Teatro La Fenice is the grand opera house in Venice, Italy. Going to a performance here is a great way to beat the crowds in this over-touristed city of gondolas and canals. Here is my totally honest guide to planning an opera trip to Venice, including:
- how to buy tickets for an opera at Teatro La Fenice
- what is the dress code at Teatro La Fenice
- how to enjoy the opera at Teatro La Fenice
- what NOT to do on at opera trip to Venice
But first, a bit of history.
An Opera House that Rose from the Ashes
La Fenice means “the Phoenix.” Indeed, the theater on this spot has burnt down four times since the 1700s and risen from the ashes, just like the mythical bird. It was common for opera houses to catch fire in the days of candlelight, when scenery was made from papier-maché and fabric. The most recent fire, during a 1996 renovation, was blamed on workers who may have set it to create an excuse for project delays — and never expected the whole place to explode in flames. Complicating matters, the canal behind the theater had been drained, so firefighters could not tap the water to save the building.
Proud Venetians collected money to rebuild “where it was, as it was.” But legal wrangling and the death of the architect delayed the reopening until 2003. The theater you enjoy today feels classic but entirely new.
How to Buy Tickets for an Opera at Teatro La Fenice
It’s easy to check the schedule and buy tickets on the website of Teatro La Fenice. I recommend looking for tickets at least three or four months ahead of your trip to have the best selection. Or even have a chance of getting two seats together. A popular opera like Verdi’s La Traviata might sell out months in advance. Only the most expensive seats might be available at the last minute.
Even if you end up paying equivalent of about $200 USD or more for decent seats, it’s comparable to what you’d spend at most opera venues in the US and Europe. And less expensive than Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where we splurged for the most expensive box seats. And yeah, my son and I are opera geeks who considered it money well spent.
What are the best seats at Teatro La Fenice?
I’m a short person who prefers not to sit in “the stalls” on the ground floor of the theater where tall people can block my view, even from the most expensive seats. Higher up in the galleries will be less expensive. I try to snag the first or second row of the balcony. Sitting too far in front on the sides of the theater will limit your view of the stage and the titles (in English) above it. But it can be cool to feel like you are closer to the performers, or have a bird’s eye view of the orchestra pit.
If I decide to spring for seats in a private box, I’ll pay a little more for the two chairs in the front. Sitting further back means you’ll be looking around the back of someone’s head for the entire opera. It is strictly forbidden to rearrange the seats.
Stranger Danger: To avoid scams or a considerable markup, I follow the theater’s warning to buy tickets ONLY from the official website. Some websites selling La Fenice “admission” are really tickets for a guided tour of the building when no opera is going on. You might get lucky if your tour happens to be during a rehearsal, but that’s a long shot.
What is the Dress Code for Teatro La Fenice?
Black tie — meaning tuxedo and evening gown — is only recommended on the opening night of the season. Italians also dress up for the premiere of a new opera production: formal dress for ladies, suit and tie for men. On other nights, you’ll fit right in with a smart “business casual” look. Think button-down shirts for the gents, pantsuit or festive dress for the women. Jeans are allowed and afternoon performances are a bit more relaxed. However, don’t be too informal. The website clearly states that “people wearing shorts or sleeveless T-shirts will not be allowed inside the auditorium. And in this case, tickets will not be reimbursed.”
High Water Warning: The theater is located in one of the low-lying areas of Venice that is prone to flooding during extremely high tides. This can occur anytime of year, but is most common from October to January. The performance will go on unless the tide is 140 cm above sea level. The theater recommends bringing or wearing rubber boots any time the tide is expected to reach or surpass 100 cm. You can find tide information on the city of Venice website.
How to Enjoy an Opera at Teatro La Fenice
Before you go to the theater, take a moment to look up the synopsis of the opera online. My son the writer, Andrew Anzur Clement, has a series of opera talks on YouTube. They’re full of snarky comments about crazy opera plots and fun facts about the composers, seasoned with a variety of swear words. So if that’s your thing, please subscribe.
Look around for a poster that will list the singers in the main roles, the conductor, the director, the scene designer, etc. At La Fenice it was in the foyer, at La Scala it was outside the theater. Take a picture of it with your phone. Most European opera houses don’t give out free program leaflets with casting and synopsis like you might expect in the US.
We presented our tickets to an usher who had a key to open our locked box. She motioned to the two seats in the front row. Our box-mates arrived later and left before the end of the opera, probably because it wasn’t much fun being in the back of the box behind our heads.
