Going to the Opera in Prague

Intimidated by opera? Suzanne Pergal offers a beginner's guide to the genre, and some tips on seeing one of Prague's internationally renowned productions

For a sizable part of the population, the idea of going to the opera will likely inspire one of the following emotions: fear, boredom, cluelessness, or apprehension.

Like them, maybe you've never been interested in this centuries-old art form, or perhaps you don't know where to start.

Opera dates back to the late 16th century, when it was more like a sung play. Eventually, orchestration and elaborate arrangements were added, along with solos for vocalists, known as arias.

By the late 19th century a great number of European countries had a national opera that performed works in their native language. A popular entertainment for the rich and the masses alike, opera has been a powerful nationalistic and artistic force throughout the last half of the millennium.

Here is the task: see an opera. If you haven't yet seen one, or if there are some bad experiences in your past, a diagnosis is necessary.

The key to appreciating opera, like anything else, is finding something you like, and only later acquiring a taste for more challenging composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

There are certain operas that have never gone out of rotation, and for good reason. The operas that remain popular over time are those that entertain, innovate, and reflect universal human emotions.

A marvelous first bet would be an opera by Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Gilbert & Sullivan, or Puccini, or, of course, by the beloved Czechs Dvořák or Smetana.

Many of these artists' works incorporate theatrical themes ranging from romance to violence to comedy, while keeping the onstage show entertaining and easy to follow.

Depending on your enthusiasm, you may even want to move up a notch, and take on the more atonal offerings of Wagner, Strauss, Mussorgsky, and Britten.

Usually the language barrier is not an issue. I say usually because I once saw Strauss's Elektra in German with Hungarian subtitles, as if the opera itself, based on a Greek tragedy, wasn't strange enough.

However, Prague's main opera houses -- Stavovské divadlo (the Estates Theatre), Národní divadlo (the National Theatre) and Státní opera Praha (the State Opera) -- all offer titles in English, Czech, and sometimes German.

A key consideration for the beginner is also length. Go for two-and-a-half hours, without intermission, rather than four.

Also, do a bit of research. You won't be confused and the experience will be more enjoyable if you read a bit about the opera beforehand.

Another reason why people avoid opera is because it's seen as stuffy and expensive.

These days, though, there are even operas for kids, with special showings of Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), and Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel.

You won't even have to wear a gown -- although it is nice to bathe and look presentable -- and tickets can be procured for a small price.

At Prague's main opera houses, student tickets can run as low as 50 CZK. Book early and cheap tickets in the balconies will be available for 300 CZK.

So pick a show, dress up a little, and discover the wonderfully extravagant and dramatic world of opera!


Just a few things...

You neglected to mention Georges Bizet's "Carmen", arguably the most popular and recognizable opera ever written. Both the National Theater and the State Opera do beautiful productions (and, completely different) and either would be one of the best "first" operas to see.

To put Gilbert and Sullivan in the same list as Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Smetana, etc. is a bit odd. G & S wrote operettas (light operas) which are rarely, if ever, performed in Prague.

You are a bit high on the ticket prices. Both National Theater and State Opera have tickets to most performances at REGULAR prices of 100czk (not 300). There are also discount cards which offer discounts as you attend more shows.

And, perhaps one of the best ways to experience opera for the first time, which you failed to mention, is the METropolitan Opera, Live in HD. These are live broadcasts of the Saturday matinees from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In Europe, with the time zone change, they usually begin at 7pm, and can be seen in Prague at both Svetozor and Aero Cinemas. For the beginner, the live broadcasts go behind the scenes as the singers talk about the performances, and the backstage operations can be scene between the acts.

Paul Margulies
January 29, 2009

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