If I had to name one truly unique experience to be had in my native town, one thing in particular would come to mind: attending an opera in the Verona Arena. And even if you don’t know anything about opera, if you can’t tell a baritone from a soprano or have never heard of Verdi, Puccini or Donizetti, there are still a thousand and one reasons not to miss the opportunity.
Opera is usually most at home in theatres. Yet, every summer for over a hundred years, the Roman Arena in Verona, with its two thousand years of history, has been the setting of one of the most renowned opera festivals in the world. In front of thousands of spectators (up to 13,000 when it’s sold-out) without a roof over their heads, the singers have to project their voices up to the last row without the aid of microphones.
This spectacular setting also has another big advantage: the stage is very large. As a result, it lends itself to grandiose scenery. Directors (such as Franco Zeffirelli, who for years has produced a signature version of Bizet’s Carmen) can play with full-scale reconstructions of palaces and pyramids (such as in Verdi’s Aida set in ancient Egypt) or using a large number of extras.
Productions at the Arena are a great collective effort involving thousands of people and not just on the artistic front. As soon as I was old enough, I worked for several years at the Arena Opera Festival like many other young people my age. I used to dress in a tuxedo every night and stood at Gate Number 1 letting the audience in and checking tickets.
There are dozens of security guards, nurses, people selling things and first responders (often someone may be taken ill with the heat). And then there’s the required crew like technicians and drivers. They’re the ones who have to disassemble the complex scenery every evening as soon as the show is over, preparing for the next night by the time the curtain goes up.
The backstage is a city within a city. A small army of tailors, makeup artists and costume designers work full out to ensure that the artists are always perfect for their scenes from an aesthetic point of view. Then, it’s up to the performers to give their best in terms of their interpretations on the stage. It’s one that’s been trod in recent decades by all the biggest opera stars from Maria Callas to Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras.
Arena tickets are divided into basically into two categories: numbered and unnumbered ones. The former can be particularly expensive, but being closer to the stage allows you to see and hear better. Moreover, it allows you to arrive up to a few minutes before the start of the show.
Unnumbered tickets are available at particularly good prices, but you need to be prepared. You have to cue up as early as the afternoon if you want the best places. One needs to take into account that it can get particularly hot under the sun in July and August while waiting on the stone steps of the Arena (you can hire pillows inside to sit on). That said, despite being further away from the stage, you have a spectacular view of the amphitheatre from the steps and the acoustics are often great too.
It is not the sun or hot weather which is the main challenge with all the events at the Arena, but the rain. At the first drop, the orchestra stops playing and the musicians run indoors to put away their valuable instruments. After the cloudburst, the performance picks up where it left off, unless the disruption is not a fleeting one. In that case, the show is cancelled and the tickets refunded.
The rain in the Arena can be a rather frustrating experience, but you have to be resigned to it and a little patience. Sometimes you have to wait late into the night before hearing the famous chorus of Nabucco, “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate …“. But, it will definitely be worth it.