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Does dressing up improve opera experience? Some theaters toss out dress codes, other traditions

By Jeremy Reynolds, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: February 3, 2024, 6:04am
2 Photos
Patrons attend the Royal Opera House in London. Going to the opera or a classical music concert used to be a dress-up affair but standards have slacken in recent years.
Patrons attend the Royal Opera House in London. Going to the opera or a classical music concert used to be a dress-up affair but standards have slacken in recent years. (Dreamstime) Photo Gallery

Watching a crowd at the Royal Opera House in London is not like watching the crowd at a Pittsburgh Opera performance.

At the Royal Opera House, there’s a pervasive air of glitz and glamour, light flashing from satin tuxedo lapels and diamond earrings and glass and mirrors everywhere in the multi-tier lobby — this is very much a peacockish space to see and be seen and to be seen seeing.

There’s plenty of flash at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, a restored movie palace as opposed to a true opera house, but it’s cozier, more laid-back, with staff in the lobby to greet attendees, some in finery and many wearing jeans and T-shirts.

I attended Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Royal Opera House in November on a London junket to visit a friend — an experience that felt glossy and posh in a way that attending opera or classical music experience at many mid-sized American companies simply doesn’t anymore. Why?

Sasha Schwartz paints sets for Pittsburgh Opera’s latest production using UV reactive pain.

Opera companies have been battling for decades to dispel the idea that opera is for the “elite,” with some success. To those working in the opera industry, this stereotype is insidious and pervasive, one of the great barriers between opera and the masses.

Opera began as an art for the working class. “If only we could appeal to that broad swath once more, we’d engage new audiences,” industry professionals say, casting dress codes and some of opera’s more pretentious traditions out of the theater like moldy bread.

There’s something to that argument. Some of the famous operas of yore were indeed written as popular entertainment for the masses, and their success depended on both attendance and wealthy patronage. However, they’re too far removed from that context to be considered pop entertainment at this point.

Consider: Most traditional opera isn’t sung in English, placing greater emphasis on the musical elements. And while those musical elements were once drawn from the popular style and tunes of the day, say, 19th century Italy and Germany and Spain, they certainly aren’t in the vernacular now.

The historical veil of grand operas like “The Marriage of Figaro” or “Madame Butterfly” is difficult to dispel, no matter how welcoming companies are. Personally, I find that explaining to new attendees that the story is of less consequence than the drama of the music and the emotion of the overall experience can help people relax into the experience, which is utterly engrossing when done well.

Now back to the Royal Opera House, which has also eschewed its dress code but still retains an air of glamour nonetheless.

“Rigoletto” is a tragic staple about a womanizing duke and a father whose revenge goes terribly awry, set to bright, galloping music and sweeping dramatic melodies. The production oozed excellence. The voices were stunning and flexible. The orchestra was immaculate, the sets subtle but effective, the chorus energetic and precise. Intermission was a whirl of cocktails and ballgowns with buzz about some of the more outstanding soloists.

Anyone can enjoy such an experience. The idea that opera is expensive simply isn’t true anymore — it’s subsidized enough in most countries that there are always affordable tickets. Pittsburgh’s are less than $20, for example.

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Still, opera performed well is a sophisticated, difficult endeavor. Highly trained singers spin their voices out to thousands of ears without the aid of amplification, and dozens or hundreds of designers and artists collaborate to project a unified visual and aural aesthetic, from sets to costumes to choreography and more.

Stories and themes are subtle and complex, with the subtext written into the music rather than spelled out by dialogue. It’s not an art form for the “elite,” but there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the distinctions between opera and popular entertainment.

Apologizing for or arguing against the refinement and complexity of the experience robs opera of some of its potential to touch the soul. After all, one wouldn’t watch a historical documentary without expecting to need to pay attention to a timeline and the context of the film.

One wouldn’t attend a Broadway show and expect much highbrow pontification. Opera is somewhere in between — one can wander into the theater and marvel at the technical feat or be moved simply by the music without any advanced preparation. But engaging in the decorum of the evening can dramatically enhance one’s impression of a performance.

I’d never suggest a return to any sort of formal dress code, but emphasizing the quality of the experience and the refinement of a night at the opera shouldn’t be so blasphemous.