ENO’s attempts to de-frock opera are well-intentioned but utterly self-defeating
That’s right folks, the itchy issue of what you should wear to sit in a dark auditorium with nobody looking at you has raised its pesky head again. Last week English National Opera announced it was encouraging people to wear what they like to watch their shows – which, apart from the fact that most people who go to ENO appear to do that anyway, sounded pretty sensible to me.
Until I discovered that ENO’s new initiative is not so much about encouraging freedom of dress as the exact opposite. What ENO are doing with their ‘Undress for Opera’ scheme is creating the first dress code in their history. For certain performances audience members will be given a guiding hand on what to wear. It’s not too clear what garments are expected, though the words ‘jeans’ and ‘trainers’ are cropping up rather a lot. You’d think, given that’s what most people on this continent wear every day, that such a directive might not be necessary.
But necessary it has been deemed. Turn up to one of the designated ‘undress’ shows and if you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, you’d better not forget your jeans and trainers. Maybe if you’re coming straight from the bank or the classroom some kind gentleman from the ENO box office might have some Nikes and Levi's you could borrow for the evening; you could even persuade him to keep an eye on your jacket and tie for the duration.
I’m sorry to be facetious, but the fact is this: the only clothes that matter in any opera house are the ones on the stage. I applaud ENO for wanting to appear more open: it’s been a PR coup getting Damon Albarn to talk so incidentally about his opera-going, and none of these initiatives are designed to please diehard opera goers, let alone journalists (and nor should they). But pigeonholing certain performances for a particular audience type will castrate the atmosphere at the other shows and divide the admirably varied (but not varied enough) ENO audience.
More than that, though, a policy like this undermines the central founding purpose of ENO and creates a false impression among potential opera-goers that dressing up at the Coliseum is the norm. It isn’t – and if you read Susie Gilbert’s fascinating history of ENO, Opera for Everybody, it’s fair to assume it never has been. English National Opera, south of the river, at Sadler’s Wells, and now on St Martin’s Lane, always existed to perform great operatic work for all-comers and to enforce that in both its ticket prices and its lack of rubric. If certain shows have a casual dress code, what does that mean for those of us who would normally dress down on any night? Shouldn’t we, in a hectic city like London, be encouraging our populace to attend any show in a run of operas – whichever one is most convenient for them?
And don’t get me started on the Edwardian notion that freedom of expression through clothes means jeans and trainers – this clumsy, patronising nonsense makes the opera world look as creative and irreverent as the accounting industry, while also suggesting its bosses don’t walk the streets surrounding their theatres.
I sat in the Coliseum last weekend and watched ENO’s production of Martinů’s Julietta. Surrounding me were a load of people wearing…well hang on, it doesn’t matter what they were wearing, and from memory I didn’t even notice anyway. What mattered was that there were lots of us there who would probably choose to express ourselves in different ways, but that night we were all silenced and gripped by the intense beauty and brilliance of what was happening on the stage – musicality, physicality, design and yes, dress. It was a show so typical of this company, and it transcended anything so petty as a dress code. So does ENO. Or so I thought.
Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.