A brief history of opera etiquette

The etiquette of attending the opera can seem convoluted. Dress up, but how much up varies by the house and your seats and whether it’s an opening night. Don’t applaud after the first act of Parsifal. Or maybe do; it’s confusing. Shout “bravo” or “brava” or “bravi” or “brave” depending on the gender and number of the singers you’re shouting it at. Boo if you like, but mostly only if you’re in Europe.

All of those are trivialities. There is one golden rule: silence. Sit attentively in the dark house. Don’t talk during the performance. Don’t hum along with the music. Don’t crinkle your program. Don’t run to the box across the auditorium and challenge someone to a duel mid-aria.

Teatro di San Carlo, Naples

This hasn’t always been the case. Imagine you’re a upper-class citizen in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Italy. You go to the opera regardless of what is playing, simply because that is where you will encounter the rest of society. You might attend in hopes of catching the eye of an attractive young lady or gentleman. Or maybe you want to talk politics — you can do that during the performance, too. Disappointed in a singer? Mention it to everyone else in your box. Hungry or thirsty? Flag down a seller of drinks or oranges. Buy and eat them — no need to wait for an intermission. (Mid-eighteenth-century composers intentionally gave a less important singer the first aria in act two. This was known as the “sorbet aria”: it was traditional to serve sorbet at that time, and the clinking of the spoons made the music difficult to hear.) If the opera truly bores you, you can always pay a visit to friends in another box or head to the gambling tables.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan

We can assume that British opera-goers were more reverent than their Italian counterparts. Samuel Sharp, a Brit visiting Naples in 1765, wrote in horror that at the San Carlo opera house “the crowd laughed and talked through the whole performance, without any restraint; and, it may be imagined, that an assembly of so many hundreds conversing together so loudly, must entirely cover the voices of the singers.” 85 years later, Mary Shelley expressed similar frustrations in Milan: “Unfortunately, as is well known, the theatre of La Scala serves, not only as the universal drawing-room for all the society of Milan, but every sort of trading transaction, from horse-dealing to stock-jobbing, is carried on in the pit; so that brief and far between are the snatches of melody one can catch.” In fact, for a while, La Scala was the only place the Milanese were allowed to gamble.

Audience control of the performance extended to what happened onstage as well. We still see the occasional encore of a famous aria by a star singer, but in past centuries the audience could and did demand multiple encores of many pieces (little wonder, given how difficult it must have been to hear them the first time around!). In Vienna in 1786, Le nozze di Figaro was received five encores its first night and seven its second (prompting an emperor-imposed ban on encores at future performances, to keep the opera to a reasonable length). Verdi’s Otello had a particularly successful premiere in Milan, with even interludes encored and 20 curtain calls!

So what happened to the opera as the “drawing-room for all society”? Most people blame Wagner for turning out the lights. For his theater in Bayreuth, he eliminated boxes, hid the pit, and plunged the audience into darkness. The message was clear: look at the stage, not each other. Pay attention to the music and the action. Let the artists control your experience.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

For the most part, I am thrilled by the change in opera-going etiquette. Like most modern opera fans, I have been trained in the Wagnerian tradition. I attend for the music and the stories. I glare daggers at anyone who chatters with his neighbor or dares to unwrap her cough drop during the show.

But some people worry that it’s precisely this imposed passivity that makes opera seem inaccessible to newcomers to the genre. Operas are long; should they only be for people who want to sit in rapt attention and carefully listen to every note? San Francisco Opera has found great success with “pop-up” events — opera concerts that take place in bars, art galleries, and clubs, where attendees are free to wander, drink, and chat before and during the show. To me, they lack the appeal of opera: the emotional, dramatic, and musical arc of a story well-told. But they sell out, and they attract younger and more diverse crowds than I see in the opera house.

I hope we can have it both ways. I want to hear the music, and I also want the opera house to be a gathering place for all of society. I’m not sure what the secret formula is. Long intermissions? Well-designed lobby areas? Quiet gambling in the halls? (Joking!) What do you think — is that possible, or are those two goals irreconcilable? If it’s possible, what ideas do you have for accomplishing it?

Further reading

  • Lindsay Michael’s essay “Audience Experience During Italian Opera Performances in Italy in the 18th and 19th Century vs. Audience Experience During Italian Opera Performances in North America Today, or, Why We Should Ditch the Concert Hall and Hit the Bar” inspired most of this blog post. You can read it here
  • Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, and Performance features interesting musings on this topic, particularly in the essay “Voices from the Gallery,” by Deanna Davis, Joseph K. So, and Roy Moodley
  • Concertini per Quattro Voci by Anthony Hart includes some amusing facts about how the composers of opere serie anticipated inattentive audiences