New to Opera?

If you have never attended an opera, San Francisco Opera invites you to explore this classic art form in one of North America’s most beautiful performance venues, the historic War Memorial Opera House. Opera is growing in popularity among younger and older generations. Come see for yourself what the excitement is all about.

To help you get started, we have developed this informative guide. We hope it will help you expand your cultural horizons as you discover a new experience—or passion—in an art form that has transcended the ages.

What is opera?
Will I understand opera?
Will I like opera?
How do I choose the right opera for me?
Can I afford to attend an opera?
What should I wear?
What is performance etiquette?
How long does an opera last?
Too busy or can’t find the time to attend?
What are the components of an opera?
What is operatic singing?
What is an opera orchestra?
What is the history of opera?
How can I learn more about opera?
What is the history of San Francisco Opera?
Where is the War Memorial Opera House located?
Who owns the War Memorial Opera House?
Are there free opera events?
How can I attend a performance for free? 

What is opera?
Opera is a drama or comedy told in music through powerful, unamplified voices. Opera combines all the art forms—vocal and instrumental music, theater, drama, visual art and often dance—into one complete theatrical experience. When successfully produced, an opera’s directing, singing, acting, stage setting, lighting, conducting and orchestral playing will create an unforgettable spectacle that can move audiences to tears or elation—or both.

Will I understand opera?
Yes! At San Francisco Opera every performance features supertitles (English translations of what’s sung) projected above the stage, visible from every seat. We also distribute a free printed program with a synopsis that describes the acts and scenes to help you follow the story. You can listen to audio clips and/or read the synopsis of each of the operas in our current season on each opera's individual web page. So although most operas are sung in the foreign language in which they were written, you won’t miss a minute of the action.

Will I like opera? 
You’ve heard it and enjoyed it, but you may not have realized that it was opera. Opera has been included in countless movies across all genres—see if you can recognize some of the examples below: 

Film Featuring Music from Operas
Apocalypse Now Die Walküre by Wagner
Driving Miss Daisy Rusalka by Dvorák
Fatal Attraction Madama Butterfly by Puccini
The Fifth Element Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti
Godfather I La Traviata by Verdi
Godfather III Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni
Nabucco by Verdi
James Bond: The Living Daylights The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
James Bond: Quantum of Solace Tosca by Puccini
Life is Beautiful The Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach
The Man Who Cried Dido and Aeneas by Purcell
Il Trovatore by Verdi
The Pearl Fishers by Bizet
Tosca by Puccini
Match Point The Elixir of Love by Donizetti
Il Trovatore by Verdi
La Traviata by Verdi
Macbeth by Verdi
Otello by Verdi
The Pearl Fishers by Bizet
Rigoletto by Verdi
William Tell by Rossini
Milk Tosca by Puccini
Philadelphia Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea
Andrea Chénier by Giordano
Idomeneo by Mozart
Pretty Woman La Traviata by Verdi
The Shawshank Redemption The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
The Sum of All Fears Don Carlos by Verdi
Madama Butterfly by Puccini
Titanic Orpheus from the Underworld by Offenbach
The Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach
Thaϊs by Massenet

For 400 years, opera has remained strong in popular cultural scenes and continues to emerge in pop culture. In a TV ad, Beyoncé sang made-for-Pepsi lyrics to the music of the aria “Habañera,” from Carmen. Grammy-winning jazz musician Grover Washington, Jr. fused opera with jazz in his Aria album. Even some of Broadway’s award-winning musicals have been inspired by opera: 

Musical Adapted from or inspired by
Miss Saigon Madama Butterfly
Rent La Bohème
Aida Aida
Phantom of the Opera The Paris Opera House

There is something in opera for everyone; you don’t need to be an opera aficionado or musicologist to enjoy it. If you like music, song, drama, visual art, dance or theater, you’re in for a treat. Experience it, and be entertained and dazzled by the spectacular sets and costumes, glorious voices and stories that tear at our heartstrings or bring smiles to our faces.

How do I choose the right opera for me? 
Do you prefer comedy or tragedy? Romance or drama? Which composer’s music resonates with you? Read about our current season's operas, listen to an audio clip, and choose a story that compels you and music that moves you. Our friendly staff at the Opera Box Office is also available to answer your questions and help you choose the perfect opera to see. Hours are Monday 10am–5pm, Tuesday–Friday 10am–6pm (and Saturdays 10am–6pm, phones only), phone (415) 864-3330.

