Long life

Dressing up for the opera is not elitist

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

It’s June, and the country-house summer opera festivals are now in full swing. Glyndebourne, which opened the season last month, has now been joined by its leading emulators — Garsington in Oxfordshire, The Grange in Hampshire and Longborough in Gloucestershire; and next month a newcomer, Winslow Hall Opera in Buckinghamshire, will be putting on La Traviata with much the same cast that shone last year in its greatly admired production of Lucia di Lammermoor. The gentry in dinner jackets and long dresses are already flouncing about on lawns throughout England.

It’s always seemed odd to me that people should wear evening dress for the opera in the countryside in the afternoon when they wear any old thing to attend opera in the evening in grand metropolitan opera houses, and even odder that this should be encouraged by opera festivals that say they want to attract more of the young and uninitiated. At one stage, by contrast, English National Opera actually urged its audiences to turn up in jeans and trainers to make them feel at their ease. To be fair to the summer festivals, none of them requires that their visitors come dressed as penguins, but most of them generally choose to do so.

It is a tradition started in 1934 by John Christie when he founded the Glyndebourne opera out of love for his wife, the opera singer Audrey Mildmay. Christie believed it was incumbent on audiences to dress formally out of respect for the artists who had worked so hard on their behalf. Glyndebourne, while not insisting on it, still says on its website that ‘formal evening dress is customary’; and its successors, aspiring to the same sort of social cachet that Glyndebourne acquired, do not discourage it.


I have a personal reason for not wanting to wear evening dress, which is that my dinner jacket is so old, scruffy and unfashionable-looking that I’d rather not be seen in it, and also that I have more or less forgotten how to knot a bow tie. But there is no doubt about it — people who have splashed out on tickets to a country-house opera want to make it an occasion to remember and find it all the more memorable if they are togged up in their best finery. And there is a school of thought that holds that evening dress, far from being elitist, is on the contrary a social leveller.

At the time of ENO’s ridiculous campaign to get its audiences to dress even further down than they did anyway, Rupert Myers argued in the Guardian that the dinner jacket was in fact a very democratic outfit, not only because it was cheap to buy at Marks & Spencer but also because having a dress code meant that ‘you know in advance what you’re supposed to wear, rather than having to spend some time working out what might be acceptable, only to be condemned silently for misjudging an unwritten code when you arrive’.

Some serious music-lovers maintain, however, that evening dress is worn only by people who don’t really like opera but see it as a prestigious social event like the races at Ascot. Gus Christie, the grandson of John Christie, who now runs Glyndebourne, takes the opposite view that evening dress makes audiences ‘more receptive to what they are coming to see’. Yet another argument for dressing up is that it somehow binds audience and artists together, making them all seem part of the same glamorous show. But this carries little conviction when so many modern opera productions lack any kind of glamour.

So where do I stand on all this? It doesn’t really matter; but, although I once suggested to the late Sir George Christie, Gus’s father, that he should actually ban evening dress from Glyndebourne, I have grown more tolerant with time. I may not enjoy wearing a dinner jacket myself, but I wouldn’t want to stand out or cause offence by going to Glyndebourne without one. I will therefore wear one again at Glyndebourne this year, but probably not at Longborough or Garsington where the custom is much less strictly observed. On the other hand, it would seem petty and churlish to object to other people wearing evening dress if they feel like it. It’s up to them, and why shouldn’t they?

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Show comments
  • MildredCLewis

    99$/hour@spectator

    >/

  • Paul B

    One should give one’s servants time off to attend the opera. It’s a great social leveller.

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  • Precambrian

    Evening dress and morning dress are uniforms and as such equalise everyone present. This fact is lost on many though, who think the casual free-for-all equalises when in fact it becomes a competition.

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    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      These events are indeed used by the 1% and their worshippers to reinforce the class divide and reassure them of their superiority.

      • Precambrian

        That simply is not true. The clothes and the tickets can be afforded by anyone who can afford a football season ticket.

        The only thing keeping people away is inverse snobbishness.

  • Cim Thayne

    The reality is that so much of what is supposedly ‘upper class’ is in fact significantly cheaper than what is ‘working class’. Excellent seats at the opera are available for a mere fraction of the price of a ticket to a Champions League football game. A dinner jacket, pair of decent trousers, a bow tie cost little more than an expensive pair of trainers or some of the ‘chav’ fashion people go around in these days, and certainly less than an expense new phone.

    • justejudexultionis

      So true. Madonna concert tickets sell for £200!

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        British Grand Prix for a dad and his son (no reductions for children) is £520 and another £25 to park the car ! Opera is cheap because it is utterly boring. It is the free market you Tories keep on about that decides what an event is worth. Turns out it is cheap to be a snob and expensive to be a populist.

        • grammarschoolman

          In what way is watching the same cars go round and round a circuit for hours on end less boring than opera?

    • How about the cost of a new tattoo?

    • grammarschoolman

      Indeed. I’ve just booked my tickets for the autumn booking period at Covent Garden, and the most I paid for any of them was £13.

      • Richard

        You don’t have to be THAT plebeian. Tickets at £30 each would have been quite acceptably non-rich person, formerly known as “toff”.

        • grammarschoolman

          On the contrary, being cheap is the poshest thing you can do. Got the stately home to keep up, don’t you know.

