that story about how your dog can belch the alphabet reminds me of something that happened at last night’s opera performance. It’s kind of a long story; perhaps I should start at the beginning…”

1. What to See


There is a reason that the “classical” operas and ballets are classics; they’re very good and worthy of being performed over and over. If you are familiar with and like the music from any particular opera or ballet, that might be a good one to start with. Or, you can simply call your nearest company or go to their website and ask them which they would recommend. Opera and ballet companies are always very happy to have new attendees; particularly since the average age of fans tend to be a bit on the older side (147 years old, to be exact). I would suggest any of the “story” ballets to begin with, such as Swan Lake, Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty or of course the Nutcracker. If you feel a bit more adventurous, you can attend one of the more abstract ballets. You can also sometimes find ballets choreographed to a certain type of music, or a certain songwriter. If you know that you’ll enjoy the music you’re at least assured of having a pleasant evening. Be aware that most operas are quite depressing; usually at least one or two characters do not survive; in some of them none of the main characters live to the end! If you’ve watched enough Quentin Tarantino movies and can take the carnage, I’d recommend anything by Puccini or Carmen, because you will recognize some of the music. Or, you usually can find a more light-hearted opera such as The Elixir of Love, Cosi Fan Tutte, or the Marriage of Figaro. Don’t worry about not understanding what’s happening; many operas now have OpTrans, which displays the words in English above the stage. Also, you will get a program with a synopsis, which will tell you the plot. If you are totally undecided on opera versus ballet, choose the ballet. Ballet dancers are in excellent physical shape and almost always wear skimpy costumes displaying their lovely legs; opera singers wear circus tents. At least you’ll have something to look at the ballet.

2. Who to Go With


Go with whomever you’d like to bring and whom you can drag along with you. Married couples, dating couples, platonic friends, anything goes. Opera and ballet being cultural activities, no one is going to bat an eye if you’re a man and bring another guy, or a woman who brings a man twenty years younger than her, or five women who go together, or even if you go alone. I would recommend against bringing any of the following: young children who either cannot sit still or who will not understand that the woman on stage did not just really kill herself, people who fall asleep when they sit in the dark and then begin to snore, people who cannot survive for ten minutes without checking their mobile phones, and people with bladder issues unless they have an aisle seat. Oh, and please, for the love of God, do not bring people who feel compelled to sing or dance along!

3. Tickets – When to Go, Where to Sit, How to Get Them


If you were feeling a bit nervous, I’d recommend either a weeknight or a weekend matinee. These tend to be less formal. If you look online, you can usually find a seating chart of the venue with the pricing structure. Take a look at it before you call for tickets. Oddly, the most expensive sections are not necessarily the best value. I’d much prefer to sit in the first row of one of the less expensive sections than two rows ahead of that for an additional $10 a ticket. It’s also nice to sit towards the center of the theater; it’s pointless being five rows from the stage if you’re in the end seat on the right and you can’t see half of the performance. If you’re on a budget or just don’t feel like spending much money, don’t be at all embarrassed by or worried about buying the least expensive tickets. You’ll still be able to hear quite well, and to see the performance nicely. Also, the cheapest seats often tend to be taken up by students, so people will assume that you’re an actual fan rather than someone who is just attending to see and be seen! Normally you should just be able to call the box office and they will help you purchase tickets. They can be mailed to you or you can pick them up at the box office a day or two before the performance if you’re in the area. If you’re buying them at the last minute, you can pick them up right before the performance at the “will call” window at the box office. If the performance you want to see is sold out, it’s worth trying again in a day or two; subscribers often turn their tickets back in for resale if they cannot attend on their scheduled night. Or, you can buy them from brokers but I’m afraid you’re on your own with that. (They’ll be the guys standing out front in sports team jackets with signs saying, “I need tickets”. Or maybe that’s for football games….) Since you will probably use your credit card to buy the tickets, you will also quickly end up on every cultural mailing list in the city. This will really impress your postman if no one else.