Operas we recommend most for first-timers:

2015–16 Season
The Magic Flute
The Barber of Seville

Can I afford to attend an opera? 
Absolutely. Single tickets for Fall 2015 start at just $26 in the Balcony Side—seats that offer some of the best sound quality in the house. Standing Room tickets are offered on the day of the performance starting at just $10. Special day-of pricing for students, seniors and military personnel may also be available through Rush Tickets. For availability, just call the Opera Box Office, (415) 864-3330, or check online the day before the performance date. Or, bring a group of 10 or more and enjoy great savings for groups. For more information on group rates, call Group Sales at (415) 621-4403.

San Francisco Opera offers a number of different prices to suit every budget. You can get some very good seats for less than the price of a rock concert or football game ticket. Imagine the combined costs of a theater play or Broadway show, a symphony concert, a voice recital by an internationally acclaimed star, and maybe ballet—you get all of that, and maybe more, in one evening at San Francisco Opera.

What should I wear?
Dress in whatever it is that makes you feel comfortable and at your best. A night at the opera is a fun event. It offers a wonderful opportunity to dress to the nines if you like. Coming after work? Your business attire is perfect. Can’t part with that pair of old jeans? Keep them on. There is no dress code at San Francisco Opera. While people tend to dress up more for Opening Nights, the bottom line is: relax, no tiaras required, just enjoy.

What is performance etiquette?
The following are guidelines for appropriate behavior at an opera performance.

  • As a courtesy to artists and patrons, latecomers will not be seated until the first intermission.
  • Please switch off all electronic devices before the performance begins.
  • No cameras or recording equipment are permitted in the Opera House.
  • As a courtesy to those who may have fragrance allergies, please avoid wearing heavy perfume or cologne.
  • No babes in arms. Children of any age attending a performance must have a ticket.
  • No food or drink is allowed in the auditorium except bottled water.

Note: Management reserves the right to remove any patron creating a disturbance. 

How long does an opera last? 
Operas may run from 2.5 hours to 4 hours, and occasionally 5 hours or longer. The running time often includes one 25-minute intermission and sometimes two, depending on the number of acts in an opera. For beginners, it may be advisable to choose an opera with a shorter running time to start with.

Too busy or can’t find the time to attend?
Don’t you owe it to yourself to set aside some “me” time to be entertained? Let the beautiful sights and sounds of opera transport you to another place and time. Plan a date with a friend or significant other, or come solo, for an evening at the opera. Be sure to check the estimated running time posted on our website for the opera you have selected and plan your visit accordingly.

What are the components of an opera?
Opera begins with a music composition and the story’s text. The text is referred to as the libretto (in Italian, means “little book”). The complete music composition with the libretto is the score. The conductor leads the way, cueing the opera orchestra and singers when to start their parts. The lead singers deliver the libretto through operatic singing and the opera orchestra plays the music. In addition to the lead singers and the orchestra, the chorus, dancers and supernumeraries (performers with non-singing roles) complete the opera performance on stage. Behind and off stage, a large stage crew and technicians are on deck to change scenes and props and regulate the lighting and sound. Wardrobe assistants help performers change in and out of costumes, the stage director directs the action on stage, and makeup artists are on point to apply and reapply makeup for the performers, transforming them into the effervescent characters they play.

What is operatic singing?
Operatic singing originated in Italy and is one type of classical singing. This style of singing relies solely on the singer’s unamplified voice to fill an opera house. Only on rare occasions will a microphone be used in an opera. Opera singers, therefore, must go through years of intensive training to develop their voice to the fullest capacity of range, volume, projection and beauty.

Operatic voices are categorized by range, or “Fach”: 

Range Female Male
High Coloratura soprano Countertenor
  Lyric or dramatic soprano Tenor
Mezzo-soprano Baritone
Low Contralto Bass (Basso profundo)

What is an opera orchestra?
An opera orchestra is very much like a symphony orchestra and is comprised of four instrumental families—strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion—plus other instruments such as the piano, harp and harpsichord. The opera orchestra is a vital component of the opera in that it not only accompanies the singer(s) but also sets the tone, mood and pace of the opera. The conductor, or maestro, leads the orchestra and is fully responsible for the opera’s progression. The conductor cues the singers when to sing and the orchestra when to play, and must blend and balance the music—keeping proper tempo (speed) and regulating the dynamics of the opera. Watch the conductor work his or her magic during a performance and you will be treated to an exhilarating experience.

