What’s It Like To Attend An Opera For The First Time In Florence

Why you should spend a night with Madama Butterfly at the St Mark’s Anglican Church.

You are inside a church, sitting on a wooden chair where the woven straw seat pokes through the fabric on the back of your legs. At the same time you do not want to move because this prickly cushion is still a hug for your body, your body that is questioning everything new around you. You know you are inside a church because you grasp onto the one familiar thing: holy bells and inviting choir voices practicing somewhere above you. Bells that ding so unforgivingly, like a fork scraping the side of a china plate. Bells that say, “I am here. Hear me.”

This space is the color red.

Madame Butterfly Florence
Church ceiling of the opera. PHOTO Amanda Dettmann

There is the dusty smell of decaying stones, and when you lean back in your croaking chair against the wall, pieces of gritty rock crumble to the back of your hairy head hitting them. You remember you are alone. You came alone. Your chair seems to no longer hold you. The rest of the audience gathers in, sandals scuffing silence. Raspy, flickering voices cut off the ends of phrases, throats tired and oxygen needed after what seems like a long day. You realize you are the youngest one here. Then “ahsdkfljaskfjl;jsfaj;lksfd.” Too many languages at once sacredly slap the air but caress you like a grandmother’s palm. Translated translations are being transcribed and “I don’t know what they’re saying, I don’t understand” produces goose-bumps on your neck. Red.

Male vibrato approaches, so rich and thick it sticks to your eardrums like extra virgin olive oil. The opera in the church begins. Everyone in the cast and audience breathes in unison. Rise and fall of breath, rise and fall of space and air while feeling full in song and spirit. The men sound strong, grounded. You grip the wooden pegs you are sitting on tighter, tighter. The opera crescendos. Intensifies. The sound swirls up so high, every note is lofty and circling and coming back down to catch you from above.

Madame Butterfly Florence
Opera program. PHOTO Amanda Dettmann

Rosso, rosso, rosso, red, red, red—the woman playing the mother belts so loud you could lick the blood from her wounds like peppermint candy. Your hands become hot and sweaty making the thatch seat itch under your fingertips. The mother’s voice is haunting, abrasive to your ears like chisel grinding into a statue. Red. You want to leave but squeeze the seat firmer. Red. You are not going anywhere. Red. She gasps for her dying daughter; she screams for her daughter’s husband who is left with nothing. Red. Her voice like scissors chopping the air. Red. She cuts into your presence, razor-edged song.

In this moment of operatic grief where all sound is sinking lower and faster and the octaves decrease and the major chords turn minor and your body is shaking on scratchy straw, you imagine the hand of someone you love.

His fingers enclose around yours and all noise is forgotten.

This is the first time you have touched in months.

His heartbeat through his damp palm pounds against your own. And you just grip and grip and grip. You cannot lose him again. Your hands are so tight you make a love-lock between skin. Unbreakable softness between hard, blistering hands. At the height of the opera is where the familiar overpowers isolation—where lovers become lonely in the story, you and your love become less alone in real time. Red, colored.

You are brought back into the show when you hear a sort of slumping quiet boom. A body falling on the ground? The scissor-shrieking song gradually dies down. Then, nothing.

Madame Butterfly Florence
Excited to see the show! PHOTO Amanda Dettmann

A soft crinkling through the air like fresh snow, and you catch the word “fiore” or “flower” in Italian, realizing some kind of petals are falling in this spiritual and theatrical space. Nervous feet scratch the smooth tiled ground.

You remember you have been squeezing the wooden sides of your chair all along. There are no other hands. There is no other person you know. You try to blink the wetness on your cheek away, hands undoing the lock-hold, once again resting gently against smooth wooden sides. Your ear canals continue to sing even after the wavering, vulnerable voices have stopped; the performance is now inside you forever. The hands of someone you love have hugged you again, even for a moment, even when you thought they never would.


So this is red. A wandering off course to find yourself where you have always been. A space that is both chaotic and peaceful: an opera inside a church.

Yes turns to sì.

You are finally at home in a foreign world.

Amanda spent four months in Florence, Italy.

Madame Butterfly Florence
The view after the opera. PHOTO Amanda Dettmann

Amanda Dettmann


Amanda is an avid traveler who calls Maine her home, but her favorite places include Amsterdam's Christmas markets and Shakespeare's Globe in London. She is passionate about poetry, theatre, and teaching writing to kids and adults with disabilities. She thinks the best part of traveling is hearing strangers' incredible stories. Her ultimate mission? To find the tastiest cappuccino in the world.

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