Everything you need to know about going to the opera

Find out what to expect at the opera, what operas are playing in New York, and what opera is right for you whether you're a seasoned operagoer or first-timer.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Plenty of theatre lovers see the latest Broadway musicals and Broadway plays, but they never visit the opera. Opera is, of course, different from traditional theatre, as the music, rather than long bouts of sharp dialogue, is the center of every single moment. But opera has been around just as long as plays and musicals have, and operas share many of the same elements that make theatre so enjoyable: stories of love and suspense, beautifully designed costumes and sets, melodious songs, and the joy of experiencing a story communally with others in a theatre.

Modern musical favorites like Rent are based on operas, and operas in turn are created from plays, myths, and even children's fairytales, making a night at the opera something the whole family can enjoy.

Unfortunately, some stereotypes hold that opera is only for the super-rich, super-educated, or otherwise snobbish because they're sung in other languages and require formal attire. None of those stereotypes are true — in fact, opera is more accessible than ever. Tickets are affordable, performances come with subtitles no matter what language is being sung, and the formal dress code (which isn't set in stone) is simply a reason to break out that fancy outfit you never get to wear!

To help debunk some myths about opera, we've compiled a complete guide to what to expect from the opera in New York, and answered some common questions about going to the opera. Whether you go to an opera at The Met or another theatre — there are opera performances all over the city! — you'll be in for a feast for the eyes and ears that's unlike any other theatrical art form.

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What is an opera?

An opera is a type of theatre that puts music at center stage. All the roles are held by singers, and there is no spoken dialogue: All the dialogue in operas is sung, and the instruments are key parts of the storytelling the whole time. Changes in the music signal when something happy, tragic, or suspenseful is happening. An opera is like a concert with a narrative: You'll see a captivating story unfold, but you'll really want to go to hear the lush music and soaring singing.

What's the difference between an opera and a musical?

The main difference between operas and musicals is that operas are completely sung through, whereas most musicals have scenes of spoken dialogue in between the songs. Yes, there are musicals that are fully sung through, such as Les Misérables. But even when dialogue is sung during musicals, the dialogue leads up to standalone songs. In opera, the dialogue is the songs!

The other difference between the two is that opera has a distinct musical style: Most operas primarily feature classical music. Musicals, whether sung-through or not, can be written in a wide variety of styles: traditional Broadway, pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop/rap, and more. 

How long are operas?

Operas vary in length — they typically run anywhere from two hours to nearly four hours. Most operas at the Met are between three and four hours in length. However, the running time includes multiple intermissions and breaks. Since many operas have more than two acts, there are usually one or two 10-minute breaks between some acts, and two full-length, 20- to 30-minute intermissions between others.

The long intermissions give you plenty of time to go to the bathroom, grab food and drinks from the Met's bar and concessions stand, or simply stretch your legs and talk about the show with your companions. You can even take a leisurely walk around the ornate building or step out on the Met's terrace and take in the beautiful view of Lincoln Center.

Not all operas are this long, though. The Metropolitan Opera puts on family-friendly operas each holiday season that are under two hours long. Operas that are performed at Off-Broadway venues besides the Met may also be closer to the length of a traditional show: around two or two and a half hours with a single intermission.

What do I wear to the opera?

You can wear whatever you want to the opera, but dressy clothes are the norm. The Metropolitan Opera is a famously fancy venue. There isn't an official dress code, but audiences at the Met tend to dress up: Even if you wear your finest suit or fanciest gown, you won't feel underdressed. If you have a formal outfit that you never get the chance to wear, the opera is the perfect place to don it.

Matinee performances, however, tend to be a bit less formal, though typical opera dress still leans toward business casual. If you want to go to the opera in jeans, you'll likely blend in more at a matinee performance - but no matter what you wear at any time (within reason, of course), you'll be allowed in the venue.

At venues besides the Met, dress standards vary. Most theatres, like traditional Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres, don't have a set dress code, so you can dress as formally or casually as you wish. Whether you're at the Met or elsewhere, the most important thing is to wear something that's comfortable. You'll be sitting in your outfit for a while!

