The famous Italian composer, Guisseppi Verdi once said ‘You may have the universe if I may have Italy.’ His country obviously felt the same about him, because in 1913 the Verona Opera Festival was founded to celebrate the composer’s birth.
Every year since then (with the exception of the war years) the music of Verdi, along with Puccini and other great names, has filled the remarkable ‘arena’, where Roman citizens once thrilled to a very different form of entertainment.
Related: The ancient history of Verona.
The world's most unique opera venue?
With seating for up to 20,000, people throng each evening to this first-century amphitheatre during July and August to hear some of opera’s greatest arias in one of the world’s most unique venues.
While once opera may have been regarded as the preserve of the cognoscenti, a night at Verona soon dispels any such concerns.
As you enter the arena through one of the many openings that dot its circumference and climb the steps, you find yourself on the threshold of another world.
Whether your seat is one of the modern fold-down metal seats affording what some may regard as the best view, up ‘in the Gods’ on the Roman stone steps, or in the stalls in the arena centre to see and be seen, the atmosphere is unforgettable.
Related: Top tips for visiting the opera in Verona
No microphones - just beautiful music
To alert the audience to the impending opera, a gong is sounded three times by one of the cast. And here we must pause to consider that opera at Verona is not amplified – no microphones, no sound system – just the singers and the orchestra and yet despite the size of the arena, it is relatively easy to hear.
Whether this is the case for those seated at the top it’s hard to say, but would not be surprising if it were.
As the orchestra tunes up, the conductor is greeted with typical Italian enthusiasm, cries of ‘bravo maestro’ filling the air (and they really mean it), and then it begins… During the overture you’ll find yourself fumbling for the candle you were given as you entered.
Once lit it joins thousands of others, twinkling and lending a unique magic to the arena as the music takes over. By the time the first words are sung, the audience are enrapt and you’re hooked.
An enraptured audience
What is so refreshing about Verona is the enthusiasm of the audience. Each aria is applauded (or otherwise) and there’s a wonderful tension as thousands of people listen to the world’s greatest vocal music.
Because the performance doesn’t start until 9pm, you’ve probably had a chance to wine and dine beforehand, leaving you ready to embrace the music – all very civilised.
At the end of the evening, which isn’t usually until after midnight, the audience make their way out into the Piazza Bra – the square that lies beyond the arena – and meander back to hotels and guest houses in the early hours.
If you’d enjoyed a pre-opera drink beforehand in one of the many cafes lining this charming square, you may well have encountered scenery from a previous opera which had been craned into the square, masquerading as a form of ad-hoc sculpture.
Stand beside it and you realise the huge scale of the scenery and props needed to fill the arena stage.
La Traviata, Aida, Tosca and more
As to the operas themselves, every one is different, every one as exciting as another. The performance of La Traviata in July 2016 was a symphony of light and shade, the scenery composed of massive picture frames, rising and falling to create minimalistic sets to enormous effect.
The enigmatic cast and the heart-rending tale of the doomed Violetta was enough to move the most stoic of audiences. Verona is of course particularly renowned for its performances of Verdi’s epic Aida, lasting some four hours.
If you have a taste for the contemporary, 2017 sees the return of Fura Del Baus – a cutting-edge Spanish company known for their futuristic interpretations – with a performance of Aida.
2017 also sees performances including Verdi’s Rigoletto and Nabucco, as well as other works including Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Tosca.
Beyond the opera...
Beyond opera and the arena lies the enchanting city of Verona. Historic and with a beautiful heart, it’s a city rich in associations. This is where Romeo and Juliet loved and lost, and from where Shakespeare’s two gentlemen based their pursuit of love.
It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site where 2,000 years of history await you, Roman remains sitting happily alongside Renaissance and later buildings.
Related: Top things to see in Verona
By day the city, by night the opera – together they become inextricably linked for the visitor in search of beauty, history and music and where a dream can become a reality.
Experience a night at the Verona opera yourself on a special interest holiday with Saga.