Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Guide to Attending the Symphony or Opera, Part I

Well, I know this is a bit off-topic but as I was sitting in my regular seat at the symphony last night and looking at all the empty seats (granted, it was Black Friday) I realized that a lot of people may want to attend the symphony--the more ambitious the opera--but may feel intimidated about it or feel that it is a stuffy, formal affair. They may be afraid of committing some breach of etiquette. So, I've put together this guide in the hope that those who read it will get out there and support the high arts!

Part One - The Dos

1. Do buy your ticket in advance. Often you can buy a ticket at the box office the night of the performance but then you'd have to leave your date standing in the cold while you scan the seating chart and select your seats. You also risk not being able to find a seat or, perhaps worse, finding that only the expensive seats are left.

2. Do arrive early. At least half an hour before the start time. This, of course, gives you a buffer if there is bad traffic or an accident. But, it is very bad form to walk in after a performance has started it. Many venues will let you in but some will make you wait until there is a pause in the music. Again, not a good way to impress your date.

3. Do dress up. No, I don't expect white tie and top hats and yes, many places you will see people arriving in t-shirts and jeans but... don't be one of those people. Slacks and a button down is perfectly acceptable for the men, a skirt/dress or nice slacks and blouse for the women. In most cities you will see very few people dressed formally and if you go in "business casual" (even though I hate that term) you'll fit right in. A sport coat and tie for the men will kick it up another notch. Also, if you don't own a matching suit, don't try to match an odd pair of pants to a sport coat. Contrast the coat with a lighter or darker trouser.

4. Do try to listen to the piece beforehand. Part of the enjoyment of the symphony for me is comparing how the live performance differs from my favorite recordings. Most programs will also give you a bit of history about the composer and piece (you did arrive a half hour early so you could read it, right?). Sometimes this information will enrich your appreciation of a piece. Knowing the circumstances of the composer's life or what was going on when he wrote the piece can add another level of understanding and enjoyment to your experience.

5. Do have fun. Don't think that you can't smile if a particular passage comes across as humorous--the composer may have actually intended it to be so! (see Haydn). Don't be afraid to tap your foot during a rousing finale (just be sure not to disturb your neighbor). This music is meant to be enjoyed, not coldly studied and analysed (although you can do that, too!)

Part Two - The Don'ts

1. Don't, for any reason, make unnecessary noise during the performance. There is no reason to talk to your partner, unwrap hard candy (do it beforehand and keep a few pieces in your pocket), flip noisily through your program or yell at the performers. Women (and men, for that matter) should think twice before wearing loud accessories, such as bangles that'll clink together or purses with chain straps.

2. Don't answer your phone or text. Phones should be silenced. If you have a job or situation that requires you to be constantly on call, try to get an aisle seat near the back so you can take the call in the lobby. And texting is a no-no. The bright light in a darkened hall is very distracting to the people behind you.

3. Don't wear any strong perfumes or colognes. I don't think I need to explain this one.

4. Don't clap between movements. Many pieces are comprised of several movements and it is standard to wait until the piece is finished before applauding. There are two exceptions: during the opera it is appropriate to applaud a performer after an aria and during a piece with a solo performer (such as a concerto) it is rarely appropriate to applaud him or her between movements after a particularly impressive performance. Hint: this is another reason you listen to the piece beforehand. Now, if someone does begin a clap at an inappropriate time, herd mentality means that several others will follow along. Don't do it. The fewer people that clap, the sooner the music can continue and they might get the hint and not do it after the end of the next movement. If you are unsure that the piece has ended, wait for the majority of the hall to being applauding before you join in. Also watch the conductor. He will indicate the ending by lowering his arms and turning around.

5. Don't leave before the applause has ended and the lights have come up. This is just inconsiderate to the performers (and yes, they can see you walking down the aisle while they're taking their bows). Aside: a standing ovation is common for great performances. If everyone else stands, do so as well. If only a few stand, stand as well if you want to. No one will look down on you for a solo/sporadic standing O. I've done it several times when I thought the performance deserved it.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section. I'd also love to hear of your own tips for attending the opera or symphony.


See Also:
A Guide to Attending the Symphony or Opera, Part II


  1. I'll definitely keep these in mind if, by any chance, anyone takes me to the symphony! Hey, I can dream, can't I?

  2. Great post, Michael. My husband is a musician and I attend the symphony regularly. I always love the experience, but am surprised by how much distraction the audience generates. Your tips are spot on!

  3. Thanks, Gae-Lynn. Which symphony does he play with? I think that a lot of people don't appreciate how much work and practice each member of an orchestra puts in. When you go to the symphony that deserves your respect, even if you don't like a particular piece that's being performed.