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Gentleman’s guide to opera

With opera season hitting full voice at Dubai Opera, we take you through how to approach the musical art form par excellence

The first rule is: no sneakers. The second rule is: sneakers are not allowed. The third rule is: Do not wear sneakers. Sneakers are against operatic law.

Often thought to be elusive and difficult to access, if you know the basics, you can’t fail to enjoy a night at the opera. Many people are turned away from opera because it’s considered out of reach. Out of touch. Esoteric. Absolutely inaccessible.

However, you know what they say about assumptions being the mother...

When you break it down and take the time to get to grips with some of the basic principles of the most elevated form of musical theatre, it’s really not that intimidating.

Opera is romance, tragedy, action, suspense, suffering and euphoria all tightly packaged and delivered by some of the most talented musicians to have lived.

It can be the greatest and most emotionally demanding art form you can experience. That the human imagination created pieces like Carmen and Don Giovanni is a marvel in itself. Being able to access and follow them is an incredibly rewarding feeling.

And if you give it a fair crack, with an open mind you’re apt to discover one of the artistic wonders of the world.  So here’s your comprehensive walk through of a night at the opera.

What is opera?

The short answer is: it’s a form of theatre that combines the operatic score written by a composer and the script written by a librettist (for definitions of these terms scroll down to the jargon buster). So, it’s music put to words and performed, usually in Latin, on stage.

The first rule is: no sneakers. The second rule is: sneakers are not allowed. The third rule is: Do not wear sneakers. Sneakers are against operatic law.

How to choose an opera

Opera is just as varied and rich in pathos as any and every movie or TV series ever made. Perhaps even more so, because less work is done for you on the opera stage than on the television or cinema screen. So it becomes an intensely subjective experience.

The key to accessing opera is choosing a similar style of genre and plot that you’re already used to and enjoy.

Make a shortlist of your favourite movies and books. This will give you an idea of the genre of opera you will get the most out of without trying too hard to engage with the plot.

If you’re an action and adventure kinda guy, you’ll want something like Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Wagner’s Die Walküre.

If you’re a bit of a hopeless romantic, try something like Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love.

If your Netflix account is a stream of psychological thrillers, you’re after something like Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Salome.

Or, if you’re up for a bit of tragedy, à la Romeo and Juliet, give Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly a go.

Opera Dress

Emma Willis

white superior cotton 2 button cuff squared shirt
AED 1,000.00

Comme Les Loups

Old Burgundy
AED 400.00

Code of London

Soho jet black single breasted two-piece suit
AED 2,650.00

Richard James

Pocket Square Rustic Herringbone
AED 225.00

Bow-Tie

Holmes - Box Calf Black Leather
AED 1,100.00

What to wear

The first rule is: no sneakers. The second rule is: sneakers are not allowed. The third rule is: Do not wear sneakers. Sneakers are against operatic law. Please don’t wear them. This is not a gig. It’s a refined and elegant evening of classical music on a grand scale. Treat it as such. Thank you.

As for your main outfit, you can go with a tux. You certainly won’t be out of place at the opera in a black tie. Plenty of people go for the black tie look. White tie might be a bit excessive, but you still won’t look like a swan in a jungle swamp.

Our advice is to keep it classy and refined without trying too hard. Go for a navy or black suit. No patterns. Just an elegant, tailored suit with a tie, or bow tie and pocket square that match. And add in some sharp, well-polished dress shoes. (Refer to our opera dress look above.)

But let’s just dispel a misconception: you don’t have to wear a suit, or a tie. You can just as easily wear some slacks, brogues and unbuttoned shirt and a herringbone jacket.

You won’t be ejected from the building. You might suffer a few scoffs and eyerolls, but that’s nothing we don’t deal with on a daily basis anyway.

If you’re going to go for the more casual approach to the opera, we suggest a pair of well-fitted chinos, brown brogues, an oxford button down collar and a dinner jacket, maybe with a waistcoat thrown in to elevate the look. (Check out our “casual opera” recommended look below.)

Casual opera

Code of London

Fulham grey with green check single breasted jacket
AED 1,800.00

Code of London

Mayfair grey and green check 'self fabric' waistcoat
AED 875.00

Richard James

Pocket Square Floral Splash
AED 225.00

Richard James

Trousers Stretch Cotton Twill
AED 925.00

Bow-Tie

Parker - Repello Nut
AED 825.00

Always applaud the conductor

If you hear the audience start to applaud and you’re not sure why, it’s probably because the conductor is doing something. Always applaud the conductor. They pull everything together and make the whole evening sing in harmony. So, even if you’re not sure what it is he’s doing, remember, he’s pulling the strings on the whole puppet show. Flatter him. Be kind with your applause. It’s not an easy job.

Opera speak — your cheat sheet

There are some words which might crop up in gentle chit-chat in the lobby before you take your seats. You might be directly involved in the conversation. You might overhear some of these terms in chatter you’re not privy to. Either way, not knowing what on the face of the blue planet people are on about is an isolating feeling. But you don’t need to suffer that, because here are some of the more frequently used opera terms you might want to know.

Act: A section of the opera, divided by the composer to create dramatic sections. Each act is usually followed by a break.

In a sentence: “Where the first act seemed to create a frantic atmosphere, the second act mellowed out and brought the emotional pitch down.”

Aria: The big, emotive number central to the whole piece. It’s the emotional roller coaster, similar to a soliloquy or monologue in theatre speak.

In a sentence: “The aria she sung towards the end of the first act was spine-tingling.”

Baritone: The middle male voice.

Bass: The lowest male voice.

Contralto: The lowest female voice.

Crescendo: The gradual increase in volume and intensity in the music.

In a sentence: “The way the middle section build towards its crescendo was captivating.”

Diminuendo: The opposite of crescendo. The gradual decrease in volume or intensity of the music.

In a sentence: “The diminuendo of that section really pulled you into the character’s suffering.”

Dynamics: the volume of the music – whether loud or soft.

In a sentence: “The dynamics of the aria were very soft.”

Leitmotif: Every time a certain character or theme appears, you’ll hear the same melody to announce their or its arrival.

In a sentence: “The leitmotif for the prima donna is gentle, just like her character.”

Libretto: Literally meaning “little book” in Italian, it’s the script written for the opera so it can be performed on stage as a coherent whole.

In a sentence: “The libretto for Bizet’s Carmen was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.”

Orchestra: The group of musicians that perform all the music for the opera.

Overture: The musical introduction to the opera. Usually contains elements of the score that will feature in the main piece.

Prima donna: You’ll probably have used this term to refer to someone being too dramatic, making mountains out of molehills. But it’s actual definition stems from opera — it’s the singer who plays the heroine of the opera.

In a sentence: “The prima donna’s performance was a stellar mix of passion and misery.”

Falsetto: A method of voice production used by male singers, especially tenors, to sing notes higher than their normal range.

In a sentence: “He sang in a piercing falsetto.”

Recitative: The parts performed in part-speech, part-song.

In a sentence: “Her ability to portray both sides of her personality shone through in the recitative.”

Soprano: The highest female voice.

In a sentence: “The soprano’s range was quite impressive.”

Trouser role: A man’s part played by a woman — this is unlikely to happen today.

Verisimo: A gritty opera that depicts the true, often seedy, underbelly of life.

In a sentence: “Don Giovanni has a real aspect of the verisimo to it.”

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