What is the history of opera?
Opera’s roots go back to ancient Greek drama, which was accompanied by strings or pipes and the words were sung or half-spoken. Initially, only single lines of music (monody) existed until these were woven together to form polyphony (several different lines of music played or sung at one time), thus creating harmonies. By the end of the sixteenth century, it was the custom in Italy to perform intermezzi, short musical dramas during intermissions of other plays. The first true opera, as we know it today, was Dafne, written in 1598 by Jacopo Peri, followed by Euridice in 1600, also by Peri. Throughout the Italian Renaissance, these short musical dramas continued to evolve into the modern day opera. The early operas were performed in private homes until 1637 when the first public opera house was built in Venice, making opera accessible to the general public. Opera interest spread throughout Europe with distinct styles being created in Russia, France, Germany and elsewhere. Today, America also contributes much to this living art form and has created new operas that tell the stories of Richard Nixon, Harvey Milk, Malcolm X, Jacqueline Kennedy and J. Robert Oppenheimer, to name a few.

How can I learn more about opera?
Visit our education page to view a host of information on opera and a schedule of lectures, symposia and classes that we offer. Most are open to the public and inexpensive to attend. If you are a ticket holder, you can attend a free Pre-Opera Talk to learn more about the opera you’re about to see. Pre-Opera Talks are held 55 minutes before each opera performance (except Opening Night) and cover topics such as the musical background, composer, historical context and relevant issues surrounding the opera. Attending a Pre-Opera Talk is a great way to deepen and enhance your opera experience and enjoyment.

To get the inside scoop on upcoming productions, opera concerts, free community events, online-only promotions and what’s new in the opera world, sign up for our e-newsletters.

Many public libraries offer opera videos or CDs for you to borrow. You can also visit your favorite music store or go online to purchase a CD sampler of operas/arias. Your best choices may be titles that include “The Best of…,” “The Most Famous…” or “Favorite…” since these will feature highlights from the most popular and favored operas. Or visit the Opera Shop on the Mezzanine/Box level of the Opera House.

If you are interested in delving deeper, check out the following recommended readings:

Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, by Fred Plotkin (Hyperion Press, 1994)

Getting Opera: A Guide for the Cultured but Confused, by Matt Dobkin (Pocket Books, 2000)

Opera for Dummies, by David Pogue and Scott Speck (For Dummies, 1997)

The following websites also provide information for “learning opera” fans:

What is the history of San Francisco Opera?
Founded by Gaetano Merola (1881–1953), San Francisco Opera is a non-profit organization incorporated in 1923. Since then, it has featured debuts of many internationally acclaimed artists and produced numerous new operas. The second largest opera company in Northern America today, San Francisco Opera has been bringing superb opera performances to the San Francisco Bay Area since its debut performance, La Bohème, on September 26, 1923, in the City's Civic Auditorium. On October 15, 1932, the Company moved into its new home, the War Memorial Opera House, designed by renowned architect Arthur Brown, Jr., who also designed San Francisco’s Coit Tower and City Hall. Our affiliates—San Francisco Opera Guild, San Francisco Opera Center, Merola Opera Program and BRAVO! CLUB—are all a part of the San Francisco Opera family. To find out more about San Francisco Opera, visit

Where is the War Memorial Opera House located?
The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Ave., at Grove St., across from City Hall. It is accessible by Muni or BART. If you plan to drive, many public parking facilities are available nearby. Tours of the Opera House are available through the San Francisco War Memorial Performing Arts Center Tour, (415) 552-8338, and San Francisco Opera Guild, (510) 524-5220.

Who owns the War Memorial Opera House?
The War Memorial Opera House is owned and operated by the City of San Francisco.

Are there free opera events?
Join us at our free, annual outdoor concerts or simulcasts and experience opera first-hand in an al fresco setting. It is a great way to hear some beautiful music and glorious singing, and be introduced to opera in a relaxing environment, for free. We also offer other community and ancillary events during our opera season to make opera more accessible to everyone.

Annual free events:

Free Simulcast at AT&T Park
Opera at the Ballpark
The Marriage of Figaro
Friday July 3, 2015, 7:30pm

Opera in the Park 
Sharon Meadow, Golden Gate Park

Sunday, September 13, 2015, 1:30pm

Merola's Schwabacher Summer Concert
Yerba Buena Gardens
Saturday, July 11, 2015, 2pm

And more…

For dates and times, visit

How can I attend a performance for free?
We hope that we have inspired you to experience an opera performance and explore the magnificent world of opera. For a chance to win a pair of opera tickets or other exciting prizes attend one of our free outdoor events, where we often offer raffles and drawings. Sign up for our e-newsletter to receive monthly e-alerts about upcoming productions, concerts, special events, online-only promotions and the latest news from San Francisco Opera. Sign up now!