Simple Six – Verona Opera Festival

As moonlight spills over the Roman walls, the song of a heart slowly breaking fills the cool night air. Her aria of unrequited love is passionate and chilling, powerful and quiet.

Stunning costume and set design, Aida.

Stunning costume and set design, Aida.

Offstage, a chorus begins to unite in chant as the orchestra’s pace quickens. Soldiers march into position along the arena’s steep steps. The onlookers, so quiet and attentive; the acoustics, so pristine. You hear costumes rustle.

This is drama at its grandest. This is the Verona Opera Festival.

Almost every summer for the past 92 years (with a few notable exceptions during times of war,) the historic amphitheatre in Verona has played host to the world’s most beloved operas, perhaps most notably, Guiseppie Verdi’s AIDA, the inaugural production in 1913 and a perennial favorite.

Like it’s sister in Rome, the arena dates from the 1st century. Although it is smaller in size than the Colosseum, the preservation is superior. The space is stunning to take in on its own, but seeing it “in action,” you can almost feel the presence of the thousands who came before, traveling underneath the majestic gates, taking seats on these very steps, filled with anticipation, ready to be entertained.

To say you feel transported back in time would be wrong. It feels timeless.

Today, over 500,000 visitors attend the festival each summer, making it a highlight of Italy’s cultural calendar. This summer’s performances include: Verdi’s NABUCCO and AIDA, Puccini’s TOSCA, Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI by Mozart, Rossini’s IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, and Gounod’s ROMÉO ET JULIETTE.

Here are 6 simple ways to get the most from this magical experience:

Getting tickets 

Tickets are expensive, there’s no doubt about it, with top-tier seats reaching just over $200 for weekend performances. Fortunately, the scaling is wide with options for all budgets and the space is surprisingly intimate, at approximately 15,000 seats. So, you can worry less about sight lines, your eyes and ears will be gloriously filled from any seating level.

Worry more about your back and bottom. Seats on the stone steps are a bargain at around $25. If you go that route, plan to rent a cushion ($5) but keep in mind, there’s no back rest – and, opera performances can run 4+ hours. In other words, if you are prone to back issues, have a few rings around the tree, or are treating grandma to the opera, go for better seats.

Bottom line: If you can afford it, you won’t regret splurging. First tier, floor level (what they call “stall seating”) isn’t necessary, unless you really want to impress. Mid-level tickets (called “central numbered seats”) with built-in cushions and backrests are the way to go. If the step level keeps you in budget, don’t be deterred – just be prepared.

Being familiar

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Seeing grand sets loaded in the arena, over the top, is a show in itself.

While arts lovers the world over make this pilgrimage to see their favorite works, the grand setting also attracts a fair share of opera newbies. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, you’ve shelled out a small fortune for seats – let’s call it an investment in the memory bank – now it’s time to nurture the investment.

If your local or regional opera company has produced the work, is there a recording you could purchase? If so, you get the added benefit of supporting a local arts organization while familiarizing yourself with the work. Have fun with it! Why not turn research into a trip “pep rally?” Invite friends over for pasta-making with an opera soundtrack. At a minimum, read a plot synopsis, so you can follow the action.

Then, when you arrive in Verona, take a tour of the arena during the day to learn about the structure’s stories and secrets. When you take your seat for the performance, you’ll appreciate the setting all the more. There’s also an excellent Opera Museum for gaining a greater appreciation of the set building feats required to stage an opera in this grand space.

Bottom line: Time spent getting to know the work exponentially increases enjoyment of the performance for aficionados of all levels.

Dressing the part

With top-tier seating comes a requirement for formal attire, while it’s merely a suggestion for other sections.

But, hey…this is the opera. In a historic arena. In Italy. It is a special event and deserves special dress, right? Have fun putting on the Ritz and getting into the spirit, regardless of your seating area.

Just remember, performances during the summer begin at 9 p.m. and end at nearly 1 a.m., a jacket or wrap gives you added drama and warmth.

I wouldn’t think the following tips necessary, but based on people-watching during a performance this week, it can’t hurt:

Guys: Save the pork pie hat for the post-performance stroll and nightcap. Don’t be fooled by the outside setting, it is never appropriate to wear a hat during the opera. Period.

Gals: Unless you have runway model skillz, don’t even consider wearing crazy high heels. Don’t get me wrong; I love heels, but not here…cobblestones + steep steps + stilettos = disaster (or, at the very least, make you look drunk and stupid.)

Bottom line: Simple and elegant – plus layers – always wins.

Setting the stage

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Impressive pizza oven, great pies, La Conchigli Pizzeria.

It’s tempting to book a table for dinner at one of the city’s acclaimed restaurants nestled near the arena, like the beautiful Trattoria Tre Marchetti, but I recommend going another route and saving that experience for another night. After all, an elaborate five-course meal of Veronese specialties is itself an event.

The day of the performance is a great time for indulging in a leisurely multi-course lunch, then enjoying a long nap. While the fancy restaurants are a-bustle with other opera attendees, you can have a light dinner of antipasti and salad in the courtyard of Lui e Lei (His & Hers) or grab an award-winning slice (“Olympic Champion Pizza for 2014”) from La Conchigli Pizzeria, located directly behind the arena.

Bottom line: Create a plan for dinner that allows you to arrive relaxed and un-frazzled. Allow enough time to arrive early so you can watch the set up…it’s part of the show! 

Showing appreciation 

“I’ve already shown appreciation with my wallet,” you say. “I bought tickets.”

When you see the costumes and sets and experience the quality of performance, you’ll quickly realize tickets sales, even when robust, can’t begin to cover these costs.

I recently read an article about the festival where the author recommended taking your own food and drinks inside. Even though it’s against the rules, she said, “everyone does it.”

I understand the thought, but having worked in the arts for most of my career, it’s not one I can get behind. In most cases, the organization as well as the venue get a much-needed cut on concessions (even in Italy where the arts are state-supported to a greater extent than the US.)

Bottom line: You are being treated to one of art’s most beautiful experiences, fork over $8 for a glass of wine. You’ll feel good, and the pours are generous!

Being present

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As the sun sets, the dramatic effect rises.

Hello, Kettle. I’m Pot. Yes, I did take a few photos (for this blog) during the performance. And, each and every time, it took me out of the setting, if only for a few seconds. It was distraction.

I might have thought it distracting for others too if every single person around me wasn’t also taking pictures. It’s an impulse most of us struggle with, especially on vacation. We’ve been conditioned to want, to almost feel like we “need,” a record of our experience. The more photos, surely the greater the experience.

Not until I put the camera down did I fully immerse in the drama. Here’s a method I often use to dig deeper during performances: Select a character you identify with during the opening scenes (if you’ve researched a bit, you probably already know “your person.”) Now, imagine the drama unfolding from that character’s perspective. It’s a swell trick for finding yourself deep in the story.

During the opening moments, every person in the arena lights a candle (handed to you as you arrive,) to symbolize a time long ago when this was how the space was illuminated and opera experienced. Let yourself be immersed from this moment on. These few minutes alone are worth the trip. Timeless.

Bottom line: When you let go of capturing glory for future viewing and enjoyment, you truly begin engaging in the present. (A suggestion to you as well as a reminder to myself.)