4. What to Wear


Black tie and tails for men, and evening gowns with opera gloves for ladies, of course. No, I’m completely kidding. I really think that that’s the number one reason that most people are worried about going, and it’s not at all a concern. Unless you’re going to opening night, or possibly in Europe, you will see very few people dressed that formally. (And of those, I think 80% are because the women want a chance to dress up and they’ve forced their men into black tie. The other 20% are men who want to dress up.) A jacket for men and a nice dress for women will be more than suitable. If you’re attending on a weeknight, many people will not have changed from work so any range of business attire will be seen. Matinees can be even more informal; I’ve seen people wearing jeans. The exception is if you are bringing a little girl, particularly to the Nutcracker. In that case, she is required to dress in the most beautiful velvet dress available with lace trim, tiara, white tights and whatever else little girls know that they are secretly princesses should wear.

5. What to Bring and When to Arrive


Now you’re looking quite elegant, so don’t ruin the effect by lack of planning now. Bring opera glasses or small binoculars if you have them. Unwrapped hard candies and/or breath mints and a handkerchief or tissue are good to have as well (even if you never cough, for some reason being in a theater seems to cause choking fits). Make sure you have an umbrella if there is any chance of rain, and appropriate outerwear (and underwear!). Ladies, your purse will either be on your lap or on the floor at your feet so I would suggest not bringing that huge one that doubles as a weekend tote. Plan on how long it will take you to arrive there on time if the traffic is terrible, and then leave at least fifteen minutes before that. Everyone else is going to be arriving at the same time and everyone will be trying to park in the same garage or get out of cabs on the same street. You do not want to rush in at the last minute, all sweaty and out of breath. Remember, you are a high-class person now; Cary Grant was never disheveled and rushed. Also, if you arrive late you will not be seated until the ushers feel it’s an appropriate time to let you in. You did not go to all of this effort to spend the entire first act in the lobby watching the performance on the closed circuit television, did you?

6. Upon Arrival


Here you are! Usually at the entrance doors you will be greeted, and someone will take your tickets and return the stubs. At this time they will normally tell you in which direction to go (up the stairs, to the door on the right, etc.) Since you have cleverly arrived early, you will have plenty of time to find the coatroom and the restroom. Now is also your chance to admire your fellow patrons of the arts. It will seem that everyone else knows each other and you know no one. Do not believe this. No one else knows anyone either, except the ten people who attend every performance so that they can shriek “Dahling!” across the lobby at each other just to make you feel insecure. Ignore them. In some venues you can go to the bar and pre-order an intermission drink. This is quite snazzy because they will give you a number and at intermission you will come out and find your drinks nicely waiting on a table with your number on it, while the hoi polloi is fighting their way to the bar desperately trying to get a glass of wine so they can swill it and be back by the next act. You can calmly sip your drink and laugh at them. See? You’re well on your way to being snooty and pretentious already!

7. Time to Sit


Everyone else is heading towards the seats and for some reason there has apparently been a power surge because the lights dimmed for a second and a chime-like alarm went off. This means that the performance will begin shortly. So head on in. Hopefully, an usher will be on hand at the entrance to the seating area. You will hand them your ticket stubs; they will look at them and give them back. Then they will hand you programs and lead you to your seats. They will not wipe your seats off with a cloth like they do at the stadium because you are indoors. Hence, you do not have to tip them, a courteous thank you will do. Invariably, if you are in the middle then the people on the aisle are already sitting. If you are on the aisle, the people in the middle will arrive after you. If you are close enough to the aisle you may choose to just stand and move back into the aisle to let them in. If you are further in, generally you stand as they pass in front of you, or you may twist your knees to the side so they can pass. If you are the one coming through, face forward (toward the stage) and sidle sideways excusing yourself non-stop the entire way. All participants in this little dance are socially obliged to pretend that they are not rubbing up against and being rubbed up against random unattractive strangers. Now that you’re seated, it is your chance to read your program. Read the synopsis so you know what’s going on, see how long you have to wait until intermission, look to see who you know who has donated money, and complain about the fact that your health insurance company which is supposed to be a non-profit has enough money to donate to the arts but just raised your premiums again.

