Opera. It’s stuffy. It’s boring. It’s expensive. I don’t have a tuxedo to wear. TBH, if you think these things, you probably haven’t checked out the opera scene of late, and your patchy knowledge of opera is stitched together from pop culture. And really, we don’t blame you.
I haven’t seen The Sound of Music nor Star Wars (I’m a terrible human), and I think I’ve got the gist of what’s going on...but I know, deep down, I haven’t really seen it. I haven’t experienced it. And I really should.
Ergo, opera. Opera companies are sitting up and taking note of what modern audiences—AKA you—are into, what you can afford, and how to get your butt on their seats. Opera’s not scary nor stuffy. Let us give you the down low.
What Is Opera, Exactly?
In a nutshell, it’s a story told through music and song. In a bigger nutshell, it’s a dramatic theatrical work where the singers double down as actors, and play leading parts in the story. Oh yeah, and there’s an orchestra.
There’s also something called chamber opera. “It’s just opera where every person on stage and playing instruments is equally responsible for the work,” says Jack Symonds, artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera, a leading modern opera organisation.
The story lines of most operas focus on—you guessed it—love. Love, tragedy and death (spoiler alert). Sound familiar? Let’s take some classic operas that you probably know by name. Madame Butterfly: Woman falls in love with man. He ditches her. She dies. La bohème: Bohemian man and woman fall in love. He ditches her. She dies. Carmen: Sassy woman and man fall in love. She sassily ditches him. She dies. You get it.
But Y Tho?
Well, in the same way that unrequited love has been immortalised in movies, songs, and rejected marriage proposals on YouTube, it’s a universal theme. “I suppose that sort of thing appeals to audiences [because] everyone has a different love story in their life,” says Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia. “The plots [in opera] are very much attune to human emotions.”
What Does It Feel Like To Be In The Audience?
Pretty epic, actually. The staging, the costumes, the orchestration, the heart-wrenching arias (looong songs sung by a soloist—Ave Maria is a famous one) all culminate to create a super- moving experience.
Consider this: opera singers are not miked. They have to project their voices above the volume of the orchestra, and out into a massive concert hall. It’s powerful on a large scale, but also heart-stoppingly intimate. “Though you may be sitting in a theatre with 2,000 people, that person on stage is singing only to you,” says Terracini. That’s the power of opera.
It’s pretty much what Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman feels in this scene.
Will I Understand What’s Going On?
Look, it’s not Twin Peaks. Most classical operas from the 18th and 19th century are sung in their original Italian, French or German, but there are English surtitles for your reading convenience. Productions by smaller, experimental companies like the Sydney Chamber Opera and Chamber Made are mostly sung in English. You’ve got this.
For Sydney Chamber Opera, they’re passionate about not compromising or “dumbing down” the contemporary opera experience. Symonds and his team work with charismatic musicians and talented set designers to produce contemporary opera, fused with “music, dramatic and narrative complexity that can speak clearly and passionately to a larger audience.” Seriously, you’ve got this.
But Why Are Tickets So Expensive?
The average cost of an Opera Australia production is a cool $1.5 million. This includes programming the season up to five years ahead of time (Opera Australia is currently programming their season for 2023!). Then there’s the 450 cast and crew (singers, the chorus, orchestral musicians, set and costume designers, stage crew) and countless others in back-of-house, tech, marketing, box office and admin. PS, for their upcoming production of Aida, the costume department has been busy churning out 90 full costumes and have spent 2,200 hours crafting the elaborate costumes for the women’s chorus. Pretty epic.
Considering all those people involved, $150 for a decent seat to a major opera production is really good value for money. If you’re not that flush, never fear: Opera Australia, NZ Opera, WA Opera and Victorian Opera offer affordable subscriptions or one-off tickets for under 30s and students for as low as $30. If you’re feeling lucky, Opera Australia runs a ballot for peeps to score $20 tix to its Sydney productions too.
The newer and smaller opera companies have super affordable tickets, all the time. We highly recommend checking out the Sydney Chamber Opera, Melbourne’s Chamber Made and Perth’s Freeze Frame Opera for their fresh and experimental vocal and opera productions. Do it.
Do I Have To Wear A Tuxedo?
A beehive? A bustle? Nope. Like with audiences who attend orchestral concerts and ballets nowadays, there’s no dress code for the opera. Note, some operas go for 2 hours (with an interval in the middle), so you’ll want to wear something comfy.
Can I Clap Whenevs?
Look, you can go with the flow and clap when everyone else does. But according to Terracini, the emotion of the opera is like a football game. Anything goes if you’re showing your enthusiasm, and that includes whistling, getting to your feet and yelling Bravo! It’s especially g when a singer hits a spectacular high note.
What Other Etiquette Should I Know?
Get there early! Aim to be in the foyer of the venue at 30 minutes before the show is due to start. This gives you time to pop to the loo, cloak your bags, grab a drink, and check out the program (and turn your phone off, obvs).
If you’re unsure, the Victoria Opera has written a handy “How to Opera” guide for millennials like you.
Yass pls. Check out these rad productions.
NZ Opera | La bohème
One of the greatest romances in the opera canon. Bring tissues.
Various dates in September and October, Auckland & Wellington
More info here.
Opera Australia | Aida
A story of love, triumph and betrayal, with bedazzling costumes and a high-tech stage.
18 July – 31 August, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
More info here.
Sydney Chamber Opera | Resonant Bodies
Six extraordinary vocalists over two days. Check out Rully Shabara from Indonesia (including two drummers who have never before left their Indonesian island homeland) and amaze Sydney improvisatory vocalist Sonya Holowell.
31 August – 1 September, Carriageworks, Eveleigh
More info here.
Victorian Opera | The Capulets And The Montagues
You know the story—the most-famous star-crossed lovers eva.
Friday 18 September, Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne
More info here.
Chamber Made | Dybbuks
Part performance, part concert, part exorcism. It’s a feminist reimagining of S. Ansky’s iconic Dybbuk story with traditional Yiddish songs and contemporary music.
14–26 August, Theatre Works, St Kilda
More info here.
Want to tackle truffles next? We got you.
Image credit: Zan Wimberly