Opera Etiquette: A night at the opera

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You may not be an opera aficionado, but there’s no need to feel excluded from an artform that is rich in tradition, passion and extraordinary talent. Here’s a quick and easy guide of things to know before you attend a night at the opera. Give this a like to help others have a wonderful time at a show.

Many programmes in the US and UK run promotions to make opera accessible. In the UK, there’s The Proms in the summer and in the US, we have the 30, where it’s a society of people in their 30s or younger who appreciate opera and can mingle. 

If you’re a first-time opera-goer, arm yourself with some basic knowledge of terminology and pay attention to program notes, plut summaries – and subtitles if there are any.

Arrive on time. Most opera houses won’t let you in after the opera has begun. You may have to wait in the foyer until the intermission, so don’t be late.

Keep quiet. Avoid whispering or rustling wrappers, and most importantly, switch your phone to silent.

Know when to applaud. Clap when the conductor takes to the pedium, after the overture, at the end of an act and at the final bows. It is also quite normal to clap after a particularly well-executed aria. If in doubt, follow your fellow audience members’ leads.

Dress appropriately. Unless it’s a major gala performance or a country house opera, there are no dress codes, though audience members often enjoy dressing up for a special occasion. I personally go in white tie without a tiara. My husband goes in Hollywood Black Tie. Jeans, sportswear, shorts and flip flops may be regarded as overly casual. Avoid these. 

Opera Vocabulary and What Their Definitions

Aria: A long, emotional solo sung by the main character of the opera. 

Baritone: A male singing voice, higher than a base but lower than a tenor.

Bass: A male singing voice, the lowest in the scale.

Bel Canto: A style of singing or an opera written in such style that emphasises (holding out periods of music) phrasing, tone and technique. 

Buffo: The comedian of the opera; comes from the Italian term for buffoon. 

Cabaletta: A faster, more upbeat, second half of an aria.

Cadenza: A segment at the end of an aria that shows a singer’s vocal ability. 

Canzone: A folk song used in opera, usually sung by the buffo in a comedic way. 

Cavatina: The slower, first half of an aria.

Coloratura: Fast notes and trills up and down the scale; a style that began in the baroque period.

Contralto: A female singing voice in the lower vocal range. A great example of this is Ana Moura, the fado singer or Diana Krall in the song ‘The Look of Love’.

Countertenor: A male who elevates his voice to alto pitch.

Double aria: An aria with two parts, the slower cavatina, and the faster cabaletta.

Embellishment: The act of adding notes to a melody line.

Grand Opera: Refers to an opera without any spoken dialogue; utilises a large orchestra and chorus. 

Interlude: A short piece of music, instrumental, played between acts or scenes in an opera. 

Leitmotiv: A recurring musical theme that precipitates the appearance of a particular character or event.

Libretto: Refers to the words in an opera, but it can also be a small piece of music.

Maestro: Refers to the conductor, male or female.

Melodrama: A passage of work that includes alternating dialogue with song.

Mezzo-Soprano: A female singing voice, lower than a soprano but higher than an alto. Speaking of Mezzo-soprano and soprano, there is something very special and old school traditional in opera that does not exist anymore. At least I hope it doesn’t, called the Castrati. They are men who sing high. A long time ago, boys would sing in the opera and they would cut off their lower privates to keep them singing high. But they would grow up and have the lung power of a grown man and a high range singing voice. So it was quite the force in singing. 

Opera buffo: A performance that focuses on ordinary people; sometimes it is comedic in nature.

Opera Seria: A performance that focuses on gods, goddesses, and heroes; considered a ‘serious’ opera.

Parlando: Singing that sounds like ordinary speech that may occur in the middle of an aria.

Patter song: A song in which an actor sings an excessive number of words in a short amount of time. Dense lyrics in other words.

Prima Donna: The leading lady in a theatrical production.

Recitative: A song that is sung in a conversational style.

Répertoire: A block of performance pieces that a company can perform without any further preparation. 

Roulade: A quick run of notes sung on a single syllable.

Soprano: A female singing voice of the highest vocal range.

Supertitles: Used during foreign operas, they are subtitles projected on a screen at the show.

Tenor: A male singing voice of the highest range.

Tremolo: Refers to a rapid reiteration of pitch.

Trouser Role: A role of a  young man or boy that is sung by a female.

Vibrato: Wavering of a frequency or pitch while singing or playing a single note.

Find more etiquette posts here. Interested in a lesson? Book a course with the links below and become the most polished version of you.

Gia G. Dixon
Gia G. Dixon

I’m Gia G. Dixon, an etiquette consultant certified under Royal Charter of King Charles III. Here is my guide to elegant style, high quality living, and little things that make your daily life glamorous.

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