I arrive with most of the audience: definitely not early and not too late, but late enough so I don’t have to wait forever in the seat for the opera to start (we all hate that). The theater is its usual grand self and I would appreciate the décor more if it wasn’t the 1,067th time that I’d seen it. As always, the regular grind ruins all magic.
A few of my colleagues are sprinkled strategically throughout the theater – we’re not allowed to officially know each other as to keep our secret identities intact, but I can’t help it when I regularly spot the same apathetic faces that almost certainly match my own, in disproportion to the pre-show excitement in the air.
I unobtrusively check my notes tucked into the show’s program: even though they’re unaltered throughout the show’s run, I never take anything for granted (that way lies sloth and unemployment). Let’s see, four acts, one intermission where the cast, crew, and I take a break, and done in less than four hours. Each act has five major songs, and I know the key words by heart (I usually listen for “O,” “amore,” “Dio,” “cuore,” “bellissima,” “amico,” and all forms of “morire” to guide me). The initial tune-up five minutes after the listed showtime is my signal, and I wait until I see the top of the conductor’s/maestro’s head as he (almost always a “he” at these things) emerges into the pit before I begin clapping madly at his entrance. He hasn’t done anything yet, the members of the orchestra invariably hate him, and he always is acknowledged over the opera’s director, but he gets to bow before the show even starts. Whatever – I don’t make the rules, I just get paid to follow them.
The opening song most times is setting the scene or just flat-out exposition, boring as anything, but the lead singer on those is a step below the principals so he or she has to have their due. I watch the maestro mainly for that final lowering of the arms to end the song, wait ¼ beat, then go to work: clapping madly to signal to the audience that the song is over and that they can and should reward the singer with appreciative noise (the orchestra can take a flying leap until the final bows, as far as the audience is concerned – this is the singers’ show now). A good seven to 10 seconds are enough for the secondary singer and ensemble; 20+ seconds are required for the principals. My stopwatch comes in handy many a time for these.
Once the lead soprano/mezzo/alto/tenor/baritone/bass make their entrances, that is when I really get to work. Their performance quality varies from show to show, so it’s hard to tell ahead of time whether the Act II aria should have the same length of applause consistently or whether the second love duet in Act IV trumped it this day. The lead soprano’s not been on her game lately either, which makes it trickier: there’ll be applause out of politeness after her mad aria, but should I throw in a “Brava!” even though she was a bit off-key, a bit off-tempo, and a bit off-putting? My instincts say “Yes” and I “Brava!” away, seconded by some guy five rows behind me. I know once the show’s run is over, though, that she is totally going to be fired.
After the grand finale and the stage lights come back on, I stand and clap as if I am trying to break my hands for at least the next five minutes, with a few classy whistles thrown in the mix for the well-received singers at that performance. The applause intensity increases for the principals and then for the conductor, whom the orchestra members subtly snub as he gestures to them to receive their long-overdue recognition.
Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, curtain falls, and I’m out. Off to the gym to keep my triceps, biceps, and deltoids toned, followed by an ice-down of my hands. The opera company pays for my membership so it’s worth giving it my all, I figure.
If I ever again attend a live theater event that I’m not being paid for, I’d appreciate it if someone would let me know when to clap. The cues for the audience sometimes are unclear.