8. The Performance Begins – Basic Etiquette


The lights have dimmed, and all the sudden people are clapping for no apparent reason. This is generally because the conductor of the orchestra has arrived. The orchestra is seated down in the front in a sort of subterranean level known as the orchestra pit. Occasionally someone on stage will fall into this pit, but that happens less often than you might think. Now the music begins. Do not talk anymore! Just because the curtain is not up yet does not mean that the performance has not started; it has! Hopefully you have turned off your mobile phone, and by off, I mean OFF. Vibrate is not off because it will still buzz and can be heard. And just because your phone is silent does not mean that it is acceptable to send text messages or to check them. Every time you do everyone in your row will automatically glance over at the sudden flash of light from your phone. Even if you are miserable, bored and not enjoying yourself, sit still, be quiet and leave at intermission. If you begin having a coughing or sneezing fit, you have your hard candy ready. If it continues, at some point you will have to determine whether or not you will annoy people more by squeezing past in the middle of a performance or staying in your seat while coughing out a lung. Just remember that sound travels an incredible distance in the theater because of the lovely acoustics, so any noise you make is disturbing people six rows behind you. If for some reason you get bored amuse yourself by glaring at people near you who do not have as much couth as you do and who are behaving badly.

9. When to Applaud


What an incredible performance! You’re so glad that you came. You never knew that operas and ballets had such incredible stage settings, and the lights and special effects are dazzling as well. The singing or dancing seems great to you, so you want to applaud. But when? In ballet, the audience will applaud at the end of a great dance. This generally tends to be after a pas de deux, where two dancers perform together, or after a solo (one dancer). Sometimes the audience will begin to applaud during a dance, usually when the dancer can spin or leap around and around in circles for an extended period without toppling over or falling into the orchestra pit. Opera audiences are more finicky and do not applaud as often. They tend to applaud infrequently, only after particularly beautiful arias (songs) and never until they are over. Unless you are absolutely sure that it is in fact the end of the song, it’s probably best to wait until the rest of the audience applauds. If you stand up and start screaming “Bravo” in the middle of Vissi D’Arte you will greatly irritate everyone else and humiliate yourself (especially since you should be screaming “Brava” but that’s for a more advanced lesson). It is also customary to applaud at the end of each act (when the curtain falls and the house lights come up).

10. Intermission


Now you’re an old pro at this cultural thing, so you get a chance to enjoy yourself. Time to go and get a drink, go outside to have a cigarette, wander out to the lobby to stretch or use the restroom. As for the restrooms, there will of course be a long line for the ladies room. If you are near one (and if you are a lady or even just a regular woman) it’s best to rush there immediately when the lights come up, knocking over everyone in your path. Otherwise there will be a huge line, which you will spend the entire intermission standing in. If you do not get there in the beginning, wait until the end of intermission when the line is finally back down to a few people. When intermission is ending, the lights will briefly dim again and you will hear the warning chime. Return to your seat and climb over your neighbors again; you’re old friends by now so it’s easier this time.

Bonus: The End


It’s all over! You survived and even enjoyed it! What an incredible performance it was; you’re already planning what to see next. Everyone around you is still applauding, and it’s still dark, even though the curtain has come down. That’s because now is the time for the curtain call. If you even think about leaving now you will show the world that you are a low-class lout who is unfit to be in civilized society. Just like you would not dine in a restaurant if you cannot afford to tip, if you cannot spend the five or ten minutes at the end to express your appreciation of the performance than you should have stayed home. The performers may come in front of the curtain or the curtain may rise again. Generally the more minor characters will appear first, and you get to applaud for them. The performers will continue to appear or step forward in reverse order of importance; at the end is when the major stars will appear. That is when you are allowed to whistle, cheer, yell, and clap until your hands bleed. You may also choose to stand up if you like; this is a standing ovation. And yes, the performers can see that the audience is on their feet, and yes, they really, really do appreciate it. When the curtain falls and stays down and the house lights come up, it is time to go. Rather than fight traffic, now is a great time to go have dinner or a drink, especially because you will place your program next to you on the table or bar, and someone is certain to ask you how the performance was. The proper answer is always some variation of “Excellent!”,”Very good!”, “Incredible!” or “Outstanding!” and the best part is, you will mean it.

Contributor: Mathilda

  • Jona

    very entertaining!

  • goshdarnitt

    sweet list. i’ve been to the opera and seen the marriage of figaro. i liked quite a bit, but i imagine i would rather have enjoyed a bit more gore.

  • “Ballet dancers are in excellent physical shape and almost always wear skimpy costumes displaying their lovely legs”

    HaHa are you trying to sell a ballet or something else?

  • Dan

    I feel cultured already! I always thought opera tickets would be ridiculously expensive, and totally filled with artsy-fartsy type people.

