Opera can be intimidating for the uninitiated. Even opera professionals understand that. It’s usually sung in a foreign language, most of the ones you see around here were written well over a century ago, and the vocal style is something that can make for difficult listening for people who are more attuned to popular music.
But there’s really no reason to be operaphobic. Opera is really fun (and often very funny), so stop worrying and enjoy the art form:
1. You can dress any way you want. Despite what you may have seen on TV, most people don’t wear formal attire to the opera. Sarasota Opera audiences wear everything from tuxedos to cargo shorts. Fancy dress is more common on opening nights, but even then the people who get dressed up are people who simply enjoy dressing up. But really, as long as you’re presentable, that’s cool. “We just prefer that you wear clothes,” said Samuel Lowry, director of audience development for Sarasota Opera.
2. It’s translated. This really surprises a lot of people. Almost all operas in the past 50 years or so, at least in this country, are accompanied by surtitles (like subtitles, only above the stage). Sarasota Opera even uses surtitles for its English-language productions, because it can be difficult to catch all the lyrics. And following along is easy. A lot of times a sentence that takes two seconds to read can take 20 seconds to sing, so you can glance at the translation and then watch the stage.
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We just prefer that you wear clothes.
3. It’s way cooler live than on the radio. When you flip through the radio stations and come across opera, you have no context. You probably can’t understand the words. You can’t see the facial expressions or the body language of the singer or the other performers, nor the sets and the costumes. Grand opera combines singing, acting, dancing (sometimes) and visual arts, so you have to see it to truly appreciate it, at least at first. “It’s truly every aspect of the arts in one form,” Lowry said. “It’s a lot coming at you at once.”
4. A little preparation is a big help. It’s easy to find a synopsis of just about any opera. If you take a couple of minutes to check that out, you can pique your interest. Take another two or three minutes and you can read a bit about the opera’s history and you can get a little deeper appreciation. Some scenes that seem like mild comedy today may have been scandalously subversive in 19th-century France. The opera may have been a flop when it premiered and only became successful after the composer had died. It may have been a success at first but then fallen out of favor for decades. Lowry recommends Wikipedia because it has a lot of information in a compact format, and also provides links in case you find something intriguing and want to find out more.
5. But you can prepare once you get to the theater. You’ll get a program when you walk in the door and it will include a synopsis and probably even some commentary. You can read it in the few minutes before the lights go down and it will enhance your experience, Lowry said.
If you feel so moved, applaud. Let the artists know. Even if you’re the only one in the theater who’s applauding.
6. It’s not expensive. Sarasota Opera has seats for $19 for every performance. (They sell out fast, though.) They’re in the back of the Sarasota Opera House, but they’re not bad seats. The theater isn’t that big (it seats 1,199) so you’re never far from the stage, all views are unobstructed, the acoustics are great and the atmosphere of the vintage theater is wonderful.
7. You know the music. If you pick an opera that you’ve heard of, such as Bizet’s “Carmen,” which opens Saturday, you’ll almost always hear melodies that you’ve heard a million times and maybe even sung along with. They’re used in movies, commercials, TV shows and cartoons. “People who don’t think they know anything about opera know songs from ‘Carmen,’ ” Lowry said.
8. You might even know the story. A lot of opera plots are based on familiar sources. Others have been adapted into contemporary works.
9. It’s not elitist. In Europe, opera is a popular art form and audiences consist of everyone from working-class people to the ultra-rich. The perception that opera is elitist developed only when opera first came to America, Lowry said. It wasn’t subsidized by the government, as it usually is in Europe, so tickets were expensive and only rich people could go.
10. You don’t have to know when to clap. This is something Sarasota Opera stresses. “If you feel so moved, applaud,” Lowry said. “Let the artists know. Even if you’re the only one in the theater who’s applauding.”
You can find the Sarasota Opera’s schedule and purchase tickets at www.sarasotaopera.org.