A night at the opera in Verona, or, When is opera not opera? When it’s pure spectacle

We should have known this wasn’t going to be a normal night at the opera when the crowd at the Arena at Verona started doing the Mexican wave. I’d only seen the Mexican wave at the football, so it was quite a shock – at the opera no less, but at Verona’s Arena?

But maybe that should have been less of a surprise, given that the ancient Roman amphitheatre – Italy’s most perfectly preserved and built in AD30 – was a venue for gladiator matches long before it showed Aida.

Admittedly, the opera hadn’t started yet. Well, it had eventually begun after a lengthy delay of a couple of hours, as the mightiest and most foreboding black clouds we’d ever seen started rolling in before deciding to settle upon us. But then the performance was stopped soon after so the stage hands could batten down the set after the wind began to howl, knocking over an ancient Egyptian pillar or two that had so far stood the test of time. But the dramas had begun much earlier that evening…

When I’d gone to collect the tickets I’d been told would be easy to get from the press office, but naturally they weren’t there. Although I was encouraged to come back later while they would “see what they could do”, when I returned there were no tickets, the opera was about to begin, and (despite showing my business cards and referring to the letters of commision I’d previously emailed; we were there researching guidebooks, you see), the guy in the press office melodramatically accused me of simply trying to get seats for free. I reacted appropriately, turning on my heels and storming off to the box office, determined to buy the most expensive seats left in the house and return to throw them in his face, then head off to dinner.

However, when I asked the woman at the box office what seats were left and explained our predicament, she sincerely apologised – unfortunately there weren’t any decent seats left, they’d sold out weeks ago, but she’d give me a couple of tickets up top for free! Thinking this must be karma, I forgot about the press guy and we charged in and hurriedly hiked all the way up to the top section to our giddy-inducing seats, well, um… steps. A couple of hours and a couple of beers later, and somewhat lightheaded from the altitude, we were being rained upon as those around us rose and cheered with each Mexican wave.

We contemplated leaving several times, but we couldn’t. We were working after all and needed to experience this. However, when Aida finally started, we were wishing we had. From those seats up in the clouds we could barely hear the opera. We could barely see it either, but we had expected that. However, we somehow expected the acoustics (or speakers) would carry the sound. No such luck.

All we could hear were the giggles and nonsense-talk of the American teenage girls in the last row behind us as they sent text messages and took photos of each other on their cell phones. And just as the Mexican wave had begun so a tidal wave of bored chatter started. People sitting around us began showing eachother their new iPhones and their holiday photos. Nobody could hear anything, but nor did they seem interested in watching either.

It suddenly dawned upon me… the people up here weren’t really here for the opera. It was all about the spectacle. If they had come for the opera they’d have bought the expensive seats down below weeks ago, the seats where you could actually see the stage and probably hear the sound.

The people around us just wanted to be able to say they’d been. Or to prove they had by showing their friends their photos.

Tips: 
* If you’re an opera lover, do buy your tickets for the best seats a few weeks in advance. If you’re not, and you just want to tick a night at the Verona opera off your list, then get the cheapest seats – so you don’t annoy the opera lovers down below. See the official site Arena Verona.
* Book your summer accommodation in Verona well in advance, especially during opera season – and opera nights – when it can be booked out months in advance. For Italy accommodation, we like to use www.venere.com.
* For flights, Aussies should consider booking a holiday to Italy with Flight Centre. They have great Rome packages so you can spend a few nights there and then get a train to Verona. We’ve been using them a lot recently and they’ve restored our faith in travel agents.

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