Attending the opera for the first time can be intimidating, but with the right attitude, it's as accessible as a night at the theatre—and a far cry from the sacrosanct experience it's often portrayed to be.
Just a few subway stops from the marquees of Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera continues its 2023–24 season, featuring seven new productions and seventeen revivals. The season kicked off September 26 with the house premiere of Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking directed by Ivo van Hove, and continues through June 8, 2024.
Opera offers a grand variation on traditional theatergoing, but if those massive arches seem daunting, here are a few tips and tricks to make your night at the opera one to remember.
What to See
With roughly twenty productions per season, the Met’s lineups are an eclectic mix of familiar favorites and adventurous picks, offering classic stagings and the avant garde. Here are just a few suggestions from this season’s offerings:
Stories you know: Some popular musicals are based on operas, including Rent, based on La Bohéme, and Miss Saigon, derived from Madama Butterfly. Both operas will be performed in the Met’s 2023–24 season. Many operas are based on classic plays. If you like Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, check out Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. If Greek tragedy is more your speed, give Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice a go.
Broadway names: Many Broadway directors and stars have made their mark on the Met stage. This season includes new productions by acclaimed Broadway directors Ivo van Hove (Dead Man Walking), Robert O'Hara (X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X), Mary Zimmerman (Florencia en el Amazonas), and Lileana Blain-Cruz (El Niño). O'Hara and Blain-Cruz are making their Met debuts. The season will also include revivals of productions by Bartlett Sher (Roméo et Juliette), Phelim McDermott (The Hours), and a holiday presentation of Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute, sung in English.
Star power: As usual, the Met has lined up all-star casts of some of the most acclaimed opera singers in the world. La Forza del Destino (starring Lise Davidsen), Roméo et Juliette (starring Nadine Sierra and Benjamin Berhnheim), Orfeo ed Euridice (starring Anthony Roth Costanzo and Ying Fang), and The Hours (with Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, and Joyce DiDonato all reprising their roles from the opera's sold-out premiere run last season) are just some of the top-quality casts the opera company has assembled for this season.
Something short: Four-plus hour run times like those of Tannhäuser and La Forza del Destino can be daunting to new operagoers. If you want to be in and out of the opera house in under three hours, the Met has options for you, including La Rondine (2 hours 35 minutes), Florencia en el Amazonas (2 hours 15 minutes), and Orfeo ed Euridice (1 hour 40 minutes). The Met also stages a two-hour abridged version of Mozart's The Magic Flute, sung in English and directed by Tony Award-winner Julie Taymor.
For the daring: This season will see the Met premieres of four operas from the last forty years, starting with the house premiere of Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, which opened the season. In November, the company will stage Anthony Davis' X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas. In April, the company will stage John Adams' El Niño. More adventurous operagoers may also have an eye on some lesser-known classics like Puccini's La Rondine and Verdi's La Forza del Destino.
The Metropolitan Opera sells tickets in the back of the family circle for around $40. While you’ll want to bring binoculars, opera buffs claim these seats offer the best sound quality.
Doing Your Homework
From the potential language barrier to the grandeur of the staging, opera can risk a sensory overload. If you’re not bothered by spoilers, go ahead and read opera’s summary on either the Met’s site or Wikipedia.
The Met does offer individual translations (located on the seat-back in front of you, more on that later). However, if you're already loosely familiar with the plot, you can follow the captioning casually, and you’ll recognize plot points on stage without relying too heavily on them. This will also free you to take in what’s most important: the music.
Speaking of which, get hyped for your night at the opera by giving a key aria or two from the show a listen. You may be surprised by how much you already know, and it’ll make the unparalleled experience of hearing that unamplified sound live all the more special.
What to Wear
Dress up as much or as little as you want. For some, the opera is an opportunity to go all out; no matter what you wear, there will be someone more opulent than you. Some still wear gowns and gloves. Others treat it as any other live experience; if you’re comfortable wearing it to a show on Broadway, that’ll do here as well.
People-watching around the Metropolitan Opera House is just as much a spectacle as the story unfolding onstage. If you’re looking for an occasion to wear that bold statement necklace or don that flashy suit, this is a safe bet. You’ll fit right in while still getting the attention you want.
For some opera attire inspiration—from jeans to floor-length—check out the Met’s style blog: LastNightattheMet.com.
What to Drink
Sparkling is the drink of choice, but not your only option. There’s also coffee, which could be a blessing during even the most exciting of Wagner epics. Keep in mind: unlike a Broadway theatre, drinks are not allowed in the auditorium itself. Drink up in the lobby.
Taking It All In
Unlike most opera houses, the Met’s captioning system is as an individual experience, located on the back of the seat in front of you. As the performance commences, press the red button once for English captions, or continue pressing it to scroll through additional options.
The screens are tinted, so your neighbors’ screens will not be visible to you. If you’re leaning over to press their button in an attempt to help, chances are you’re doing just the opposite.
As for applause mid-performance, opera scores are generally more fluid than musical theatre, so read the room before clapping. Applause following an overture, a notable aria, or a particularly impressive vocal performance is common (especially at the Met), and in some rare cases, could even lead to an encore. Lucky you.
In general, operagoing etiquette is akin to theatregoing etiquette: Don’t do anything Patti LuPone would disapprove of.
If you're late, don't expect to be seated during a lull in the first act as you would during most Broadway ventures. If you arrive after those auditorium doors closed, you'll instead be sent to a separate viewing room, where you'll be able to watch a live feed of the action (sans subtitles) until intermission.
Most productions have at least one intermission, oftentimes more. Unlike a majority of Broadway houses, there’s far more to do than browse through your Playbill and wait in line for the restroom between acts.
As previously mentioned, people-watching is an opera tradition, so grab a spot overlooking the staircase (or on the staircase!) and catch the varying degrees of fashion. The Met also has displays and exhibits scattered through the entire house; walk around and take a glance at the galleries on the lower level or inspect some costumes up close on the grand tier.
Many intermissions are longer than the standard 15 minutes—sometimes as long as 45; those set changes are no joke. Check ahead of time to plan your breaks accordingly.
Do some hand stretches now; opera curtain calls run long, with the singers, occasionally the chorus, conductor, and—on premieres of new productions—design team each enjoying their moment center stage. But don’t leave. See the rule above concerning Patti LuPone, and it can be fun to see how dramatic an opera singer can make just one bow (or several).
Occasionally, and particularly at premieres of new productions, operagoers who fancy themselves connoisseurs may “boo” the creative team. Don’t join in—especially if you're new to the scene. The only thing more cringe-worthy than a severely misguided production is someone thinking a “boo” is a legitimate critique.
If you feel compelled to accompany your applause with an exclamation, a quick glossary of what to shout and for whom:
To commend a male performer: Bravo!
To commend a female performer: Brava!
To commend a group: Bravi!
For a full season lineup, visit MetOpera.org.