The Art of Sleeping at The Opera

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 12:57 PM

I have slept with most of the world’s great opera stars, for a long time now and with great pleasure. I’ll bet you’ve slept with a few as well.

It’s not what you are thinking (or perhaps it is...): Sleeping at the opera is an inevitable but hallowed tradition, though the reasons have changed. In the past, the accepted explanation was the stereotype that opera is boring -- a gaggle of burly singers droning on in the dark. Because you are a reader of this blog you know that opera is anything but boring. 

We sleep at the opera for at least a couple of reasons. One is that we are overtired. The other is the sublime twilight we enter while listening to exquisite music played in a congenial space without electronic transmission. To me, hearing the prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin in a live performance in a darkened opera house is like eating the first apricot of the season. My senses all concentrate on that sound (or taste), to the exclusion of everything else. The multi-tasking mind is at rest. The eyes shut so that there is no visual distraction and the ears (or palate) take charge and send messages to the brain, the heart, the lungs (where breathing changes), the genitals, the fingertips and the feet. More than a few people I know remove their shoes and plant their feet on the floor to receive the vibrations from the floor when music is playing.

If you think I am exaggerating, I am not. These are the words of a pleasure activist.  Recently I was in a chocolate shop in Vienna, which is something akin to hearing Lohengrin at the Met, in Zurich, Munich or Bayreuth. I tasted (savored, in fact) a piece of chocolate and was unaware that a friend was taking pictures of me. The first photo (right) shows what I just described about concentrating the senses, using the ones I need most. The chocolate has passed under the nose en route to the mouth. There is no longer a need to look at it, though when I did it was with complete attention. The second shot (below), entirely candid, shows what happens when the senses react. 

In my very first post I hinted that I would address sense perception in operagoing, and this concept of sensorial focus is part of what I meant. If you can turn off your thoughts of the office, bills, family stresses and other concerns of the outside world and let your senses work fully, then oh the places you will go!

There is a blind woman I have met who attends a lot of musical performances. She sits close to the stage, although she cannot see what is going on, because she feels the vibrations on her face and throughout her body that come from the orchestra pit, the solo singers and the chorus. When I see her I do not know if she is asleep or, more likely, in deep sensorial focus and probably experiencing the kind of bliss, that sublime twilight, I described with the Lohengrin prelude. It is not a question of being able to see or not, but sometimes, with some pieces of music, we experience it more completely when we don’t watch it being made. I have seen on her face how fully she reacts to--feels--the music and I find it a thrilling thing to experience vicariously.

Then, as we listen to music, there can come that transitional moment from sublime twilight to sleep or, as my computer says, “sleep mode.” Things are still working, but differently. We are no longer perceiving actively, but more passively. The music enters our systems but then is buried deep in our cells, nourishing whatever we think of as our souls, requiring more effort to be summoned to the conscious mind.

I understand that falling asleep at the opera can be frustrating, especially if you have paid a lot of money but then are too tired to really engage with the performance. I try to get in a one-hour nap before heading to the theater. People who can do this in their offices or elsewhere do themselves a world of good if they want to be awake during the performance.

The Wine-Induced Snooze

If someone snores during an opera, there is the delicate decision to be made by those nearby as to whether to let it continue or gently rouse the snorer. Not too long ago, I was at a performance in which a man quite a few rows back was sawing more wood than Paul Bunyan (subject of an early opera by Benjamin Britten). I heard it and realized that people closer to him must have as well. His female companion was asleep too. During the intermission I found out who they were and, in my friendly way, asked them how they were enjoying the opera. “Wunnerful....” he responded as my eyes burned from the alcohol on his breath.

For many people, a night out at the opera is a special occasion, preceded by a fancy meal and good wine. I tend to eat just enough to stave off hunger so that my stomach does not occupy my body’s energy for digestion. Though I am quite the oenophile, I never drink wine or any alcohol before an opera, concert or other live performance. People drink wine at the bars in an opera house but I leave wine drinking to Don Giovanni, Violetta, Falstaff and Baron Ochs. Besides, have you tasted the wine served at many opera houses, in plastic glasses no less? Phooey.

Rest, proper eating and a strategic visit to the restroom are usually sufficient for not dozing off at the opera. To that, I also add the following suggestion, an act that used to be automatic but now is largely ignored: read the synopsis of the opera up to the first intermission. I still do this for all but a handful of the most popular works so that my mind is prepared to follow the action. I engage differently and somehow the music penetrates more when I see plot points about which I had just refreshed my memory. After the intermission, I read the synopsis up to the next intermission or to the end, whichever is the case.

Still, there are times when, despite all good efforts, the Sandman comes my way. I drift off like one of the gods in Das Rheingold when the giants abduct Freia, who can no longer tend her magic apples that keep the gods frisky. I don’t fight it, but simply give in. I still hear the music and somehow get the narrative, especially if I have read the synopsis. When the Dew Fairy comes by and my eyes open, I am right back in the story.