How early should I get to the opera?

Like any other show on or off Broadway, we recommend arriving at the theatre about 30 minutes beforehand. You'll want to allow plenty of time to pick up your tickets, get your vaccination proof and tickets checked, use the bathroom, find concessions, find your seat, and perhaps read the program to learn more about the show. You don't want to have to rush, especially at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met theatre has six levels, so if you're sitting higher up, you'll need the extra time to take the elevator or the stairs since many people will be doing so at the same time.

Is the opera good for kids?

The opera is a great place to take children; you can definitely bring them to the opera! Most operas do not have adult content or strong language that wouldn't be suitable for children. Operas also have real-time subtitles and a detailed plot summary in the program, so you can talk to your child before the show or during intermissions to help them understand the plot. Even though operas can be multiple hours long, there are often multiple intermissions, so your child won't have to sit for more than an hour without a break to use the bathroom, talk, or move around.

That said, very young children may still have difficulty getting interested in an opera or sitting still due to their length and performance style. But taking your child to the opera can instill a love of music and theatre in them from a young age, and children will likely be fascinated by the colorful, lavish sets and costumes, and large ensembles that make for nonstop movement and action. Plus, The Met puts on a few operas for children per year. They are designed specifically for families: These family-friendly operas are two hours long, sung in English, and based on popular children's fairytales like Cinderella. Family-friendly shows like these are a great place to start if you want to introduce your children to opera.

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Do operas have translations available?

Yes, most operas provide English translations if shows are performed in non-English. Many operas are sung in either Italian, French, and German, and subtitles are shown in real time so you can understand the story as it's being sung. Subtitles are often shown during English-language operas, too, so you don't miss a word. At The Met, you can turn on subtitles on the back of the seat in front of you, and you can choose between multiple languages for them to appear in, depending on your primary language. At other venues, subtitles may be projected on the walls above or around the stage.

If you couldn't quite catch something or want to brush up on the story before you start, many operas include a detailed plot summary in the program, written in plain English, that you can read. All operas at The Met do this.

What are vaccination requirements at the opera?

The Metropolitan Opera requires all eligible audience members to have received full Covid-19 vaccination; a booster dose is no longer required. The Metropolitan Opera does not accept proof of a recent negative test in lieu of vaccination proof. All audience members must also wear masks at all times in the venue, except when eating or drinking in the lobby or on the terrace.

At venues besides the Met, vaccination policies vary. Most New York theatres no longer require vaccination proof at all, and mask-wearing policies vary. Though masks are optional at Broadway theatres now, many Off-Broadway theatres still require them. Learn more about New York vaccine policies at theatres and theatre vaccine policies for kids.

What to expect when you go to the opera

When you arrive at the opera, you'll have your proof of vaccination checked at the door, and then you can enter the venue. If you're at The Met, expect to be wowed by the red-velvet carpets, glittering chandeliers, and dressy outfits of your fellow theatregoers! You can grab snacks, sandwiches, and/or drinks — including champagne, cocktails, and non-alcoholic beverages — at the bar and enjoy it in the lobby before heading to your seat.

Once you're seated in the theatre, take time to read the program or just take in the grandiose, intricate set. Even if you're sitting in the highest balcony of the Met, the sets are built large enough that you can still see much of the detail from anywhere in the theatre.

Whether you're in the large Met or a smaller opera venue, the artists are trained to sing and play loudly enough for everyone in every seat to clearly hear, so don't worry about feeling far away from the experience if you're sitting away from the stage.

If you turn on subtitles before the show, they'll begin as the performers start singing, or they'll be projected in front of the whole audience. They're quick to read, as one simple line can take a while to sing in time with the music, so don't worry about missing the action if you're reading the subtitles. Once the show starts, you'll have anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on how long the show is and how many intermissions there are, of beautiful music and storytelling between breaks. At the Met, use the longer intermissions to get concessions or explore the venue if you haven't done so before the show.

