©Christie'sImages/Corbis
©Christie'sImages/Corbis

Everything you always wanted to know about classical music in 10 questions

How long will the performance last? What is the point of conductors? Is classical music boring? When to clap? Are you afraid to ask all these questions? We have the answers for you.

You think it is possible to get kicked out of an opera for wearing trainers? Are you afraid you’ll never know when to clap during a symphony concert? You also think you need to save a 3-month fund in order to be able to listen to opera singers?

This quick guide will help you and all the people who lay down codes of conduct, discouraging all those curious who would like to enter a opera house.

Do I need to know the music to enjoy it?

Do you need to read Jacques Brel’s biography to appreciate his music? No. It is the same with classical music. Of course, if you are curious, you can dive into France Musique's programmes, music, articles and biographies, but keep this in mind:

If you appreciate a song, that is not because you understood it or because you know everything about it, but rather because it touches you, it makes you feel something, it intrigues you, it shocks you or maybe it even annoys you, it is upsetting, funny, it makes you cry or even makes you feel pleasure. The power of music is about emotion, not about knowledge (even if links do exist).

Is classical music boring?

To answer this question, let us do a little math. You probably listen to songs written between the beginning of the twentieth century and today. Therefore, you like songs written over a century. There are plenty to choose from, right? Rock, French music, disco, metal, rap, techno, house, pop, blues, jazz… There’s such a wide selection!

So-called “classical” music brings together more than a thousand years of compositions. Over a thousand years. And you imagine that during all this time composers have agreed to write boring music? No. It doesn't matter if it's the 10th, 15th, or 20th century: people want to feel something, they want to dance, sing, enjoy themselves... And music has always been there to satisfy our needs.

When should I applaud?

This is a broad issue. So broad that we dedicated an article to this matter, in order to explain all the rules and codes about the applause in ballet and opera.

If you have never seen an opera: follow the others. In opera houses, there will always be some music lover who is too happy to let people know they know exactly when the opera ends, and they will show it off by screaming bravooo at the exact moment.

Do I have to go all dressed up?

To quote the title of a famous song: come as you are. Are you dreaming of wearing again that beautiful dress or suit you only used for your cousin’s wedding? Do it. You feel comfortable in jeans and trainers? Don’t change a thing, no one will blame you for that. And in any case, everyone is looking at the stage and the audience’s plunged into darkness, so what's the point?

However, avoid wearing sparkly clothes with fuchsia sequins and glitter. No, it’s not forbidden, it just looks bad.

What does an orchestra conductor do?

People always ask the same question: they wonder about the role of the conductor. In order to answer this question in the simplest way possible, let's hear from the experts, such as composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who died on January 5, 2016:

“What’s important for me when conducting is the dialogue with a musician. The musician is waiting for you to give them an impulse. If you have no impulse and you are just mechanical, that is not going to inspire them. They are waiting for you to tell them their role. We need to find specific words for their motions”.

Why does the conductor shake hands only with certain musicians?

Standing on his podium, with his back facing the audience and the baton in his hand, the conductor looks like a real snob. The conductor monitors the movements and controls the tempo of the musicians. Once the music ends, he shakes hands with the good performers, often placed in the front row (what a coincidence...). We call these musicians soloists.

Now, seriously, if the conductor had to shake hands with the entire orchestra, the audience would have the time to leave the opera house, go to the locker room, take public transport, go home and brush their teeth. So, it’s better to give this privilege only to soloists.

Is it ok to bring food and drink?

Unfortunately, opera-pizzeria does not exist (if you're an entrepreneur, you might consider this). Fortunately, intervals do! It is not recommended to eat or drink during performances, to preserve the silence in the theatre. But you can always bring a snack to eat during the interval.

In the case of beverages, France makes this very clear: a few sips of water (with discretion) are ok. A pint of beer or a glass of champagne is not.Therefore, you will have to wait until the interval to enjoy soft drinks or a glass of wine.

Why do musicians always wear the same clothes?

So that the audience does not confuse the classical concert with a moment of happiness, of joy and colours. You think so? Or is it so that the musicians can blend in more easily? In a brief guide on concert etiquette published on this blog, musicologist Marc-André Roberge suggests:

• Black tailcoat or dinner jacket for men. With a white shirt, black bow tie, black bottom. And black dress shoes: “beautifully polished, with discreet soles and non-contrasting stitching”.

• And for the ladies, a black dress or long skirt, unslit. White three-quarter sleeves blouse. Black tights and moderately-high heels, with non-contrasting dress belt. For the hairdo, one should stay classic, with hair up so as to not compromise the performance.

Apparently, pianist Khatia Buniatishvili and violinist Nemanja Radulović are not particularly interested in dress codes...

Radulovic et Buniatishvili
Radulovic et Buniatishvili

Why are there (almost) no women conductors?

We might be tempted to list the greatest advocates of the (submissive) position of women in classical music, such as conductor Herbert von Karajan: “A woman's place is in the kitchen, not in the symphony orchestra”. Or Bruno Mantovani, director of the Paris Conservatory: “The profession of a conductor is a profession that is particularly physically testing, sometimes women are discouraged by the very physical aspect – conducting, taking a plane, taking another plane, conducting again. It is quite challenging”.

In reality, the issue of the underrepresentation of women in classical music is more complex. This is why we wrote an article about that: Women conductors: moving forward in small steps.

Is opera expensive? How long does an opera last?

Did you go to see the last American superhero film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? It lasts two and a half hours. Exactly like Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, which is going to be performed at the Paris Opera from 9 April (also, at the opera you have the interval…).

And how much did you pay for that? 14 euros if you live in Paris?! We cannot stress that too much: If you go to the opera once, you will not end up eating pre-cooked food for a month. This will only happen if you go every week, choosing the best (and most expensive) seat, but that's a whole other thing (it’s called addiction).

Everyone has a passion, everyone has a budget. Whether you are a fan of football, Céline Dion or famous restaurants, seeing La Traviata at the Opéra Bastille will not be more expensive than seeing your favourite team (or Céline Dion).

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