An opera performance, especially one of the great Wagnerian marathons, is like a journey. Through music and drama we traverse all kinds of territory and then arrive gloriously at a special place. I think of it as a long flight, but with better food, seats, attendants, leg room, toilets and, above all, entertainment. Such comfort is also conducive to sleep.

Sweet Dreams on Stage

If it is any consolation, you are not alone. Other people are sleeping too, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the performance. And in many operas, someone is sleeping onstage too. In Die Walküre, Wotan puts his daughter Brünnhilde to sleep until a hero can pass through impenetrable fire to awaken her. It takes about 18 years until her nephew Siegfried shows up in the opera for which he is named. Earlier, he has awakened the sleeping giant Fafner, who captured the Ring in Das Rheingold, transformed himself into a dragon and then sleeps through all of Die Walküre and part of Siegfried. Erda, goddess of the earth and mother of the Valkyries, rouses only with great effort and usually to warn Wotan to not act rashly. Then she goes back to sleep. Alberich, the dwarf, keeps asking his son Hagen if he is sleeping: “Schläfst du Hagen, mein Sohn?” But it really is about goading him to action.

Strangely enough, I tend to be wide awake for the Ring operas because they demand preparation and I always nap during the day. I am awake for Parsifal too, but Kundry and Amfortas in that opera are certainly sleep-deprived and I always wish they could get a nap. Hansel and Gretel require the intervention of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, and it troubles me that children so young are already resorting to sleeping aids.

I sometimes catch a few winks during French and Italian works out of sympathy for the characters on the stage. Juliet, in operas by Gounod and Bellini, is knocked out by the draught given her by Friar Laurence, with dire consequences when Romeo thinks she is dead. He stabs himself, she wakes up and, well you know the rest. Amina (La Sonnambula) sleepwalks twice in her opera and I think she has real issues that are not being addressed. 

Puccini operas tend to have a lot of audience sleepers during the first act. These tend to be operagoers on The Big Night Out and they arrive with stomachs full of wine and rich food. In Turandot, the first act is at night and it is dark. But when the foreign prince (Calaf) decides he wants to answer the three riddles of the icy princess, he bangs on a gong three times to wake up the audience so they know what he is doing. Then, after he answers the riddles, the angry Turandot decrees that nobody can sleep (“Nessun dorma”) until this man’s name is found out. It gives him an opportunity to give the audience the aria they paid to hear, Liù the slave girl kills herself rather than reveal his name, and Calaf and Turandot sing very loud for ten minutes, the chorus and orchestra join in, and audience members will be alert for the trip home.

Give me La Bohéme. Poor Mimi pretends to sleep in the last act so that Rodolfo’s young friends might go away and leave them alone. She dies shortly thereafter, unnoticed. Her eyes close, the muff slips out of her cold hands and Rodolfo says, Vedi? É tranquilla (“Do you see? She’s calm”). There is not a dry eye in the house. I have never met anyone who has slept through that sad and beautiful scene.

Credit: Emma Matthews in La Sonnambula, Opera Australia

How do you feel about sleeping at the opera? Please share your comments below:


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Comments [26]

Ian Harris from Palm Cove, Queensland

Thanks, very enjoyable piece. Reminded me of a joke from Firbank when two characters are introduced:
- I think we've slept together once.
- I don't remember.
- At the opera, during Berenice.

Apr. 19 2011 10:50 AM
Larry Stoler from Stamford, Connecticut.

Fred, I think that was an excellent essay.

I was always led to believe that if you fell asleep during an opera or any live performance, it was a terrible thing. I don't agree as listening to music or attending a live concert can provide interesting dreams if you happen to fall asleep during the event.

I get annoyed with people who snore or cough in a loud way during a concert. In many cases, that shows that a person isn't interested in what they are experiencing at the time.

I guess there will always be people who will fall asleep at a concert but I don't think that is a problem as long as they don't snore or fall off the chair they are sitting on. That could be embarrassing.

Apr. 18 2011 01:03 PM
Lynette Bianchi from Manhattan, NY

My beloved, departed husband used to drift off at the Met in the very quiet passages. He cherished the fact that I loved all operas but he had a very narrow taste in performances. Nabucco was #1 and was so rarely performed we celebrated each and every one we saw....and there was no sleeping then!

Thanks for smile on my face as I read your essay.

