Two hours of tunes in a foreign language; divas with impressive lung capacity; opulent costumes and lavish backdrops. Rightly or wrongly, opera has a reputation for being complex, inaccessible and – dare we say it – stuffy. And admittedly, when opera first burst onto the scene in 17th century Italy, only the crème de la crème of society were allowed to enjoy it.
How times have changed! We've done away with these rigid social constraints and the beauty and joy of opera is now open to everyone. However, if you still consider the idea daunting, here's how to dip your toes in this classical music world.
Start small (and cheap)
Shelling out a few hundred dollars only cements the reputation of opera as being for the upper crust. However, opera tickets can be surprisingly affordable – tickets to Opera Australia's Aida, for example, start at $69. If even that's a stretch for something you're not convinced you'll enjoy, how does free sound? Every year, as part of Sydney Festival, some of Australia's brightest stars come together for Opera in the Domain*, allowing everyone from kids to great-grandparents to enjoy famous arias in a relaxed, communal atmosphere. In Melbourne, the annual Opera for the People sees thousands converge at Sidney Myer Music Bowl for a picnic and (free) family-friendly entertainment under the stars, while in Perth there's Opera in the Park, this year performing Hansel and Gretel.
*Sadly this year's concert was cancelled due to weather conditions, but pencil it in your diary for next year.
The most enduring operas are popular for a reason – they're more manageable for newcomers to the opera scene. It's generally agreed that Verdi's La Traviata or Puccini's La Bohème, Tosca or Madama Butterfly are great places to start, with straightforward storylines and recognisable melodies. Other operas such as Carmen are beloved for their irresistible tunes (the Toreador Song and Habanera anyone?) and larger-than-life characters who have inspired pop culture (Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! is based on both La Traviata and La Bohème).
Otherwise, opt for something like Victoria Opera's Cinderella (incidentally a great introduction to opera for kids), with its well-known plot and relatively short show time of an hour.
If you've never been to the opera before, it may be best to leave the more modern, experimental productions for later down the track. (Unless that's your aesthetic, in which case, go for it, we say.)
Do your research
It's ok to cheat – if you go into the performance having an idea of the story, characters and relationships, you'll be able to enjoy the music and elements that make opera such an immersive experience, rather than concentrating on trying to figure out what's happening. Do a quick internet search for the synopsis and background info, or even jump onto Opera Australia's website, where they've helpfully put together a cheat sheet for many of their productions.
Another way to get a feel for an opera is to watch some videos of past performances. While the experience won't be the same as sitting in a concert hall with a live orchestra and custom-designed acoustics, you'll be able to see some of the world's most famous opera singers in action for yourself, without leaving the comfort of your home.
Make a night of it
Finally, to create a truly memorable experience, don't let your night begin or end with the opera. Melbourne's Opera in the Market at Queen Victoria Market allows you to sample fine wines and purchase dishes from food vans against the backdrop of market-stalls-turned-opera-house.
In Sydney, enjoy free dinner at Circular Quay before heading to the iconic Sydney Opera House for an evening of stunning performance. Or, meet up with friends at one of the pop-up bars at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, this year performing La Traviata, and have your opera with a dose of fireworks, a harbourside setting and a stunning view of Sydney's skyline.