          • Richard

            I confess, I am out-of-touch. I am what the Guardian calls a “cravat wearing racist from the home counties”; in other words, a hopelessly “uncool” (by definition) non-Guardian reader. That means I pay more for my tickets. Next time you look down at the stalls, just feel sorry for me.

            PS: you’re not one of those terribly elitist “Friends” of Covent Garden, are you, who can trump the proletariat in buying tickets before they go on sale to the great unwashed?

          • john

            Nothing, nothing is more annoying than a would-be elitist in a cravat.

          • Richard

            Anybody who does not read the Guardian is a “cravat-wearing racist from the home counties” according to them. Either one spends a fortune showing one is “hip” by attending Glastonbury or some-such, or one is a cravat-wearing racist from the home counties. Those are the two types of white person as far as they are concerned.

            I have come across people who wear cravats in most unexpected places, such stall-holders selling cooked sausages at the back of the Southbank Centre. A cravat-wearing racist from the home counties such as I was of course there to attend a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

  • my dinner jacket is so old, scruffy and unfashionable-looking that I’d rather not be seen in it, and also that I have more or less forgotten how to knot a bow tie.

    1. Buy a new one.
    2. Google how to do it.

    • justejudexultionis

      Why don’t you give him the money first?

      • You mean to tell me that a member of the Speccie gentry isn’t at least somewhat well-to-do?

  • Frank

    Dressing up for the opera is the petit-bourgeois equivalent of the working classes (whoever they are) wearing football strip when going to see their club play.

    • Richard

      Why?

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      These people are not confident or happy to be individuals. They have to identify with a clan. Sad really.

  • john

    Surely a dinner jacket should be old and scruffy to make it clear to the nouveau riches that one goes to hundreds of such enviable dress-up dos.Something inherited from the 1930s is ideal.

    • Verbatim

      Thank God you don’t live in Vienna; there you have regular Balls and other such gala affairs requiring tuxedo and ball gowns. Clearly the hoi poloi shouldn’t even be anywhere near the building!

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        Bigger snob.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Snob.

      • john

        Snob – moi? Envy from the lower orders is never pretty.

  • Richard

    The last time I wore evening dress to Covent Garden, they thought I was a waiter. Somebody next to me sat in shorts. It wasn’t pleasant.

  • Maureen Fisher

    I’ve been going every year for some time and the reality is that the ladies can wear more or less what they like and the gents just wear a dinner jacket. There are always a handful of eccentrics who refuse to conform and turn up wearing jeans and trainers but nobody bats an eyelid.

  • Iona Seligman

    It’s not about the dressing up (class doesn’t define whether you dress up for a special occasion) but country house operas exude upper-class in every possible way – it’s their DNA. Urban operas however, don’t, and that’s something Britain can be proud of on the class equality front – they’re easy to get to, often translated into english, often staged in the modern era, frequently innovative in their production and in hiring in modern talents. Plus it’s true that they’re an accessible form of entertainment in London at least it’s much cheaper than a plethora of more ‘mass market options’ of entertainment although access/acceptance are better indicators than price with regards to elitism, besides they’re probably rightly cheaper in line with demand, in Paris or Madrid opera is minimum €200 a ticket and add to that they sell out 3 months in advance and it’s exceptionally rarified to partake in and isolating to go alone – that’s elitist.

    • Richard

      I know. The last I was at Covent Garden there were foreign people breaking wind in the seats in front of me, at “Krol Roger”. It was all very intimate and inclusive. Mind you, the piece wasn’t all that good, to be honest, so maybe they were simply expressing their opinion in an accessible manner.

  • You’re finally looking at the guy behind the pseudonyms ‘robbersdog’,
    ‘taquiawatch’, ‘Liz Harris’ and so many more aliases. The achievements of a sad
    inadequate who has dedicated his entire life to ‘policing’ the Telegraph’s
    blogs and attacking any who dare oppose the Zionist entity of Israel. You’ve probably read his snobbish put downs…”we live the good life, looking down as you wallow in the gutter and on the dole..etc etc” – all this from a man who was fired from his job at Scottish Power and grubbed a subsequent living as a technician at the Forum des Images, Paris.
    He’s now working as an unqualified teacher of English in France. So, neither the high flying International Lawyer nor the product of the swanky English Public School he likes to boast of, but rather the ‘bog standard comp’ of Our Lady’s High School, in Cumbernauld, Scotland…. yes, incredible as it seems, he’s not Jewish either – despite posting regularly as ‘Yitzhak Isaac Goldberg’! Check him out on Google as ‘desi coughlan’, and get the real measure of him at http://disqus.com/YizTA61/

    Just enjoy … and feel free to remind this pompous non-entity of his rock bottom status in life whenever he dares write his drivel in again.

    • Gillian C.

      Well that’s all very amusing.
      But a creep like robbersdog wouldn’t ‘out’ himself, would he?

      • It’s the man behind robbersdog here again, and time for a fact recap about myself,

        I come from long line of Scot’s Catholics,
        I attended Our Lady’s High School in Cumbernauld
        Mother Betty and sister Lisa are estranged from me
        my dad, Tommy, killed himself, after he found out about my ‘tendencies’
        I was fired from my lowly job at Scottish Power and fled to France
        I’ve ended up as a sort of English teacher / handyman at a Jewish ‘free’ (ie unfunded) school in France
        I love nothing better than making myself out to be a wealthy influential Jew living in a gated community in Hendon.

        To summarise – I’m a classic Walter Mitty syndrome sufferer and you should be very sympathetic to my condition.

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