Apr. 15 2011 05:24 PM
Maggie from Manhattan

This is a delightful post! My husband, who came from Vienna and had opera in his blood, would doze off a bit in many operas but was completely aware when there was a change, for good or ill, in the performance. I myself fell asleep at the debut of the fabulous bel canto tenor Juan Diego-Florez in La Fille du Regiment, also a new production for the Met in 2008/09 (I think). As I see for many others, it was the end of a work day and the comforting darkness lulled me into a light sleep. At the opening bars of the Ah, Mes Amis aria, I instantly snapped awake and heard (and saw) a thrilling performance at the end of which everyone was on their feet and D-F performed an encore, not done since an early performance in Pavarotti's career. There was and is a 'ban' on encores at the Met for obvious reasons, but the new Manager/Director Peter Gelb knew of D-F's preceding tour through Europe, where encores were also demanded of this new tenor, and he had obliged. I shall never forget that delightful evening. It was a Gala Benefit New Production Premier, ta dah, (I also was unaware) and many people sitting near me had paid hundreds more for their ticket. I, on the other hand, had just exchanged one of my series tickets for this opera, which I had never seen in a decent production -- let alone sung by a singer emerging into his shining talent. Sometimes fortune just smiles on us. A long post, I know, but I never saw this topic dealt with in such charming and candid way. I agree w/the other comments, except the curmudgeonly ones. Bravo, Fred!

Apr. 13 2011 10:20 PM
George Litton from Manhattan

Tim Page, former NY music critic and currently USC Professor, in his Selected Letters of Virgil Thompson with Vanessa Weeks Page, quotes Thompson's comments "To a Reader (November 20, 1947)" :
"If I had stood through "Don Giovanni" I am sure I, too, would have found it sour. As it was, I had a good nap. If Miss S_____ had committed grave misdemeanors about pitch, I am sure I would have waked up. At musical performances I sleep lightly, and only so long as nothing in any way abnormal, for good or ill, takes place on stage"

If it was good enough for Virgil Thompson, it's good enough for me - and since I won't have write a review, I'm not about to give up my dinner Martini.

Apr. 13 2011 05:27 PM
William from Upper West Side near Lincoln Center

Doesn't sleeping at the opera depend on how invasive it is? If you're snoring loudly, that's one thing. But a quiet 'doze' is ok. I enjoy the opera as much as anyone, but I don't get annoyed at quiet sleepers unless they suddenly become unquiet. Nor should anyone else. Besides, coughers and talkers are a much more annoying and obnoxious problem, agreed?

Apr. 13 2011 04:16 PM
Greg Vail from California

Your account not only kept me awake, it also reminded me of a presumably true story about my father, who was a highly decorated WW I fighter pilot who lost his left leg in aerial combat in 1918.

After he married my mother in 1929, she would drag him to the Chicago Opera where they had box seats with freestanding chairs. One time, Dad fell asleep, leaned back in the chair, which then toppled through the curtain, down some steps with Dad and his wooden leg bouncing onto the mezzanine…right out of the Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges.

I think that may have been the last time my father ever attended the opera, although my mother continued to do so (in San Diego) almost to the last day of her life, some 55 years later.

She never fell asleep, to the best of my knowledge; and I suspect that she found her fellow aficionados as interesting to observe as the productions themselves.

Apr. 13 2011 02:50 PM
Alison from Calif

I'm always angry at myself for falling asleep during a Met simulcast at my local theater, but sometimes it just happens. I missed the entire death scene in "Alexander Godunov" recently - I just couldn't keep my eyes open in spite of it being a wonderful opera. Sigh.

Apr. 13 2011 02:25 PM
David from Flushing

I think the award for the most somniferous opera goes to "Pelléas et Mélisande" by Claude Debussy. My one experience with this at the Met included a Family Circle that had more than half dozed off in the last act.

Sleeping might be tolerated, but no snoring please!

Apr. 13 2011 02:02 PM
Veronica Reed from New Mexico

I have sat alert through Meistersinger many times and adore all 5+ hours; why then, do I invariably fall asleep in Anna Bolena and La Cenerentola, which are shorter?

Apr. 13 2011 11:46 AM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Really, how can anyone sleep during the first act of Turandot with all its opening dissonances and savage vitality? I cannot imagine anyone sleeping during Das Rhinegold. Some of the clanging appears in a John Wayne movie when Victor Mcgleggan(?) saunters in the blacksmith shop. The same goes for Tosca and Don Giovanni with its look at the very dark souls of Scarpia and the Don. Stay home and don't up space at the opera house.

Apr. 13 2011 09:22 AM
DPBF from Chicago

I'd love nothing better than to let my soul drift off on a cushion of music but my ears can't seem to suppress the susurrant sound of persistent pertussis that permeates symphony halls and opera houses -- moreso it seems than in TB wards. And the replacement of crinkling candy cough-drop wrappers? Even more jarring. Perhaps management can kill two tired birds with one stone by handing out little cups of Nyquil instead!

Apr. 13 2011 09:13 AM
Michael Meltzer

Opera as a sleeping aid is pricey and unreliable. For an affordable, reliable comatose musical evening, nothing surpasses a cello recital.

