A Night at the Opera with Etiquetteer, Vol. 16, Issue 24

Earlier this summer Etiquetteer trotted off to the opera, and you might all be expecting Etiquetteer to Sigh for Bygone Days and exclaim "It isn't what it was." But then going to the opera hasn't been "what it was" for such a long time already, there's really no need, is there? It's as useless to pine for the Days of Black Tie*, Wine and Roses as it is to search for Robert Taylor in the orchestra. Besides which, the space per person is so compressed one does not necessarily leave the theatre feeling elegant. Greta Garbo would clearly have been eaten by her hoopskirt trying to negotiate those narrow seats - NOT Perfectly Proper.**

That said, there were so many opportunities to ask (to oneself, of course) "You wore that? Really?" A suit and tie at a minimum for gentlemen, and an equivalent standard for ladies, should not be difficult. There's no need to appear in a theatre a T-shirt or (shudder) shorts. Etiquetteer used to think that Boston audiences were exceptionally dowdy. That illusion was shattered on observing opera audiences in New York, Paris, and Venice. As Etiquetteer has pointed out before, too much of the middle class has Simply Given Up.

Ladies seated in the mezzanine or balcony, however, might be encouraged to wear flats or low heels. Etiquetteer witnessed a lady take a tumble on the steep mezzanine stairway when making way for others. Mercifully she fell up or she might easily have rolled down a good 14 feet of staircase before collaping in the aisle.

Before the curtain rose, Etiquetteer was horrified to discover that he was sitting in the wrong seat. Now of course These Things Happen, and when they do it's important to follow the advice of Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden: "This is a test of breeding. Keep cool." Once apologies were extended, it remained only to hoist one leg after the other into the row above, which required some dexterity. At least it prevented disturbing nine other people, but this approach is not recommended for Those Wearing Skirts.

Supertitles on screens at the opera excite strong opinions. Some of them because only with supertitles can they understand what the singers are singing. Others revile them as a distraction from the stage. Etiquetteer will confess to feeling guilty for finding them helpful, but Etiquetteer vastly prefers hearing an opera in a foreign language with supertitles rather than in English (if English was not the original language of that particular opera.)

Now Etiquetteer is not much for "upgrading" during intermission, moving to (hopefully) unoccupied seats closer to the stage. (Should you find that someone has upgraded themselves in your seats, just alert the usher.) At this particular theatre, though, the mezzanine seats almost required amputating one's legs, and Etiquetteer's friend spotted almost an entire row vacant just a bit down, so the second act allowed for more legroom. The key is to move seats just before the lights go down. (Why on earth did so many people not return after intermission? Could it have been the tightness of the seats? The absence of a plot?)

But how beautiful to witness an audience completely in sympathy with a singer. Some of the ovations . . . remarkable.

Lastly, in theatres with minimal public space, it's even more important to Get Out of the Way. A collection of fellow operagoers clotted the intersections to greet each other for an extended period. A brisk (and possibly brusque) "Excuse me" solved that problem.

Etiquetteer is eager to return to the opera again once the Season resumes, and hopes you are, too.


*Still, Etiquetteer does remember one opera night when Dewy Youthfulness still clung about one's figure and complexion, the night that turned out to be Sarah Caldwell's final performance conducting the Boston Opera Company. The production was Aida, and Etiquetteer and a friend donned black tie and excitement for a very special evening. As it happened, the rest of the audience hadn't dressed, leaving Etiquetteer feeling a shade de trop, until discovering the other six gentlemen in the house who wore black tie. The parties combined, making a jolly octet for the rest of the evening. But remember, this only works in the orchestra and perhaps the mezzanine. Black tie is never Perfectly Proper in the balcony.

**One recalls that, at the premiere of Handel's Messiah, instructions went out early that, due to the crush, ladies were requested not to wear hoopskirts, and gentlemen to leave their swords at home.