We saw La Fille du Regiment by Donizetti at La Fenice. The opera-savvy audience eagerly anticipated the famous aria that requires the tenor to hit High C eight or nine times. When he did, the crowd went nuts. So he did it AGAIN. This would have kept on going indefinitely, except I think that there’s a limit of one encore in the modern day.
At the interval, quickly leave your box and head to the bar to avoid the line. Have some euros or a payment card handy to refresh yourself with a mineral water or the house sparkling wine, aptly named Bel Canto. Historically, these splendid rooms were the place where the opera houses made money on gambling during intermission.
What NOT to do at Teatro La Fenice
Do not be late. If the opera has already started, you will likely not be seated until the interval.
Do not forget to silence your phone and put it away during the performance. Do not take photos or try to record anything while the opera is going on.
Stranger Danger: Be aware of your surroundings at all times on your way to and from the theater. I stopped for just a brief second to inquire about a restaurant reservation. That was all the time it took for someone to open my purse and steal the opera tickets I had printed out at home! Fortunately, my money and ID were safe in a secret pocket at the back of the handbag. But how would we get into the theater without tickets? What if the thief resold our tickets and we arrive to find someone else in our pricey box seats?
Not to worry. The box office had a record of our purchase in the computer and issued new tickets. No one tried to sit in our seats. Another reason to buy only from the official website. And do not let your guard down for even one second while sightseeing in Venice.
What I HATE About Venice, Italy
I’ve visited Venice five times. Each time I try to love it and I really, really don’t. A few hours spent enjoying an opera in lush surroundings is a welcome escape from throngs of tourists blocking the streets while staring at their phones or competing for selfies. Even when I was a college student with a little paper map, I could never find my way around. The directions on my phone never seem to match the actual names on the street signs. If feels like lots of people are out to overcharge visitors or rip them off.
Venice keeps threatening to impose tourist taxes on day trippers. Or crack down on the gigantic cruise ships that overload the city with tourists who eat and sleep on the boat, contributing very little to the local economy. So far, it hasn’t helped.
How to Beat the Crowds in Venice: If it’s your first time in Venice you can see the major sights — Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge — in a day. I’d stand in line to get inside St. Mark’s Basilica or pay extra for a skip-the-line ticket. Otherwise, I plan to get up early to enjoy the less-crowded streets and the smell of fresh-baked bread with the sturdy souls who still manage to live here.
My strategy is to visit for only one or two days, have a couple of overpriced meals, see the opera and leave. I also avoid the peak summer tourist season (the opera is closed in August). Even the fall and spring can be crowded. Winters are relatively mild and you’ll have more space to enjoy yourself.
Getting to Venice: On this trip, we arrived by Tripstair van from Ljubljana, the charming capital city of Slovenia. We had to stop at a couple of airports (Marco Polo and Treviso), but Tripstair was the only van service that would take us all the way into the Piazzale Roma in Venice. Other bus/van services drop you in Mestre, the huge transport center on the mainland that is connected to Venice by bridge, requiring a separate ticket.
We chose not to drive in a rental car because parking is a problem once you get to Venice, where you can’t drive at all. You can also reach Venice by seasonal ferries from coastal towns in Slovenia or Croatia. I did a day trip to Venice on a hyrdofoil from Poreč and was more than ready to leave after lunch and a few hours of sightseeing.
Where to Stay in Venice, Italy
There’s a wide choice of hotels in Venice, from crazy to mildly expensive. My opera trip strategy is to stay in the San Polo neighborhood midway between the Piazzale Roma transport station and the Rialto Bridge. That way I can walk everywhere and not worry about a pricey water taxi or wrangling with the ACTV ticket machines. We reserved a homey apartment on AirBnb. It’s a good idea to be on a higher floor because ground level apartments can be musty from flooding during high tides. Also, pack light! You’ll have to lift your bags up and down stairs to cross the many footbridges over the canals.
Not far from Venice by bus or train is the historic town of Padua. It’s the home of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of Lost Things. You could save money on accommodations by staying in Padua and taking the one-hour train or bus to Venice for the day. In that case, buy tickets to an afternoon opera performance. For more opera tips, check out this unforgettable trip to Milan, plus a not-so-great experience at the opera festival in Verona. Consider what’s on at the Teatro Verdi in Trieste. Or plan an opera trip to Paris to see performances in two different opera houses in one weekend!
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