How to Watch Opera…with an Opera Singer

Patricia Tisak

Soprano Susanna Phillips was so intimidated by the Ring Cycle, four operas written by German composer Richard Wagner, that she took a whole class in graduate school about it so she would understand it better. “Then I went to go see it, and I was really surprised by how easy and accessible it was,” she said. The Alabama-born soprano, who debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, wants to assure those who have never been to the opera or are not as familiar with it: “Don't be afraid! It's surprisingly easy to go. The hardest part is just to relax and have an open mind.”

What are some things that people can do before an opera to enhance their experience? Susanna Phillips: It's helpful to know a little bit about the plot, the composer and what kind of music it is. Somebody like Mozart wrote a very different opera than somebody like Verdi, who wrote a very different opera than somebody like Stravinsky. Knowing about the style of opera that you're planning to go see will definitely increase your ability to enjoy it. If you get a chance, it's helpful to listen to the opera. Put it on the background while you're making dinner one night. Even though it will be different live than it is on a recording, it will be much easier to grasp if you listen to it a couple of times.

Are there any operas at the Met this coming season that you would recommend as being more approachable to people who aren't as familiar with opera? SP: I think that La Bohème is the best first opera for somebody to go to at the Met. The production that they do is iconic. It's a beautiful, traditional, pretty La Bohème. One that I'm in that I think a lot of people would really enjoy is Die Fledermaus, because it's lighter opera. It's not as heavy or as dark as some of the other ones may be. Carmen is always a go-to first opera.

What was the first opera that you saw? SP: The first one that really resonated with me was Madama Butterfly. The soprano turned in my direction and started singing, and I completely understood what she was saying even though I didn't speak Italian. I found it very moving to have a connection with someone who I didn’t know, whose language I didn't speak, but I totally understood what her situation was, and I had such empathy for her. I really fell in love with opera that day—and it was at the Met, actually.

You just touched on how there's a language barrier in opera for many people. How do you approach that challenge in your singing? SP: As a singer you try to make it as close to a natural speaker as you can. We study really hard to make sure we speak or sing without an accent and that we find the music in the language of what we're doing. We try to clarify as much as we can in our language so that it doesn't become a barrier and is more of a bridge between the audience and the piece itself. To enhance understanding and comprehension, we try to make all the colors come out of the language that are possible.

We're bombarded by so much entertainment these days, much of it instantaneous. Why does opera remain relevant, if not imperative, as a performing art? SP: I think it's absolutely imperative. It is definitely not instantaneous, which I think is wonderful. You can't interact with your smartphone in the opera. You have to be present in the moment to experience it and really get into it in a way that's productive and satisfying. It's exciting to know that nobody is using microphones or any kind of modern technology like that—it brings you back to your human roots.

For the budget conscious, what are the best seats in the house to look for when you're booking tickets? SP: I prefer to sit in the Family Circle because that's where people who really love opera, who go there all the time, love to sit, so there are a lot of really interesting people up there. Also it's the best sound in the house because it's the farthest away—the sound blends very well, so it's easy to listen to. It is far away so it's good to bring binoculars so you stay engaged on stage. I love sitting up there—it’s my favorite place in the house.

If there is one thing about opera that people should know about—that people wouldn't expect—what would it be? SP: I hope that the iconic vision of the big woman in horns with the spear—I hope that's diminishing. Anyone who's been to the opera recently recognizes that that's not the case anymore. Today the storytelling and the drama of the piece is much more relevant. It's much deeper, they delve into the story more and the acting is much stronger. People are surprised at how committed these people are as musicians and much more so as actors.

The Metropolitan Opera's 2013–2014 season opened September 23. For a schedule of performances and information on how to purchase tickets, visit