I recently posted a video of Terry Gilliam explaining the inspiration for a new initiative at the English National Opera. They call it ‘Undress for the Opera’, and it is an attempt to not only attract a younger audience, but also seduce them once trapped in the Coliseum. Mr. Gilliam says that he considered the opera to be “art for the rich, the successful and almost dead” when he was young. He goes on to explain the hopes of ENO to change the perception of the culture by inviting new guests to turn up in anything they fancy, to enjoy cocktails, and to (in his words) “wear headphones” if you don’t like the music. Mixed messages, much? Anyway, I still like the idea. As you know, I stay up at night fretting over what will happen when all the money from the old people stops getting pumped into opera, classical music and ballet. It is imperative that these disciplines stay invigorated and its heart is pumped full of new blood. As Baronness Genista McIntosh said in 1997 when she was chief Executive to the Royal Opera House, “We don’t need more audience, so much as a different audience”. That was, and is, the ongoing struggle. ENO’s current Artistic Director John Berry states that 30% of their audience is currently under 44 years old and that they aim to raise that to 40% in the next year. Aggressive. But does the ENO have the right angle with ‘Undress’? Mr. Berry exclaimed, “Come in shorts, armour, jeans, pumps, anything!” Similarly, Damon Albarn, Blur frontman and spokesperson for the project says, “wear jeans and trainers”. Is there a level of desperation being conveyed from these statements, or should I just relax? Maybe it is time to rethink all notions of appropriateness and decorum; maybe it’s ok to go to court in a hoodie, or to church in mandals…. (Jesus wore them, right?)
But I digress. There are many appealing elements to the program: tickets are only £25, they are some of the best seats in the house, and will include pre-performance lecture, downloadable synopsis, and a meet and greet with the cast post-performance. A new Philip Glass work is included along with the standard fare of Don Giovanni and La Traviata. ENO is known for beautiful, cutting edge productions; they will undoubtedly be exciting and innovative. Last season, a new take on Faust attracted quite the interest, with 40% of tickets being sold to newcomers. That alone is extraordinary, and very promising. As Albarn said, “We are carrying into this century ideas that belonged to a previous generation and really it’s just a case of clarifying what the state of play is now and it’s quite clearly different and the more that word is spread the easier it will be to translate and bring in new ideas”. ENO claims to be the “Future of Opera”; this season will incorporate 3D media into a show, completely new staging and works. The success of initiatives such as ‘Undress for the Opera’ could be what we need to keep a thriving community. And that community, like the art itself, will evolve. Such evolution could lead to a burgeoning, integrative world of possibilities. So, maybe in the future we’ll wear yoga pants to Aida and drink aviations at intermission. It could have ended up much worse.