Folk won’t stop worrying about what to wear for opera, until we all stop talking about it | Opinion

Andrew Mellor
Monday, November 27, 2023

'It’s due partly to the class trappings that still linger around opera, partly to media representation of it and partly to the general aura that we, the opera crowd, tend to emit.'

That’s the problem with statistics: they tend to be spun by the sentences we wrap around them. Take, for example, recent research published by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra apropos modernising the way live performances of classical music are presented. ‘Music students,’ we were told by the press release, ‘wanted audiences to feel free to take photographs or film clips of a concert with their phones (21 per cent).’ Translation: 79 per cent of music students – the overwhelming majority, in other words – don’t necessarily want audiences to feel free to take photographs or film clips of a concert with their phones.

The RPO’s research got some traction in the classical music world by presenting some interesting new insights alongside some very old tropes. It hoisted up a whole raft of minority opinions with the suggestion that they should prompt immediate action. Among them was the assertion that a quarter of adults would be more likely to attend a classical music event if they didn’t have to dress up. Again, that means three quarters either want to dress up, don’t mind dressing up or don’t feel they have to dress up. Still, it’s frustrating that so many still think they have to.

The dressing up thing is particularly pertinent to opera, long associated with various forms of finery. There are plenty who enjoy dressing up for opera, for whom it adds to the atmosphere of what is often a rare treat. Equally, lots of people couldn’t give two hoots what clothes you should wear to sit inside a dark auditorium with nobody looking at you. I admit, I fall resolutely into the latter group, but I have absolutely no problem with those in the former. Surely, anyone who has acquired a ticket to see an opera should be allowed to watch that opera wearing whatever clothes they like, so long as they don’t cause obvious political or sexual offence.

That’s the way most of the world’s opera promoters think these days, too. But far from all, and you can see why the minority continue to cut through. It’s due partly to the class trappings that still linger around opera, partly to media representation of it and partly to the general aura that we, the opera crowd, tend to emit. And, of course, it’s because the opera industry can’t stop talking about dress. Opera companies the world over apparently remain so terrified about the perception of dress codes existing for opera that they spend a lot of time talking about dress codes for opera.

The most unedifying example of the latter was English National Opera’s Undress for Opera scheme, launched in 2012. As well as effectively introducing a dress code at the one UK opera venue least suited to it, the scheme reinforced the general notion that people still dress up for opera when, at the Coliseum, they generally don’t.

‘I don’t think I’ve worn anything but sneakers to see an opera for at least a decade’

The scheme led me to wonder whether, on Undress for Opera nights, Coliseum staff might have a stash of flip-flops and tracksuits to offer those who had committed the social faux-pas of turning up in ties and heels. If you had previously been worried about being under-dressed for an opera, now you could legitimately worry about being over-dressed, too. And what if you were wearing your Millwall shirt on a non-Undress night? It struck me as a colossal own goal to start prescribing what audiences should wear on a particular evening, when the only clothes that truly matter in any theatre are the ones on the stage.

Opera professionals don’t do us many favours in this regard. On 25 July, the UK’s flagship opera house posted a picture on social media of four couples enjoying a night out on its premises with the caption ‘We always love seeing how you make the most of your Royal Opera House trip.’ Three of the four couples were in evening wear, despite the ROH’s website encouraging ‘audiences and visitors to wear whatever they feel comfortable wearing’. At the very least, it’s mixed messaging.

A month earlier, the French soprano Julie Fuchs posted one of her typically savvy videos on Twitter (as it was called back then), this one titled ‘How To Opera’. How to dress for opera, for example? ‘I prefer comfy with chic accents,’ said Fuchs, looking suave, ‘I have even gone in sneakers.’ Sacré bleu! You’ve even gone in sneakers? To be honest, I don’t think I’ve worn anything but sneakers to see an opera for at least a decade. Are they still so risqué in Paris?

Regular operagoers will wear what they like to watch a show. Many others – more than three-quarters of us, if we’re to believe the RPO’s numbers – probably don’t fret much about it at all. That seems like a good reason to stop drawing unnecessary attention to an issue that can only make more people feel more uncomfortable.

And yes, I’m well aware of the irony of doing just that in this column. But I also know that as our societies change, on opera nights our minds will be whirring with more important questions than what anyone in the auditorium is wearing. @operalastnight 

 

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