Operas playing in New York now

The Metropolitan Opera has an ever-rotating schedule of shows, with multiple operas playing on any given week at different dates and times. Right now, the Metropolitan Opera is on hiatus for the summer while the American Ballet Theatre performs in the opera house, but you can get tickets now to operas in the fall and spring seasons.

You'll want to catch those before they're gone, but if you miss an opera at The Met, don't worry — many are famous classical works that appear in The Met's season year after year, so you'll have more chances to go.

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La Rondine

This Puccini work got largely forgotten by history amid World War I, and even today, La Rondine is among the composer's most rarely staged works. Don't miss the chance to experience this romantic yet bittersweet story of a French courtesan who falls for a young man that offers her a new way of life. Fans of Moulin Rouge! might recognize some parallels and will thus enjoy this opera.

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Fire Shut Up in My Bones

This opera made Terence Blanchard the first Black composer with an opera at the Met upon its 2021 premiere. Now, the landmark show returns, again staged by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown. The production, which blends opera and jazz music styles, is based on Charles M. Blow's memoir about finding his voice by confronting his troubled past.

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Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly is the basis for the musical Miss Saigon, so Puccini's show is a great gateway to opera for musical fans. One of the most performed operas at The Met, Madama Butterfly tells the story of a Japanese geisha who falls for a visiting American naval officer. The show sees her slowly unravel as she falls more deeply for him and bears his child while he moves on. Experience this famous tragedy in its original operatic form.

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El Niño

American composer John Adams retells the story of the Nativity in fresh and thrilling fashion, incorporating English, Spanish, and Latin texts. Plus, the show marks the Met debut of Lileana Blain-Cruz, a Tony Award-nominated, acclaimed Broadway and Off-Broadway director.

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English director Carrie Cracknell makes her Met debut with a new production of Bizet's enduring classic. The show's title character is a fiery, seductive woman who captures the heart of Don José but soon falls for someone else, and trouble ensues. Cracknell's production brings out themes of the story, like gendered violence and abusive labor structures, that remain relevant.

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The Hours

Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, and Joyce DiDonato led this opera last season, and the three return to reprise their roles for the month of May only. They play three women from different time periods whose lives are all connected by Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway.

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Orfeo Ed Euridice

Fans of Hadestown will recognize the title characters of this opera and see Greek mythology in a whole new light. Experience the timeless story of Orpheus, a talented musician who takes a dangerous journey into the underworld to rescue and revive his deceased lover, Eurydice. Iconic dance artist Mark Morris choreographs the production, which features dancers from his eponymous troupe.

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Turandot takes the phrase "love is a game" literally. Another classic Puccini opera, this story about love conquering all is at The Metropolitan Opera this season. Turandot is a hard-hearted princess who will only marry the prince who answers three riddles correctly, and will execute those who get them wrong. None have succeeded — until Prince Calaf of Tartary, who passes with flying colors. But Turandot, still reluctant to let herself love, accepts a challenge from the prince in return that will determine whether she remains free or decides to marry him.

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Which opera should I see?

Like movies, plays, or musicals, everyone has different preferences, and opera is the same way. If you're a first-time operagoer, maybe try something with a modern counterpart, like La Bohème. If you love the characters and story of Rent, you're already familiar with this opera's plot and can see it told (rather, sung) in a new way.

If you like comedies, an opera like L'Elisir D'Amore is full of schemes, mishaps, and physical humor that will have you laughing nonstop even if you don't catch every Italian word. On the flip side, fated love stories like Rigoletto and Tosca are perfect for fans of dramas and tragedies.

Though operas are different than other media in some key ways — like their sung-through nature and their different languages of performance — don't let that daunt you. Operas still have plenty of familiar elements: verbal and physical comedy, love triangles, suspense, drama, and more. Not every opera will have all of these, but based on which types of stories you like, you'll find an opera that fits the genre. At the opera, you'll get to see a love story, a tragic story, or a classic fairytale, to name a few, come alive on stage in a wholly unique way.

Opera tickets are on sale now. Get tickets to operas in New York on New York Theatre Guide.

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