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Of all the social skills critical to living in Milan, the mother ship of them all is a concept known as bella figura. More or less translatable as cutting a fine figure, it embraces not just how one dresses, but also manners and comportment. Wearing track pants downtown would, for example, be the polar opposite of bella figura. Not even when popping out to the corner store for milk, please. Ditto using the familiar tu form prematurely. Or offering to help clear the table when you’re at someone’s house for dinner, even with a good friend.

Setting up; don't let the plastic chairs fool you

So what this got to do with opera? Well, I thought the concept was more of a Milanese thing until I went to the open air opera in Varese Ligure. It’s put on every summer in the centre of the medieval borgo. A stage is set up, plastic chairs are brought in, and for several weeks they pack the place. The first summer that my daughter and I decided to go, I had dressed in casual pants (not jeans!) and a light sweater. With plastic chairs, how dressy could it be? But when I happened to mention to my landlady that we were headed to the event she looked at me and, in a tone that sounded an awful lot like my mother, said “not dressed like that, surely?

Quick as a wink I said no, of course not, and rushed upstairs to put on a dress.

Figaro understood bella figura

And I have to say, the performance totally warranted the extra measure of respect that dressing for the occasion implies. Rather than the amateurish local production I was expecting, it was one of the best operas I’ve ever attended, with stunning voice quality. The opera was The Barber of Seville; for the first time ever, I actually understood what Figaro was going on about in his famous ‘factotum’ aria. It was as easily entertaining as watching a modern musical.

If you’d like more information on the Varese summer opera, here’s the link: http://www.liricavareseligure.org/galleria_3.html  It’s an exceptional night out. But wear something nice!