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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.

Get tickets to operas on New York Theatre Guide.

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.

Discover more family-friendly shows in New York.

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. A few other New York venues also have operas currently running for a limited time. 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.

The Metropolitan Opera's season ends in mid-June, so opera programming is on hiatus for the summer. Listed below are all the operas playing in New York this fall when the new season begins, which you can get tickets to on New York Theatre Guide.

Get tickets to New York operas now.

Aida

If you love the Aida musical (the one with music by Elton John), then check out the opera it's based on. The show is about Aida, an enslaved Ethopian princess in a relationship with the Egyptian general Radames. The countries are at war, and Radames hopes winning will let him free and marry Aida — but the Egyptian Princess Amneris wants Radames for herself, and since Aida is indentured to her, she won't let Radames have Aida as long as she's around. This dramatic love story has been performed at the Met alone more than 1,000 times, so if you've missed them all, now's your chance to catch it. Performances run through May 18, 2023.

Get Aida tickets now.

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Champion

Who said arts and sports can't mix? Champion is a new opera about boxer Emile Griffith, who becomes a world champion from nothing but is haunted by his past later in life. This opera is perfect for those looking for something different than a classical work, or to support a trailblazing artist — composer Terence Blanchard made history last year as the first Black composer at the Met with Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Get in the ring from April 10 to May 13.

Get Champion tickets now.

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Der Fliegende Holländer

Better known as The Flying Dutchman, Wagner's spooky drama will enthrall fans of the eerie and supernatural. The Dutchman in this case, though, isn't a ship, but the cursed, ghostly captain of one who seeks the love of a maiden named Senta. Spend a few hours where the real world and the spirit realm meet from May 30 to June 10.

Get Der Fliegende Holländer tickets now.

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Der Rosenkavalier

Der Rosenkavalier is the most popular opera by composer Richard Strauss, telling of a star-crossed romance. A worldly woman must ultimately give up her young lover to an heiress, and even though this opera is a comedy, it's tinged with the bittersweetness of unfulfilled fantasies. Performances run from March 27 to April 20.

Get Der Rosenkavalier tickets now.

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Dialogues des Carmélites

Dialogues des Carmélites is playing for just over a week, from January 15-23, so don't miss it. The aristocrat Blanche de la Force, a member of the Carmelite order of nuns, must overcome her shyness to follow her true calling — a quest made more difficult as Carmelite nuns are being targeted in the French Reign of Terror. Inspired by true historical events, this drama is about how outside forces and one's inner self shape a person's life.

Get Dialogues des Carmélites tickets now.

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Die Zauberflöte

You might know this one better as The Magic Flute. If you loved the abridged holiday presentation of this fairytale, then why not see the original version with all of Mozart's beautiful music? Like the abridged holiday version, the songs are interspersed with scenes and dialogue, so Die Zauberflöte might be the perfect opera for fans of traditional plays and musicals. Performances run from May 19 to June 10.

Get Die Zauberflöte tickets now.

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Don Carlo

The character this opera is named after is a Spanish nobleman whose love is complicated by his duty. Though in love with and engaged to the fair Elisabeth of Valois, a peace treaty between two warring Italian houses demands that she marry a different man. Does he fight for his relationship and risk restarting a war, or uphold his treaty but risk losing his love? You'll have to see for yourself while Don Carlo is playing through December 3.

Get Don Carlo tickets now.

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Don Giovanni

Ivo van Hove, the Tony Award-winning director of A View From the Bridge and West Side Story on Broadway, makes his Met debut with a new production of Don Giovanni. A twist on the tale of the womanizing Don Juan, this opera kicks off with a fatal duel and only gets more exciting from there. Performances run from May 5 to June 2.

Get Don Giovanni tickets now.

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Falstaff

If you're thinking that the name sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps you remember it from high school English class. Verdi's Falstaff opera is based on the same-named Shakespeare character who appears in three of his plays. The plot mashes up lots of Shakespeare scenes, but mainly draws from the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which Falstaff pursues two married women. He does the same here, and three clever women decide to prank him and put him in his place.

Get Falstaff tickets now.

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Fedora

Intrigue, suspense, and romance — this opera has it all, and it's on the Metropolitan Opera stage for the first time in 25 years from December 31 to January 28. Fedora is about a woman who, against all odds, falls for her fiance's killer. This shocking story is set against multiple picturesque European settings — the Swiss Alps, a Russian palace, a French salon — brought to life with gorgeous sets. You'll feel like you actually are in Europe.

Get Fedora tickets now.

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L'Elisir D'Amore

Rom-com fans, this is the opera for you. L'Elisir D'Amore is essentially a romantic comedy on stage, centered on between the wealthy landowner Adina and the peasant Nemorino. Made confident by a "magic love potion," he determines to woo her — but what he doesn't know is, despite her apparent indifference toward him, she might already be more interested than she lets on. Miscommunications, marriages, and not-so-unrequited love abound in this production, directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher. Performances run from January 10-27 and April 13-29.

Get L'Elisir D'Amore tickets now.

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La Bohème

If you know Rent, then you know the La Bohème story. Jonathan Larson based his iconic musical on this opera by Puccini, one of the most famous opera composers in history. Moulin Rouge! The Musical fans will also find plenty to love in La Bohème, as this opera, too, takes place in 19th-century Paris and follows the friendships and romances between a group of Bohemian artists.

During La Bohème, the writer Rodolfo falls into a whirlwind romance with the seamstress Mimì, and the painter Marcello and singer Musetta keep finding themselves in an on-again-off-again relationship. Though, like Rent and Moulin Rouge!, La Bohème has its share of sadness, the story is all about the enduring power of love. The show has performances at The Metropolitan Opera from April 21 through June 9.

Get La Bohème tickets now.

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La Traviata

La Traviata was harshly received on its opening night in 1853, but it's now one of the staples of the Met's opera repertoire. "La traviata" means "the fallen woman," and the title refers to the main character, Violetta. She is in love with the romantic and upstanding Alfredo, but because she is a courtesan who sells her love, their relationship threatens to bring shame on his family. This opera is perfect as a date-night show, and great for fans of tragic romances like Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

Get La Traviata tickets now.

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The Magic Flute

The Metropolitan Opera puts on special holiday programming aimed at children and families each year, with hourlong operas performed in English. This year sees the return of The Magic Flute, about a prince on a quest to win a beautiful princess with the help of the title instrument. Julie Taymor, the director of the family-friendly classic The Lion King on Broadway, also helms this show, so expect plenty of whimsy and beautiful stagecraft.

Get The Magic Flute tickets now.

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Rigoletto

Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher, of shows like To Kill a Mockingbird and My Fair Lady on Broadway, gives this Verdi opera a new update. The show is now set in 1920s Europe, but the rich plot of romance, magic, and misunderstandings remains intact. The action kicks off when a courtier puts a curse on the philandering Duke of Mantua and his court jester, Rigoletto. He's mad at the Duke for hitting on his daughter and Rigoletto for enabling him, so the curse makes Rigoletto's daughter and the Duke fall in love, but they can never be together. Performances are at The Met through December 29.

Get Rigoletto tickets now.

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Tosca

After going up at the Met last season, Tosca is back for an encore run through April 15, 2023. The title character is often called one of opera's ultimate divas; the character is a singer in love with a man named Cavaradossi. But there's an evil police chief named Scarpia who wants Tosca and will do anything to get rid of Cavaradossi. If you love a good love triangle, check out this melodrama — you'll be moved and shocked by the lengths the characters will go for love.

Get Tosca tickets now.

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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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