How To Get Into Opera For The First Time

By Sam Smith Last edited 88 months ago
How To Get Into Opera For The First Time

A scene from The Damnation Of Faust by Hector Berlioz. Performed by English National Opera @ London Coliseum. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Conducted by Edward Gardner.
(Opening 6-05-11)
©Tristram Kenton 05/11
(3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550  Mob 07973 617 355)email:
An example of just how innovative opera can be. Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust for English National Opera © Tristram Kenton

To many Londoners, opera remains something of a mysterious world. With summer virtually upon us, however, there are more opportunities than ever to try out this art form for the first time, so here are some of our top tips to help you to take that first step.

Grab A Bargain: One of the main things that can put people off trying opera is the expense. £200 on something you’re not sure about in advance is a lot to risk. Even, however, at the top opera houses only a small proportion of tickets are at that price, and over half are under £50. The Royal Opera House has some standing places (mainly in the slips) for £8-10 and at English National Opera amphitheatre tickets start from around £12. Some of these inexpensive places can prove better than others but, although some have a slightly restricted view of the stage, all are bargains for the price. Booking early can be the key to securing them, but both houses also have a quota of inexpensive tickets that they will only sell on the day, although for some productions these do go quickly. English National Opera has also just started a £20 secret seat scheme.

Demystify the Experience: Many people when they go to the opera for the first time suddenly realise that it is far easier to understand and enjoy than they ever imagined. If, however, you want to help make it easy, by all means google a synopsis in advance, buy a programme or watch a DVD of another production of the same opera. All major opera houses have surtitles (like subtitles, only they appear above rather than below the stage) but if you think it would help to hear your first opera in English, English National Opera performs all operas in that language. Of course, anything by Benjamin Britten, John Adams or Philip Glass, to name but a few, will be in English anyway (apart from Satyagraha which Glass wrote in Sanskrit!).

Pick the ‘Right’ Composer: We wouldn’t want to put you off going to hear any composer, but for a first time works by Mozart, Verdi or Puccini, amongst others, should prove enjoyable. And while we would certainly encourage anyone to get into Wagner, do bear in mind that the two works of his that don’t last five hours are The Flying Dutchman and Rhinegold.

Try Something Different: Many very good small companies offer opera at affordable prices in relaxed settings (such as pub theatres), and frequently provide innovative and entertaining takes on classic works. Two notable companies are OperaUpClose, based at the King’s Head Theatre, and Popup Opera which, as its name suggests, can pop up in all sorts of venues!

Go To The Cinema Instead: Live satellite screenings in cinemas of productions from the Royal Opera House, English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York are becoming very popular. For not much more than a normal cinema ticket you can get a ‘front row’ seat, and with the acts framed with features and interviews everything is made very accessible. In addition, every summer the Royal Opera House broadcasts some operas live on screens in Trafalgar Square and other venues around the country. The next are La bohème on 15 July 2014 and Rigoletto on 17 September 2014, and entry is free.

Make A Summer’s Day Of It: In the summer, many opera festivals such as Glyndebourne and Garsington take place. Here the aim is to make a day of it and to frame first rate opera with a walk in the gardens and a picnic during the interval. Closer to the centre of London, Opera Holland Park is somewhere you spend the evening rather than the whole day (there’s no extended interval for picnics) but its tented performance area does make for a pleasant outdoor summer evening. Glyndebourne and Garsington are two places where black tie is rather expected, but not so Opera Holland Park.

Don’t Worry Too Much About 'Etiquette': With the two aforementioned exceptions, it is not the case that you have to dress up to go to the opera, and people go to the Royal Opera House in normal clothes all the time. The only ‘rules’ are the obvious ones, which are not to make any noise during the performance (even whispering and rustling sweet packets can be distracting for others) and to switch off your mobile! Even texting or surfing the web on silent can be distracting for the person next to you as phones emit a bright light.

Go To The Proms: This year, concert or semi-staged performances of three operas by Richard Strauss, who was born exactly 150 years ago, will be performed at the Royal Albert Hall: Der Rosenkavalier (22 July), Salome (30 August) and Elektra (31 August). Tickets can be bought for these now as for any other concert, but there is also a quota of £5 standing tickets to be sold on the day (cash only) that can get you right to the front. It is, however, advisable to turn up early to be sure of getting one.

Don’t Give Up: You can get good and bad nights at the opera (though hopefully far more of the former) as you can at the theatre or football matches. So if your first experience isn’t so great, don’t assume all productions are the same and do try it again! If after three or four you’re still not warming to the world of opera, then fair enough, but our guess is that by then you almost certainly will be!

Last Updated 26 May 2014