Apr. 13 2011 08:29 AM

Ah, Mr. Plotkin. This essay is like that apricot to which you refer. The difference is that the pleasures of this blog are going to be year round.

Apr. 13 2011 08:16 AM
Michael Berlin from New York

My only complaint about sleeping at the opera is the uncomfortable positions that one must assume. After a long day at work, even an afternoon coffee is not sufficient to keep Hypnos and Somnus at bay when the sweet langourous music begins. German operas seem particularly conducive to sleep and on Monday night, Alessandra and I could not help drifting off to Capriccio.

Apr. 13 2011 08:13 AM
Dvora from Haifa

Fred, as usual an incisive, personal and very helpful essay about a wide-spread problem. I've had few good naps at the Met after a long day at work Your suggestions are excellent and easily put into action. Now if you could address the less common, but real affliction of uncontrollable giggling at the opera, I would be most grateful.

Apr. 13 2011 05:56 AM
Andrea Ridilla from Oxford, Ohio

If you study the opera before....even go on Wikipedia and recreate the opera in your mind...find the arias on YouTube and listen to several artists, then the level of appreciation deepens and you can't bear to fall asleep awaiting the next moment. Operas are not movies, but a highly sophisticated art form. The more you study....the score, recordings, etc. the more alive and vivid it becomes.

Apr. 13 2011 02:14 AM
Berta Calechman from Connecticut

Thank you, Fred, for mentioning that it should be audomatic to read the synopsis to each act, before hearing it. I always tell people who are intimidated by going to the opera, that they should open their program, and read about the plotline first. I'm glad that even an expert like you, makes it a practice to do just that.
Loved the blog.....very entertaining. No one would sleep through your blogs!

Apr. 13 2011 01:25 AM
meche from Midtown Manhattan

I smiled all the way through this superb essay and the clever comments which followed. For as long as I can remember I have used the Saturday Met broadcasts for a well-anticipated afternoon of twilight sleep, at home in my own bed. This seems to do my soul a world of good. My dreams often incorporate themes from the opera.

Apr. 13 2011 01:15 AM
Steve Boss from Fairfield, IA

Sleep only comes during ballets for me.
Thanks for the insights, Fred. Loved the photos of your chocolate tasting experience in Vienna.

Apr. 13 2011 12:16 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

FRED has persuasively written a treatise on the protocols and reasons for sleeping at an opera performance. BRAVO, FRED !! You've got a "sleeper" there.

Apr. 12 2011 08:55 PM
Willy from Hackensack, NJ

Tom's comment suggesting that anyone who falls asleep at the opera should leave the seat for someone who really loves it is simply ridiculous. Are you saying that Fred doesn't love opera because he has fallen asleep on occassion during a performance? Anyone who regularly attends the opera ocassionally nods off, regardless of how much he or she is enthralled by the music. Falling asleep is not, as your post suggests, always a sign of bordeom or indifference, but often fatigue, a condition many of modern day Americans suffer from. What if you have a client dinner or a date before the opera and have too much to drink or eat? It can catch up with you at the end of a long night at the opera.

Apr. 12 2011 04:11 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I find myself obliged to take violent, though civilized exception, to the notion that one would even consider falling asleep at any moment during a worthy performance of Richard Strauss's Capriccio.

Apr. 12 2011 04:11 PM
Jordan from Gotham

There are several pearls of wisdom buried in this post. It should be required reading for new operagoers. Many of these lessons, as well as a host of other gems, can be found in Fred's book, Opera 101.

I would venture to guess that very few opera diehards aim to catch some zs during a performance. That said, if you do want to take a catnap, what are some prime times to do so? I vote for the soporific and tedious appearances by Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier or the first 2 hours of Capriccio, save the final scene. On the flip side, I shudder at the thought of falling asleep during the faceoff between the Grand Inquisitor and King Phillip in Don Carlo, one of the great scenes the great Verdi ever composed!

Apr. 12 2011 03:59 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

For the love of all that is holy (by which I specifically mean, opera) Nessun ronchi!

PS -- Fred's essay is like a world-class chocolate left on your goose down pillow in a five-star hotel.

Apr. 12 2011 03:40 PM
Tom Bias from Sparta, NJ

I love opera, and I do not fall asleep in the opera house. I would suggest that anyone who does should not spend the money for a ticket and should leave the seat for someone who really loves it. That being said, I have fallen asleep while watching opera on TV. For some reason I cannot stay awake to "Die Götterdämmerung." On the other hand, "Das Rheingold," from the same Wagner Ring Cycle, always holds my interest! Maybe it's all the banging and clanging in Nibelheim. If the story is good, and the music is even better, you can bet that I won't miss a note.

Apr. 12 2011 03:39 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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