Dressing Down at the Opera.
If you're a balletomane or an opera lover -- or what some might consider an elitist snob -- you know how difficult it can be to convince friends to go with you to a performance. "I'm not really into that," is a frequent reply. Men, especially, are horrified at the prospect of spending several hours watching women pretending to be swans as they bourree across the stage, or trying to decipher the intricate, melodramatic plots of the classic Italian operas.
When I tried to gather up a group of Egyptian friends to attend the ballet Spartacus at the Cairo Opera House in late February, they had a set of excuses that I hadn't heard before.
"I would have to wear a tie," one male friend told me, referring to the dress code at the main hall that requires men to wear a jacket and tie. "I don't think I even own one."
"I really hate dressing up," another Egyptian friend said.
I ended up going with a few expat women. And during intermission, I saw that double-standards can sometimes work to a female's advantage: One woman I saw on the terrace had gotten away with jeans topped with an elegant blouse. The men, however, were all dressed in ties and suits. I wondered if I would have bothered coming if I had to put on anything fancier than my dress pants and cotton top.
When I lived in Warsaw I'd often take long walks to explore the city, which has an uncanny mix of Stalinist architecture, skyscrapers and buildings rebuilt after World War II. On one of those walks I wandered into the National Theatre to escape an unexpected downpour of spring rain. I saw there was a ballet performance coming up, so I bought tickets about a half hour before the performance -- when they're sold at a heavily discounted price -- and went into the theater wearing jeans and a soaked parka. There were plenty of people dressed up in evening gowns, but I didn't feel underdressed because there were plenty of others in denim too.
I'm sure the dancers didn't mind, although they don't see much of the audience anyways because of the blinding stage lights. A sold-out house and an appreciative audience, after all, is better than a well-dressed crowd and dozens of empty seats.
At Spartacus , there were plenty of empty chairs where we were sitting, despite how the woman at the ticket booth had warned us that there were only a few tickets left. I wondered if the theater would have been fuller if there was no dress code? If my friends are any indication, then there must be plenty of others who think the opera house is just too stuffy for their taste.
With the performing arts struggling worldwide, opera houses have gone to great lengths to make the art form more accessible to a younger audience. In 2012, the English National Opera launched its "Undress for the Opera" initiative, which encouraged people to attend performances in jeans and casual clothes.
Italy's La Scala, considered the world's greatest opera house, still has a dress code but you can get away with dark jeans and less formal wear in the cheaper seats. For those living in opera's homeland, however, La Scala's dress code isn't really a big deal because there are plenty of other opportunities to see opera in less formal settings or outdoors.
Many opera houses loosened up their dress codes long ago. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, there is no dress code, and formal wear to galas and opening nights is common but also optional. At the Royal Opera House in London, there is no dress code either. "Feel free to dress up or down," their website advises. I've worn jeans to both theaters and didn't feel out of place. In London, I wore sneakers because the performance we saw of Romeo and Juliet came at the end of a long day of sightseeing.
And that's how it should be. Going to the opera should be an enjoyable and hassle-free experience, or a nice evening out after the end of a long day. Those who like dressing up are still free to do so, of course, and the women I saw in evening gowns at performances in London or New York didn't seem to be bothered with what others were wearing.
If opera and ballet are to survive and attract young people to form a new audience that will keep the theaters full in the coming decades, then the stuffy dress codes that keep many people away should be the first thing to go. Especially at the Cairo Opera House, which has already experienced an exodus of dancers after the revolution, attempts to shut it down by the Muslim Brotherhood and painful budget cuts.
I may not be able to convince some of my friends to put on a suit and tie and cross the bridge into Gezirah for the sake of opera. But the next time I go to the Cairo Opera House, I'll follow the lead of that woman I saw during intermission and try my luck in a nice pair of jeans.
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