Opera companies are starting their seasons across North America and in Europe. Monday is the Metropolitan Opera’s turn, with a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. An opening night is always a cause for celebration, bringing with it a sense of renewal and optimism.
In theaters, the moment 30 minutes before a performance begins is known as “half hour.” A lot happens on both sides of the curtain.
By this time, all scenery is supposed to be in place for the first act of the opera. One of the stage managers will be inspecting the scenery, often in tandem with the heads of different stage crew departments. Also by this time, the lighting will have already been “focused,” meaning that all the lights are in place and ready to be launched, typically based on being pre-programmed on a computer. At 30 minutes prior to curtain, another stage manager will make a general backstage announcement, “Half hour, ladies and gentlemen. Half hour please.”
Singers are in their dressing rooms, completing the putting on of their costumes after having put on wigs and makeup. Dressers are assuring that costumes are perfectly closed, with every bow and pin in place. If singers choose to do vocal warm-ups (not everyone does this at great length, preferring to “save it for the stage”), that is happening now.
The maestro is in his or her dressing room, having already communicated with the singers about any last-minute performance details. He or she is focusing mentally on what is to come.
The person responsible for operating the projected titles will have done a run-through by this point and is cuing up the machinery to launch.
Chorus members in their dressing rooms are getting into their first costumes of the evening. They might play different roles in the course of a performance. First, they might be Russian peasants or landed gentry in one act, hunters in another, and St. Petersburg nobility in yet another. Adjustments to makeup and wigs will take place as required as the chorus members take on the new roles.
The orchestra librarian will have placed the scores for this evening’s opera on the music stands of the individual musicians. Members of the orchestra are completing getting dressed and will gradually enter the orchestra pit and tune up. This sound is audible to audience members who pay attention. I like to listen for snatches of violin sounds before La Traviata or horn players warming up before Siegfried.
Thirty minutes before curtain is, in most theaters, when ticket takers open their gates and the audience begins to enter the public areas of the lobby. In some venues this is known as the “come-in.” Ushers direct people to their seats.
If the theater has a restaurant, servers are beginning to tote up checks for diners who, typically, had arrived 90 minutes earlier for a pre-performance meal. The diners, like all audience members, have several tasks to take care of before the curtain rises. If this is not done in time, they will miss the first act.
When I invite someone to a performance, my only request is that my guest arrive 30 minutes before curtain. That is because there are things to do.
In recent years, some of the traditional behaviors of audiences in the 30 minutes before the maestro enters the orchestra pit have fallen into disuse, and I think this is a cause for concern. The fact that audience members do not go through certain rituals means that they are not embracing their roles in the performance as fully prepared as they should be.
First, I like to check my coat. It is an encumbrance to have it at my seat. It would get dirty if I put it on the floor. It would become like a blanket if I put it on my lap and I don’t want its warmth to make me sleepy. So it is better off in the checkroom.
Then, it probably is a good idea to visit the rest room, even if you don’t think you need to. There are always lines, especially in the ladies room, so this should be done sooner rather than later. Not having to think about needing the toilet during the long first act of an opera means you can pay thorough attention to the performance. Once you have done this, head to your seat. If your locations are not on the aisle, you will need to move past other ticketholders and it is smarter to do this sooner rather than later. It is easier to do this before aisles and rows are jam-packed.
Once at your seat, it is very important to do something that used to be standard operating procedure but now has fallen into disuse: Read the synopsis of the first act of the opera. Nowadays, most people closely read projected titles and they think that is all they need to do. While I believe titles can be useful at times, I believe audiences have come to rely on them too much at the cost of fully engaging with the performance. If you have read the synopsis and know basically what will transpire, then you can pay much more attention to listening to the music—the chief reason we attend the opera--and follow the action on the stage.
If you know, for example, that Tatiana will meet Eugene Onegin at a party in her home in the first scene and then feverishly pour out her feelings for him in a letter in the next one, you don’t have to know every word she is saying. The music and acting will tell you what you need to know, but with much more emotional texture than mere words can provide. I consult the titles periodically rather than read them assiduously, and I get much more out of the performance that way.
At each intermission, I read the synopsis of the act to come so that I don’t have to store so much plot in my head at the beginning of the show by reading the entire story all at once.
During “half hour,” after I have read the synopsis of the first act, I then look at the page in the program with the names of the singers, conductor and production team. This is important too because I become acquainted with the names of the characters. Then, if there is time, I read the notes in the program about the opera. Sometimes there will be an essay by the stage director or other member of the creative team. The more preparation I have done, the less I am reliant on titles.
You might think that I, as a frequent operagoer, don’t need to do this preparation. I know the names of characters and the chief plot points of most standard repertory operas. But reviewing the synopsis, identifying the cast list and reading the notes and essays gets me ready for this particular performance of, say, Eugene Onegin, even if it is an opera I have attended 20 times before.
Once I have done this reading, I immediately perform tasks we all know about but most people wait until the last moment, as the lights go down, to do. First, I silence my cellphone. Then I unwrap lozenges. I take my binoculars out of their case and focus them on the stage curtain.
In the past, most opera companies used a “house curtain” that hung from the proscenium arch, with the orchestra pit and audience on one side and the stage and its settings on the other. This is the familiar curtain we know and love, the one that provides a sense of continuity, elegance and of concealing something special to come.
Nowadays, many opera productions eschew the house curtain and have a specially designed curtain for a particular opera. If it is not the familiar house curtain, I make a point of using my binoculars to study the details of the special curtain and any scenery it might reveal. After having read the synopsis, cast list and notes in a program, I use the curtain and any scenery to set my mood and receptiveness to the opera I am about to hear.
I will have a brief conversation with my guest and then focus entirely on what are about to hear. This meditative state is, I find, crucial to my ability to be completely in the moment and fully prepared to hear and see the opera. When the conductor enters the pit and the musical performance begins, I have spent wisely and well my half-hour, ladies and gentlemen, as I hope you will too.
Photos: 1) A Chinese opera singer painting face backstage in Chengdu, China (Jack.Q / Shutterstock.com) 2) Opera glasses (Shutterstock.com)