Social Etiquette for the Opera

by Andrea Kearns
The live theater experience comes with its own particular rules.

The live theater experience comes with its own particular rules. Images

Nothing says high society quite like the notion seeing an opera. Once considered the domain of the rich and/or famous, live opera is performed today in famous opera houses and small community theaters alike. Some of the traditions and standards of opera behavior remain the same as in the old days; however, many theatergoers are unschooled in what to expect.


These days, there's no formal dress code for the opera. Instead, theatergoers tend to dress in whatever is comfortable. Traditionally, a night at the opera means dressing for the occasion. Ultimately, some theatergoers will wear formal wear; others will wear jeans and t-shirts. A middle-of-the-road approach, such as jackets and ties for men and skirts or dressy pants for women, is a safe bet.

Be on Time

While a night at the movies might involve interruptions with armloads of popcorn, punctuality is crucial to attending any live performance. It's a good idea to be in your seat up to 15 minutes before the performance begins. If you're late to the show, don't expect to be let in right away. Interruptions can distract performers, creating a safety issue on stage. Ushers will wait until a break in the action (such as the applause at the end of a song) to show you to your seat.

Understanding It

Many operas are sung in languages other than English. This can pose a challenge for newcomers to the opera scene, who may find they're not enjoying something they cannot entirely understand. Fortunately, most opera companies today subtitle the lyrics on a screen near the stage. Additionally, you'll find a summary of the plot in the playbill or program you're handed as you enter the theater. Finally, a good opera performance will have plenty of emotion and drama -- and those often transcend vocabulary.

Quiet vs. Applause

Unlike sporting events, where cheering is encouraged throughout, opera is meant to be absorbed with minimal distraction from the spectators. Once the orchestra begins to play the opening notes, all electronic devices should be off -- not just silenced, as cell signals can interfere with theater sound systems. Do not bring food or try to unwrap gum or candy; the acoustics of the theater will magnify these tiny noises. Don't talk to your companions. Wait until the end of a grand song to applaud.

At the End

All the moments you withheld your applause can be let out at the end of the show. During the final curtain call and bows, it's customary to applaud and call out "bravo" to male performers or "brava" to female performers. This is a huge compliment to an opera singer. Yelling or hollering anything else is considered impolite.

About the Author

Andrea Kearns is an award-winning broadcast journalist whose work has aired across New York State. After nearly a decade of covering the events and people who make history, she is now sharing her knowledge and experience in the classroom as a high school history and government teacher.

Photo Credits

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