What to wear to the opera? Nothing’s changed

What to wear to the opera? Nothing’s changed


norman lebrecht

October 03, 2017

The Telegraph has run a slightly queasy feature titled ‘What to wear for a stylish night at the opera’ (as distinct from the usual dowdy nights).

So far as I can see not much has changed in half a century, but a quick search leads me to this busily entertaining debate on the ROH website, where one patron advises ‘put your good jeans and that nice shirt of yours on’ and another sniffs: ‘If people can afford the eye-watering Opera prices – and, to a lesser extent, the cost of a ballet ticket – they can afford to dress sufficiently well not to cause offence. ‘




  • Adrienne says:

    Rubbish like this, predictably dragging in Glyndebourne, which is hardly typical, undermines the hard work of those trying to attract new audiences.

    But then the DT is a rag these days.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    When the cost of a pair of jeans can be nearly as much as an opera ticket, and more than a ballet one and a dinner suit can cost as little as the cost of a couple of sandwiches at ROH it has long struck me that it is easier to be offended by the sniff of moth balls emanating from certain sections of the audience then the waft of denim and linen, not to mention trainers, some of which can cost more than a General Package in the Orchestra Stalls.

  • Michael Smith says:

    The article completely fails to mention the black tie/white tie conundrum. Useless.

  • Alex Davies says:

    Essentially a fashion story rather than an opera story. The article could usefully have made the point that Glyndebourne is very much the exception. Nobody really gives two hoots what you wear to Covent Garden or the Coliseum these days. Showing a photo of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall attending ENO is ridiculously misleading. The only person I’ve ever seen dressed like that at ENO is the front of house manager!

    These things do really matter. Every time I go to the Royal Opera House, which is quite often, I see at least one young couple sitting in some of the cheapest seats who have clearly spent more on a flashy outfit to wear to the opera than they have on their seats. First, I suspect that they tend to feel a little silly when they realise that they are the only people in the house who have dressed up as if to go to a ball. I also wish that they had spent more money on better seats or on cheap seats for more events. I also wonder for how long they have been delaying what must be their first trip to the opera, perhaps put off by what they imagine is a strict dress code.

    Of course, there will always be people who consider enforcing a strict dress code to be an essential part of maintaining standards, but for people like me, and I suspect that I am in the great majority, the real concern is whether anybody will come to the opera in 30 or 40 years’ time (ballet audiences seem likely to be more resilient, but I have some concerns there too). If opera is going to survive into the second half of the century we need to get younger people and people from all walks of life going to hear it live. More than 40% of the population of London are black, Asian (overwhelmingly meaning south Asian), or mixed race, and yet when I go to the opera the vast majority (probably more than 99%) of people in the audience are white or east Asian. It’s not just that people can’t afford it: people from all walks of life find the money for comparably expensive activities like seeing West End shows, pop and rock gigs, and football. I honestly think that a lot of people don’t realise that the opera house is there for them too.

    Very few things annoy me at the opera, and they would include people making distracting noise, people leaning forward for a better view and thereby placing their head in the way of my view of the stage, mobile phones ringing, people taking photos during the performance and in some instances recording the performance, and people observing sufficiently poor personal hygiene to be offensively smelly. What people wear really doesn’t bother me, as long as they are actually coming to the opera now and in the future.

    • bratschegirl says:

      Hear, hear!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Well, it is a matter of education programs. And one could think of a racist introductory program: if a white person brings with him/her a coloured one, the newling gets in for free. Or; any coloured person gets a free ticket for the first 2 or 3 times, after which he/she can take following tickets with a race reduction. No doubt that would increase the audience’s diversity.

      And as offensiveness goes: as often such things happen to be on the stage.

  • Bruce says:

    If dressing up is fun for you, then do it. If not, then don’t.

  • Maria says:

    I wish the UK would stop obsessing over opera audiences, what they wear, their alleged true motives for going, etc. Unfortunately, the word “opera” is like kryptonite to some. I grew up with people who knew all about opera audiences but had never been with half a mile of an opera house.

    Articles like this don’t help. Fortunately, the BBC seems to have dropped the library footage of a gala night audience which was used to accompany every opera story. Perhaps because they don’t bother with opera stories any more.

  • Bill says:

    A bit of an old chestnut from the dreadful rag that the DT has become. As an orchestra player myself I love to look out at the audience and see such a pleasing diversity of clothing. Wear a suit if it makes you happy, ditto jeans. All I ask is attentive listening, no phones and applause if you enjoyed it.
    Obviously for work I wear what is instructed. Only soloists can get away with doing their own thing. Personally I hate white tie and tails, don’t like a DJ and which idiot ever thought that the stain-magnet that is a white tux is a good idea for anything at all?
    You’ll be hard pressed to find many restaurants with a dress code these days. Quite right too! Do the same everywhere. I have a simple rule outside of work-if a dress code is mentioned, I ignore it or just don’t bother to go.
    There’s no chance of encouraging new audiences to opera, ballet or whatever if there’s even a hint of the old snobbery. Audiences of the world unite and ditch your ties!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. And as for the white ties and tails, it’s an awful tradition: our boss regularly visits his club at Pall Mall in white tie and tails, which have to be prepared immaculate days beforehand, which gives us quite some work, and when it comes back it’s all stained and very crumpled – and smelling of the 2005 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-Du-Pape. What are they doping at the Athenaeum? It’s not chamber music, as we are told.


  • Garech de Brun says:

    I like to wear my bespoke evening tails from Dunmore & Locke, trousers with silk side banding, finest facecloth, Marcella shirt with Mother of Pearl studs, white waistcoat, 3 buttons, white silk gloves, scarf, silk topper from Locks, dark navy cloak red lining with gold chain clasp and my ebony gold topped cane with my Crest engraved on it.

  • Sarah says:

    Here in Minnesota the percentage of the audience wearing Nordic-inspired sweaters is in inverse proportion to the outside temperature. And as for the matinee “comfort crowd” – well, I’m just glad they feel well enough to attend for as long as possible.

  • Stephen says:

    I can remember in the great years of Solti that a man in the gallery wore trousers held up with a piece of string. He was no good looker but was always accompanied by a blonde bimbo.