Yesterday, London’s English National Opera announced their new ‘Undress for Opera’ scheme to try and target younger audiences. Led by Terry Gilliam and Damon Albarn, ENO is trying to dispel the common myths about opera – that it’s expensive, snobby, and old-fashioned. For 25 pounds, you get a good seat, access to a synopsis and pre-show chat, as well as a post-show drink with with the cast and crew, all the while wearing whatever you want! Wow! Now, it’s not like we haven’t heard this all before – opera companies have been trying to attract younger audiences for years (as they should), and most of these are common and arguably successful methods. However, what seems to be setting this particular campaign apart is the veritable media and social media frenzy that has ensued. A number of articles have already been published, criticizing the scheme for not being respectful of the opera or democratic (Rupert Myers, in the Guardian), along with a rather more entertaining article questioning why opera companies should attract young audiences at all, since we all have “no money, and when [we] do [we] spend it all on super-strong alcohol, rolling tobacco and condoms” (I’m not even kidding – that was Bryony Gordon, who proudly proclaims that she’s never been to the opera, in the Telegraph). Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair – both articles make fair points, and it’ll be interesting to see how this works out for ENO.
The largest debate seems to be about the dress code – do we have to dress up, or is it alright to show up in jeans? The thesis of Myers’ article is that dressing up is both democratic and respectful. He argues that contrary to its ‘elite’ image, dressing up in fact democratizes the audience. Buying a blazer or cocktail dress doesn’t have to be expensive, and somehow ‘equalizes’ the audience and prevents you from being judged. And therein lies the problem – why should I be judged if I don’t show up to a performance in a suit? Myers states correctly that most opera houses don’t have a formal dress code anymore, but in many ways the fellow audience’s judgement is far stricter. There have been times where I’ve had a full day of class, rushed home to change into a dress shirt and a nice pair of dark jeans, only to have some well-dressed lady snarkily proclaim that “teenagers know nothing about opera”. Why should the audience be equalized, anyways? If opera houses are truly trying to appeal to a diverse audience, it’s wrong to force everyone to conform to one social group’s expectation of ‘proper’ dress, no matter how cheap or easy that dress code is to attain.
Myers’ second point is that audience members should dress up to show respect not only for the performers, but also to show respect for the occasion. I think it’s important that we not only show respect for the cast and crew, but as long as I don’t show up in dirty, ripped clothes, I can’t see that being seen as disrespectful. Honestly, I don’t think that Netrebko looks out into the audience every evening to see who’s wearing jeans or dress pants. I would even argue that we must dress a certain way to respect our fellow audience members – don’t go to the opera straight from the gym without showering, and conversely don’t go to the opera having bathed yourself in cologne. Yes, it’s important to be well-groomed and neat, but I take issue with Myers’ inference that because I’m not showing up in a suit and tie, I don’t care about the performance.
To be honest, I’m torn on the issue of dress codes in relation to younger audiences. Yes, many teenagers are attracted by the glamour of the event, and enjoy having an opportunity to dress up and have fun. However, that reinforces the idea of opera as an ‘event’ – a special occasion with a special set of rules. However, if we want to cultivate younger audiences as regulars, I think we need to prove that opera doesn’t HAVE to be an event. Yes, feel free to dress up, but if want to show up in a t-shirt and jeans, that’s alright as well. That way, audiences don’t see opera as a chore in any way – it’s just as easy as going to a movie.
The last word should go to Jessica Duchen, who succinctly states that ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the audience wears. The primary reason why people find opera intimidating is because they’re not exposed. The most important thing for an opera house is to present an interesting, thought-provoking performance with musical integrity, and nobody will even notice what their neighbour is wearing.