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Opera Protocol Tips
 

By Sherri Ferris, President and CEO
Protocol Professionals, Inc.

 

A focus on "formality and glamour, coupled with a polished behavioral repertoire" will prepare you for an appropriate entrée into the world of Grand Opera and Opening Nights.

The following are a few protocol "do's and taboos" for the opera…

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What to wear:
 
  • As at the classic opera houses of Europe, those attending an Opening Night should dress in formal attire.
  • Men wear black tie (tuxedo, preferably in a traditional style) or white tie and tails to an Opening Night. On other opera nights, black tie or a dark suit is appropriate.
  • Women can choose long or short elegant gowns, but long is considered more formal. Ensembles are often accessorized with gloves. It is best to coordinate the degree of formality with one's escort.
  • Many women choose designer gowns from haute couture designers' summer trunk shows to insure that theirs will be one-of-a-kind.
  • The opera is often viewed as a place to "see and be seen". In fact, many attendees of the Vienna Opera House traditionally participate in a promenade during intermission.
  • A natural look in makeup is preferred, because pre-performance dinners usually begin while the sun is still shining.
  • At performances other than Opening Night, a basic black dress with opera length pearls is always a good standard.

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What to expect:

  • Few operas are performed in English, so at least a little research is essential; you may wish to read the synopsis online or at the local library. If you are more ambitious, you might watch a video of the opera or listen to a CD while reading the libretto (a printout of the words that are sung). That will enable you to have a deeper appreciation of what you are seeing and to discuss the performance intelligently, or at least intelligibly.
  • If you want to dazzle your friends, crib a bit of musical trivia for the pre-performance cocktail party; for example, you might drop the fact that Puccini always introduced his heroines "off stage" - you heard them sing before you saw them perform! (But be aware of real opera aficionados, who will know more than you can possible assimilate by "cramming.")
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to get ready. If you're rushed, you will forget your performance tickets, parking pass, or opera glasses. Worst of all, you may be late! Late arrivals are usually relegated to video screen viewing until the next intermission. Once the house lights dim and the doors close, no one is seated until the intermission; it is considered too disruptive.

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What to eat and drink:

  • No beans, garlic, onions or peppers before the performance - these foods will make your stomach gurgle. During the performance there can be no extraneous noise, unplanned exits, or sharing snacks surreptitiously with seatmates.
  • Don't overeat before the performance. You will be sitting for a long time and will be more comfortable in your clothing if you have not overindulged. (It also helps not to be wearing a suit or dress that has become a couple of sizes too small.)
  • The hour or two before the curtain is not the time to drink enormous quantities of alcohol, if you hope to avoid needing the toilette before the overture is finished, and sleeping through the important arias.

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When to applaud:

  • NEVER, NEVER applaud until AFTER the last operatic note is played no matter WHAT the curtain does! (A similar rule applies to the symphony that has four movements and applause comes ONLY after the last movement.)
  • Do not applaud the scenery, supertitles or entrance of a star performer. It is gauche. The term is NOT" subtitles" since they are OVER the stage, except for houses like the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico which have the English translation on the back of seats.
  • At an Italian opera, it is perfectly acceptable to applaud after arias, in contrast to Wagnerian (German) operas that for the most part do not have arias. In fact, after Wagner's "Parsifal", often performed at the Met at Easter, you should not even applaud after the entire first act, because Wagner felt it interrupted the musical continuity.
  • DO welcome the conductor with applause as he enters before the performance begins. His pivotal role is crucial to the timing and synchrony of the performance. An interesting aside - Richard Wagner was the first composer to face the orchestra and the stage. Prior to the time in the late 1800's, composers faced the audience with their backs to the stage.

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How to behave in your seat:

  • The most important rule: Leave at home bangle bracelets, cell phones, pagers, electronic devices, watch alarms and anything else that makes noise (but see the point below).
  • In the realm of international business, it is commonplace to be able to check communication devices with meeting staff that will monitor them. Until our cultural institutions adopt this enlightened policy, devices should be turned off or set on "vibrate." A melodic Puccini aria broken by the sound of a customized cell phone ringer would be barbaric, even if your cell phone plays Mozart.
  • Never use penlights to read the program or libretto (words that are sung) during the performance. There is no substitute for pre-performance homework.
  • Do not fidget in your seat, bob your head back and forth or tap your toes, no matter how restless you become, or how tempting the pulsating rhythm of the percussion.
  • If sitting in a section other than box seats, raise your seat when you vacate it, for the convenience of those who must move along the row. Say "please excuse me" when passing in front of others as you move along the row.
  • Europeans have a much more civil way of passing in front of others as they move along a row of seats: they face those they are passing, instead of offering their derrieres as Americans do.
  • Be still! If you have an itch, do not scratch it. If you have a cold, bring cough drops (not wrapped in crinkly paper) and nasal spray, or, stay at home.
  • Do not wear hats that obstruct vision and, no matter the discomfort, do not take off your odoriferous shoes. · Do not use your program as a fan or percussion instrument.
  • NO TALKING, snoring, humming, or whispering while ANY music is being played. Audiences that insist on talking during an overture truly show their ignorance. Overtures are part of the opera, not just a "tuning up" for the brass section or an opportunity to catch up on the latest people watching!

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What to do at curtain call:

  • This is one time you can definitely be a bit boisterous, but there are rules to follow:
  • Keep in mind that the performers come out like heads-of-state, in reverse rank order - the top stars are last.
  • It is not appropriate to throw tomatoes if you disliked the performance, even if they are sun-ripened from your garden. A lack of applause will communicate your objection. Bouquets of flowers are gently tossed to the artists during Curtain Call.
  • When applauding women, you cheer "Brava!", accent on the last syllable.
  • When applauding men, you cheer "Bravo!", accent on the last syllable.
  • When applauding both men and women, you cheer "Bravi!", accent on the first.
  • As tempting as it is to beat the crowd to the parking garage, STAY to applaud the performers. For great performances, STAND and applaud. The artists have worked hard and they deserve your thanks. This is not the time nor place for VCR manners! After all, would you dine in someone's home and not say "Thank you?"

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