  • DiscHuker

    so when am i supposed to streak?

  • Mathilda

    Jona – Thanks!

    goshdarnitt – Go see Tosca; it has torture, suicide, stabbing, firing squad, and another suicide – plus it’s a great opera. :)

    Juggz – I went to a ballet once and for whatever reasons the dancers, male and female, were nude. It was a bit surreal to me, as everyone calmly applauded their dancing. As a side note, that is also why one should take opera glasses or binoculars to the ballet as well! ;)

    Dan – I always thought the same thing! That’s one of the reasons that I did this list; I think opera is intimidating to many people and it really should not be.

    DiscHuker – I think that is for the lobby at the end of the performance. ;)

  • Wow, great list! This makes me miss going to see performances of all sorts, although I have never seen an opera before! I wish I knew men who appreciated that sort of culture. Alas, I apparently associate only with classless ruffians! Anyway, I enjoyed reading this, thank you!

  • jen

    My parents took my sister and me to see a ballet (“Dracula”) when I was about 13. I didn’t know anything about ballet, but I knew enough to be annoyed by the obnoxious 40-something guy sitting in the row behind us. He kept saying things like “Why don’t they talk or something? They just dance, that’s all they do.” Finally I turned around and shushed him.

  • Mathilda

    Kelsi – I know the feeling. I’ve learned that something to be careful of is attending with a man who claims to like ballet or the opera, but in reality just wants to go on a date. Then they spend the entire performance behaving like the man sitting behind jen! :)

  • aplspud

    Great list, very entertaining. My father worked for the LA Phil for many years, and as a child I spent many Sunday afternoons watching performances from the vertigo seats. I always wanted to be that little girl in velvet and tiara, though.

  • Ian

    Great list… from someone who works in opera. I’d add that it’s best to get there early too because the best opera houses are part of the whole experience in that their own way they very subtly prepare you for what’s to come. And if you’re in a very grand opera house like the old house in Paris (not to be confused with the modern, functional and pleasant yet airport-concourse-like the Bastille) you need at least three quarters of an hour for all the cheruby gilt and the Chagall mural.

    Good to to call out the early-leavers trying to beat everyone out of the carpark.I hate them so much.

  • Mathilda

    aplspud – I still want to wear a tiara! None of the Barbie ones seem to fit my head, though. :)

    Ian – Thanks much! I was so worried that I’d miss some critical point of etiquette and be severely reprimanded. If I ever get to one of the grand opera houses of Europe I will most certainly be there early. I was considering suggesting that if someone does try to get past you to leave before curtain call, it is proper to refuse to move and tromp on their feet as they try to get past but I’m not entirely sure that that is proper etiquette – maybe it’s just a little something I do? ;)

  • Cassady

    I have never been to a ballet unfortunately, however as a younger girl we used to get free tickets to the local Gilbert and Sullivan plays that would be performed. (my mom was buddy buddy with one of the Cello players in the orchestra). It is a surreal expierience. It was usually a sunday matinee show, however because the audience was on the older side (typically 55+) everyone had to dress to the nines or else suffer from horrible stink eyes from everyone nearby. I was always stuck sitting next to the old ladies who never seemed to learn exactly how to tell when too much perfume is really too much. Oh and hard candies were a definite must!

  • SubliminalDeath666

    WHAT!? The photo for number 4, that’s my wife! Hey jfrater, where did you get that picture!? That slut!

  • SubliminalDeath666: hahaha – thanks for that comment – I needed the laugh :)

  • Etavhi

    Thinking of seeing either La Traviata, Die Zauberflote, Eugene Onegin or carmen. I know a little of them and of course they are quite different which one would you recommend?

  • Angie Wangie Mangie

    I just loved it!!! I’m an opera fan and I can tell you this list just made my day… now I know how to behave!!! Weee!!! Great list!! Could you please enlghten us a little more by giving us the “Brava” kind lesson?

  • Lammy85

    I think you say “bravo” for a male singer and “brava” for a female singer. That’s kind of a simple version.

    One opera I want to see done epic-scale live before I die is Puccini’s “Turandot”. I have it on DVD with Placido Domingo (did any of you see him at the closing ceremony for the Olympics?”) and Eva Marton.

