Several companies in Los Angeles have strived to recreate this custom, but it hasn't always been easy. Ticket prices are one thing (dozens of singers in fancy costumes can't always come cheap), but there's also getting the public to commit the time.
"They're generally going to be at least three hours of your life, just sitting there," says Josh Shaw, artistic director of Pacific Opera Project, which was founded in July 2011. "They're from a different era, so if you don't really make them entertaining from start to finish... [Plus, in L.A.], we're competing [with] 400 other events that night."
From cutting scenes and modernizing settings to creative locales and fudging the definition of "opera," here's how some local companies are offering operatic splendor at bargain-basement prices.
5. Casa Italiana
The grand dame of this bunch, Casa Italiana in Chinatown was founded in 1971 and is the city's oldest-running small opera company. Now under the helm of artistic director Janet DeMay, the company of volunteers' mission is to "blend the energy of new emerging talent with the seasoned skills of more mature singers, bringing opera to Los Angeles that has vitality, professionalism and musical excellence." This comes in the form of a full-course Italian banquet dinner, followed by a show.
Their next opera, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, is Nov. 11. Tickets for dinner and the performance are $50.
4. Pacific Opera Project
"People ask what's your next opera going to be, what's your next setting going to be? And I always say it depends on what we find on the side of the road," says Shaw, who makes ends meet by working for free, moving into a space that has ample storage and becoming a Craigslist devotee. "We've never had a set budget over $800," he says, and POP tries to keep tickets around $30.
Starting this past weekend and running through Nov. 4, the company will perform Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd -- first in Pasadena and then in Santa Monica. Is it a traditional opera? No, admits Shaw.
"Opera companies have done it over the years, but it's really a musical," says Shaw. "But we knew people would come see it because there was a Johnny Depp movie and it would get them in the door."
One of the more avant-garde opera companies in Los Angeles is The Industry, which artistic director Yuval Sharon created with the goal (according to its mission statement) of presenting "new and experimental productions that merge music, visual arts, and performance in order to expand the traditional definition of opera and create a new paradigm for interdisciplinary collaboration."
The company performed the "hyperopera" Crescent City in May and Sharon says their next full-scale opera will be in fall 2013, with "two new performance initiatives that will premiere in March and May of 2013" (although he is deliberately vague on more details, instead asking those interested to follow the company's Facebook page).
Despite the pressure of performing new work with a new company, Sharon is committed to keeping ticket prices low.
"Opera for me is not an elitist art form, although the act of going to the opera, especially in this country, is linked in so many people's minds to luxury goods. Anything we can do to challenge that assumption -- including accessible ticket prices -- offers a way to keep the conversation centered on the art."
2. Opera on Tap
Can a soprano sing so high she'll break your drink glass? Even more reason to down that booze quick while enjoying the creative cabaret of the Los Angeles chapter of Opera on Tap.
Held at the Room 5 Lounge on La Brea, the performances from a mix of professional and student opera singers opt against full-on, bustiers-and-all performances for thematic nights like "Papa, ti amo" (for those with Daddy issues) and "Dueling Divas."
Its second-annual Halloween party is Oct. 28 and, according to its website, poses the important question: "What's more frightening than an evil witch, flesh eating zombie or chainsaw wielding serial killer? A soprano with an axe to grind, that's what!" Finding out for sure will set you back eight bucks.
1. Vineyard Touring Opera
A nod to their theatrical ancestors, Vineyard is a touring company that travels around the Southland to bring the opera to you. While they recently performed Puccini's three-act opera Tosca in full, this time around the mix of professionals, amateurs and aspiring talent is having a little fun.
On Oct. 27 in Claremont and Nov. 3 in Santa Monica, they'll perform Imposters of Opera, what they're calling "a humorous introduction to some very famous music sung by characters who are not what they seem," and a fully-staged English translation of Puccini's one act comedy, Gianni Schicchi
"This program is designed very specifically to be user friendly for people who are not opera aficionados," says artistic director Alan Medak. "The Gianni Schicchi is being performed in English. Instead of 13th century Florence, it's being performed in 1960s Glendale and the costumes will be a la Mad Men."
General admission tickets for either show are $10, with reserved seating for $20.