4 Myths Not to Believe About NYC Opera

Think opera is long, boring and unrelatable, made for stuffy old people? Think again.

Options for live entertainment in the city are varied, but you can easily check off the top ones: Broadway shows, a concert at Carnegie Hall, a rock band at the Beacon, a jazz set at the Blue Note. But what about opera? For many, opera is a forbidding realm, where you can’t understand what anybody is saying, but they say it real loud. It’s expensive, you won’t get it, it sounds boring or worse—you may laugh. Not true! After you read through our myth-busting items below, we hope you’ll treat yourself to a night at the Metropolitan Opera House. We promise, no tux or gown required.

Christopher Maltman and Isabel Leonard in “Marnie” at The Metropolitan Opera House in 2018.

YOU NEED TO KNOW ITALIAN, FRENCH OR GERMAN

Non! Nein! Nyet! Although the world’s best-known operas tend to be in Romance languages, people have been singing opera in our mother tongue since opera’s birth in the 1600s. English was good enough for 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell (“Dido and Aeneas”), and it’s good enough for Jennifer Higdon today (the composer of the American opera “Cold Mountain”). As for new opera, American composers outstrip their European counterparts in terms of volume and popularity. Renowned poets such as Robert Pinsky and playwrights like Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage (“Sweat”) have dabbled in libretto writing. This year’s much-anticipated opera “Marnie” (based on the Winston Graham novel, which also inspired the 1964 Alfred Hitchcock film with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren) will be sung in English at the Met. And anyway, even if you do find yourself at “La Bohème” or “Don Giovanni,” it’s standard practice at the Met to have English supertitles projected on the back of the seat in front of you. 

A scene from Verdi’s “Aida” at The Metropolitan Opera House

IT’S WAY TOO EXPENSIVE

Yes, orchestra seats at the Met can make Broadway seem like a bargain. If you’re on a budget and willing to take a risk, try rush tickets, only $25 and offered daily on the Met website. Some of the tickets are in prime locations, and they can be yours on a first-come, first-served basis for all performances. Other than that, if you’re only there for the great music (or have a handy set of binoculars), you can purchase Family Circle and Balcony seats for some operas for less than $100 a ticket.

THE CAST IS ALL MIDDLE-AGED, FAT EUROPEANS

This is probably the, ahem, biggest misconception of all, that opera stars are plus-size behemoths in ridiculous robes and horned helmets. Yes, legendary diva Maria Callas struggled with her weight, and American soprano Deborah Voigt didn’t hide the fact that she underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2004. But the truth is, opera sees itself as a showbiz industry in the same universe as pop and Broadway musicals, and that means looks matter. Singers are often cast to fit the role, and American training programs are turning out younger, fitter singers—who can even act! (A rarity in the “park and bark” standard of many performances.) Of course, a great voice trumps any dress size. Still, the talent pool hasn’t been this ethnically diverse and good-looking in a long time. American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and soprano Julia Bullock are magazine-cover gorgeous, and two of the world’s hottest tenors are Jonas Kaufmann and Juan Diego Flórez. There’s even a blog (“Barihunks”) to track opera’s sexiest baritones.

IT’S ABOUT KINGS AND WIZARDS AND HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH REALITY

True, many of the classics of the genre—Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Strauss’ “Salome”—do involve magical creatures and naughty aristocrats, but operas have evolved like the rest of culture over the past century. Just as 19th-century Western dramatists like Henrik Ibsen explored social realism, opera has started focusing on ordinary folks. American opera over the decades has dramatized suburban discontent (“A Quiet Place”), a civil-rights icon (“X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X”) and the transgender experience (“As One”). So, go on, take the plunge: We bet you’ll be walking out of Lincoln Center saying, “I can’t believe it: I really like opera!”