  • operabuff

    Etavhi-I don’t know if you”re being serious or not, so I
    ll five you the benefit of the doubt and treat this as a real question. Ka Traviata is a tear-jerker. bring a handkerchief. The Magic flute is fun, even for children, and personally, Mozart is my favorite composerEugene Onegin is dramatic and serious. Carmen was my first opera; the movie version by Zeferelli. It was so sexy watching Carmen roll cigars on her thigh that I had to forget all concepts of opera being stuffy. No one should recommend one over another, because it’s entirely up to your taste.

  • musicman5

    Here’s something you shouldn’t try, don’t take the standing section in Vienna’s opera house. My legs were killing me before we even finished the first act lol.

  • Monkey222

    i thought they would have been ‘don’t go’ ‘avoid where possible’ ‘where earplugs’ ‘take portable entertainment’ etc.

  • Awesome list! Makes me want to go to the opera.

  • danoi

    I4gotmyMANTRA – I agree, I want to see one too now.

  • Rowena

    I saw my first opera this week – it was Eugene Onegin, and it was very good. My more experienced opera-going friends told me it was the best they’d seen. I really loved it…
    This is a very amusing list, thanks.

  • Malaika

    I recommend “Elixir of Love” by Donizetti as a first opera, or Carmen by Bizet. You can get seats on the upper balcony that are not terribly expensive and where the acoustics are actually better.

  • Dalpidee

    Honestly, this commentary is hilarious. Good tips, and so entertaining!

  • Princess711

    Love the humour in this list!! :)

  • Cynical

    Reason for the difference in applause in ANY dancing vs. musical performance.

    1. Dancing is primarily a visual performance. Sound does nothing to disrupt the movement of any trained professional, and often, for dancers, causes them to amp up their performance.

    2. Music is an aural (as in: you listen to it) art and outside noise disrupts what the performer hears. While a professional is hard to disrupt, there are vocal cues for which applause can be detrimental.

  • Ak.N

    awesome list! very helpful indeed! Now ?’m ready for my first opera adventure… Thanks!

  • I attended my first opera when I was 9 years old and my Father took me to see “La Boheme” by Puccini in Boston, Mass. This list here is just about as accurate with its blow by blow description of do’s, dont’s and etiquette. Kudos to the author of this list. My father told me that the very first thing to do is to read the Libretto and try to understand what the story line is all about, if not, you will just see opera singers doing what they do best and that’s just sing. The advent of the OpTrans is a great supplement to getting a further understanding of the story of the opera. Great List !!!

  • 9of9

    dang it! After reading this I’m pretty sure the dress I bought is too dressy for the Sunday Matinee. Luckily I didn’t spend much on it. But I doubt I’ll have another place to wear it.

  • SilverSpork

    9of9 – Are you in San Diego by chance? I am having the hardest time settling on a dress! it’s the opera, but it’s Sunday, it’s afternoon, it’s San Diego (i.e. casual) and I’m in the balcony! I expect my balconymates will run more toward Tevas than tiaras, but I don’t want to be a schlub. Oh, the humanity…

    Thanks for the list!

    • peter8172

      @ Silverspork. The tiara, strapless gowns and opera binoculars have gone passe for many years. Take it from someone who has attended over 50 operas in my lifetime. Dress casually, but you being a woman, don’t wear slacks. Dress as if you were going to your job or office. When I go its simple. A collared dress shirt, pleated slacks, a tie and nice dress shoes. You will see people there who are dressed up as though that they are going to have dinner with Queen Elizabeth but don’t dress up like you’re about to go work on your garden. Dress casually and always read the libretto that is given to you which tells you the story of the opera you are about to watch.

  • Sardondi

    “Just like you would not dine in a restaurant if you cannot afford to tip..”

    Serve much?

    Seriously, an excellent “list” and a real service. Which makes this a refreshing change from the usual tiresome contributions which, completely without irony, treat comic books as the literary and critical equivalent of novels. Thank you.

  • authentic retro jordans

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  • petet2112

    If you get your tickets well in advance, always, always read the libretto and read what the story is all about. If you cant find a Libretto, I am sure that the Wikipedia should have the story. If you don’t read it, you will be lost when the opera is well into its show. My first Opera that I attended was “La Boheme” when I was only 9 years old and my father force fed me to read it. And it helped quite significantly.

  • johnny

    lol mullet

  • Jimmy

    lol mullet wig

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