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Confessions of an opera virgin: Opera is for rich, wrinkly white folk. Right?

Our deputy editor visits the opera for the first time, despite his anxiety-inducing preconceptions

Don Carlo
© ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Opera is for rich, wrinkly white folk, whose cheeks are Bordeaux-blushed from dining at the Ivy, before being driven to the Opera House in their Rolls Royce for an evening of 'grown-up' entertainment. Right?

These were the slightly generalised preconceptions I held until I decided to bite the bullet and see my first opera last night. At the grand old age of 32, it's an art form that's eluded me despite being an avid theatregoer since exiting the womb stage right.

A combination of how opera is portrayed on screen - binocular-toting, tuxedo-wearing upper class elite... and Bond villains - and growing up in a small seaside town in which the only opera people knew was of the soap variety, meant that Verdi and co were simply not in my vocabulary.

I started to feel anxious. Was I dressed right? What on earth is a libretto?

So I took my embarrassingly limited knowledge and acquired a ticket to Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House. Little did I know, that at four hours and ten minutes, it's Verdi's longest piece, such a beast that it made him physically ill whilst writing it. This wouldn't be a baptism of fire, more a bath in a volcano.

You may wonder why I didn't plump for an easier option? London is awash with accessible opera, as helpfully rounded-up by Mark Valencia for his piece on opera for theatregoers, but if you wanted to sample the cuisines of a new and foreign land, you wouldn't head to McDonalds would you?

As the hours counted down to curtain - which was handily 6pm for this showing, something theatre could take note of - I started to feel a surge of anxiety. For the first time, I was scared about going to the theatre. Was I dressed right? What if I didn't understand what was going on? What if all the old rich people realised I was a poor imposter? What on earth is a libretto? Isn't Aria the younger sister in Game of Thrones?

Entering the foyer, my initial fears were stifled as I spotted three others of a similar age to myself. Maybe it's not like the films after all, I thought as I picked up my ticket. I smile at them, which in hindsight I realise was weird, before heading off to find my seat.

I realise that it's the show I've come to see, not Percy and Doris nodding off next to me

Walking into the red and gold glow of the Royal Opera House auditorium is an experience I won't forget. I'm used to the grandeur of theatres like Drury Lane and the Palladium, but this was something else. My awe soon shrivelled however as I cast an eye over the audience gathered in the stalls, a sea of heads containing more shades of grey than an E L James novel, suddenly I'm insecure again. In her best RP, my neighbour asks her companion if she has ever used email and I'm convinced this will be the longest four hours of my life.

But as the house lights dim and the orchestra begins, none of that matters. Because what follows is a beautiful production with some of the most talented performers in the world. It becomes apparent that opera is really not unlike other theatre on stages around the UK. In fact with the fluid direction of Nick Hytner, stunning designs by Bob Crowley and evocative lighting by Mark Henderson, its team have created some of my favourite moments of theatre. I realise that it's the show I've come to see, not Percy and Doris nodding off next to me.

As an opera sung in Italian, translated from a French-language libretto (I learnt that libretto is basically the book of the show), and based on a German play, I was understandably worried about following the story. But the surtitles make it surprisingly easy, and despite their being placed high above the stage, reading them soon becomes second nature. The four hours go by in a flash, two long intervals allow time to pop to Starbucks for a caffeine fix, and before long I'm bouncing back out of the doors and through Covent Garden planning which opera to see next.

So for those of you reading this that have yet to dip your toe into the mysterious ocean of opera, do it. Put aside any preconceptions and book a ticket. Yes tickets can be expensive, the seat I was sat in would usually cost over £200, but there are deals that will allow you to see shows from just £10. You may just find a whole new genre to spend your hard-earned cash on.

Don Carlo runs at the Royal Opera House on various dates up to 29 May 2017.

Book tickets exclusively for the new ENO season here