Normal Person Reviews: Going to the opera

Close-up of a stage with five people (two women and three men) bowing.

Ticking off one of my 30 before 30 goals

There is something of a negative reputation around opera music: it’s a bit stuffy, it’s a bit old fashioned. But most of all, it’s for fancy people. I, as any regular reader will have realised by now, am not a fancy person. Although my accent might suggest otherwise, I am no where near ‘posh’ by British standards, and the fancier pursuits in life have largely passed me by. But, I have always enjoyed listening to opera music. My house growing up was always filled with classical music, and my siblings and I always played musical instruments (I’ve cycled through a few, but my main are bassoon (!) and piano). My three favourite operas are The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart), The Magic Flute (also Mozart), and La Traviata (Verdi). Lots of people around me at university were far better versed than me, and made the most of the chance to pop down to London from Oxford and buy (heavily discounted) student tickets to the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. But between a permanent state of semi-skintness and an obsession with my grades, I never made it. So this seemed like a reasonable gap to aim to fill with my 30 Before 30 list. Surely by the ripe old age of 30 it would be achievable to have fulfilled that rather mature aim? Well, the answer of course was no. The pandemic well and truly put paid to that goal. But, with my 31st birthday looming, I finally went to the opera. Not only the opera, but one of my top three: La Traviata, performed by Opera Australia at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne.

In spite of my love of the music, I was a little bit nervous about what going to the opera would be like. Would I feel like an interloper? Would I look out of place? Would I know what to wear? So I thought I’d share my experience a bit, as a way to reflect and encourage others to get into (literally and metaphorically) this ‘highest’ form of art. I’ll break down my experience and give you a sense of what it’s like to attend as a ‘normal person’, and give some insights into what I’ve learned. There are a few other things I’d like to attend which are a bit out of my ordinary, so stay tuned for some more ‘normal person’ reviews in the future.

The cost

The first thing people think of when you mention the opera is the price. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s an expensive art form. You have as many if not more people on stage as for a play, plus a whole orchestra. That’s a lot of salaries, costumes, sets and fees to cover. So it would make sense that it costs beyond your average theatre price.

In the end, I paid $75 for my ticket. Certainly more than I’d normally spend on a night out, but not completely beyond the realms of possibility. For a special treat, it’s not bad. Compare that to the price of say, a decent meal in one of Melbourne’s mid-range restaurants, and it starts to look fairly reasonable. It also compares pretty favourably with the price of theatre tickets in Melbourne, where you’d struggle to find a non-concession rate ticket for less than $60 (if that). In fact it compares very favourably to the cost of a live gig for a band in Melbourne. For that $75, we got seats in the penultimate row – we almost couldn’t be any further away from the stage, and a free program. Despite being so far back, I still felt like we got pretty decent view. The stage is really impressively detailed, and really added to the sense of immersion.

View down over the red rows of seats at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, towards the orchestra pit and the stage.

The dress code

When you think of the opera, you immediately think black tie, floor length gowns, and long gloves. But what was it really like? Ahead of attending, I was actually quite worried about the dress code. How much should I dress up? Would I look out of place if I went too fancy, or would it be stranger if I leaned too casual? In the end, and taking into account that we were going for a matinee, at which surely evening attire wouldn’t be necessary, I went for somewhere in between. I wore my long black floral dress with a simple black cardigan, thick black tights (it was winter in Melbourne after all), and green Ecco shoes, plus my thick green scarf. My partner wore a shirt and blazer, with brogues but no tie. I think we hit pretty much exactly the right note. We weren’t the most casually dressed people, nor the fanciest. Some people did go all out, although I don’t remember seeing any ballgowns. We felt comfortably at ease, and that’s what counts. Whether we’d have hit the brief for an evening performance I don’t know, but I’m not sure I’d change much even then. I’d probably just switch shoes and go for a more elegant layering options.

The experience

I have to say that this was without a shadow of a doubt one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had. It helped that I knew the opera like the back of my hand, having listened to it so many times in my youth. But the singers were breath-taking, the sets were stunning, and the music is just superb. The first act is definitely the catchiest, but I was so moved by the second act scenes between Violetta and Giorgio. Stacey Alleaume (Violetta) and Mario Cassi (Giorgio) were the standout singers for me, bringing power and vulnerability to their parts, which you just couldn’t help but respond to. Ho-Yoon Chung did a fantastic job as Alfredo as well, capturing the sense of spirited naivety needed to pull off the character.

We were almost as far back as it was possible to be, and I had expected this to impact our general experience. Yes, the stage looked pretty small, but you could still make out the lavish details of the set, and the singers’ expressive faces. It’s not the longest opera in the world, running at approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, which includes two intervals. That’s still a fairly hefty chunk of time, but it didn’t drag at all. The plot is quite melodramatic, with the kind of miscommunications and understanding to make you think ‘they all just need to sit down and have a chat’, but it’s involving, and suits the highly expressive nature of the music. All in all it was a fantastic experience.

View down to the stage as Stacey Alleume takes her bow after the performance.

Would I recommend this to a ‘normal person’?

In short, absolutely! It’s not a format that jumps off the page as the obvious way to spend your weekend, but it is a really immersive, spectacular experience, which will leave you in awe of what humans can do with their voices. The ease and emotion the singers bring to their parts is extraordinary, and the talent of everyone involved, from the musicians to the set designers to the costumers, is incredible. It’s a good value ticket, and even if you go for the cheapest possible option you’ll still be able to enjoy what the opera has to offer. I seriously think that the opera might be addictive – if we hadn’t been to the last performance I would have booked it again! If you’re looking for an unusual experience which will leave you feeling uplifted and totally taken out of your everyday life, this is the thing to go for!

What do you think of the opera? Is it a medium you’d normally think to go to, or does its slightly fearsome reputation put you off? I’m so pleased to have finally achieved this 30 Before 30 goal, and to have had such a great time doing so. It may have taken me over 30 years to get to my first opera, but it certainly won’t take me another 30 to go to my second.


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