Call wardrobe! The dress code for opera is changing

Sequins and black tie go back in the drawer and jeans are slipped on as Holly Williams finds at a musical cocktail night

Dressed down to the nines in jeans, trainers, and a this-season Primark jumper, I step inside the London Coliseum. The lobby is full of eager staff wearing Eighties-style T-shirts that read "ENO SAYS UNDRESS". Why all this fuss about clothes? This is Undress for the Opera, the first night of a scheme by English National Opera designed to attract new and younger audiences. After artistic director John Berry discovered that 60 per cent of the audience for Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris's Dr Dee were first-time opera-goers, he wanted to build on that success. It's apt, then, that Albarn is backing the scheme while the first show stripping off is Norris's Don Giovanni.

Undress for the Opera was announced to some fanfare – and derision – last month, promising best seats in the house for £25, pre-show talks, and a relaxed atmosphere with – cringe! – "club-style bars serving beer and specially themed cocktails". Everyone is welcome to "come casually dressed, in jeans and trainers".

Even without my love of a themed cocktail and Converse, I fit the target audience: in my twenties, I go to a gig or the theatre every week. But the opera? Not so much. I was never taken by school, parents or friends. I recognise those myths ENO are trying to dispel: isn't opera in a different language? Isn't it posh, expensive, formal? Will there be a fat lady in a Viking helmet?

Over 1,000 people signed up for Undress, and 100 tickets for tonight were snapped up in under an hour. And it does seem this scheme has reached a new crowd; chatting afterwards in the bar (which, I'm afraid, would make a woefully un-pumping club) over a Gin Flower cocktail, most people are first-timers – and several are palpably relieved that the answer to the above questions turned out to be "no".

The initiative has attracted scorn however, some commentators pointing out you don't have to dress up to go to ENO anyway, or lamenting this need to be down with the kids. Our own critic, Anna Picard, suggests "dress codes are a red herring. There have always been jeans and trainers at Covent Garden, ENO, Opera North, even Glyndebourne. Opera dress codes are tribal, and dependent on repertoire more than venue." But Berry claims it's tongue-in-cheek. "It amuses me that some people have become so obsessed with the name: it's a fun title for an absolutely serious subject," he says "and that's 'don't be put off by what people say about opera being stuffy'." Berry insists ENO is "amazingly accessible … I just want to shout really loud that it's an amazing art form!"

Norris also defends that disingenuous, headline-grabbing title: "It's a metaphor – go as yourself." He recognises opera may be an acquired taste, but if you're not going because it's intimidating, that's a problem of perception. For him, Undress for the Opera is tackling "an obvious cliché" – but one that nevertheless needs to be smashed.

Not everyone agrees. David Pickard, general director at Glyndebourne – where audiences bedecked in evening dress, champagne picnics and some astronomical prices tally with the common conception of a night at the opera – thinks the dressing up bit might be what attracts young people. Its £30-a-seat Under 30 nights sees little denim.

"It's always dangerous, isn't it, a slightly middle-aged opera company trying to make things hip and cool," he muses, before acknowledging that "we all need to find different ways of engaging a new audience. I think if we were trying to get a new audience, [it would be through an invitation to] dress up, not dress down. It's on those Under 30 nights that you see the most exotically dressed up – they love it, it's an event."

He makes a good point; we youngsters do like playing posh dress-up (just look at all the sequins in the shops). But surely even such schemes rely on you having spare cash. While subsidised £30 tickets are, comparatively, a bargain, it still isn't cheap; especially when the minimum wage is £6.19 and the average graduate starting salary under £20,000.

Such accessibility drives aren't new; in 2008, the ROH teamed up with The Sun to offer readers heavily discounted tickets for the traditionally glitzy first night of – him again – Don Giovanni. The paper went all out to convince readers opera was for them – "riper than a full-on effing rant by Gordon Ramsay and more violent than a Tarantino bloodfest" – and all the tickets were snapped up.

Even without buying a Murdoch rag, you can get tickets for as little as £8 at the ROH – although opera aficionados aren't convinced these seats in the gods, with poor sightlines, are ever going to win new converts. Rufus Norris admits: "I never go up there. I can't bear it."

Opera director Robin Norton-Hale shares the fear: "I went to opera as a school kid, sat in the cheapest seats miles away and it was a really bad experience." Such a response to her own work is unlikely: the 32-year-old is a founder of OperaUpClose, whose Olivier-winning La Bohème started life in 2009 in a Kilburn pub. It played for an unprecedented six months, transferred to the Soho Theatre and is currently at the Charing Cross Theatre.

"No artistic decision is made on the basis that this will make it more accessible," says Norton-Hale, nervous about OperaUpClose being deemed a "gateway drug" or the "young, edgy" face of the art form. "There are elements of what we do which necessarily make it more accessible," she acknowledges. "The venue is a huge part of that – people aren't intimidated by pubs.

"But I also think there's something about it being in English and a few metres away; we are at a huge advantage in terms of getting the text across. And then it's funny – and people never knew opera could be funny." She's right: watching La Bohème, I not only followed with ease but frequently laughed out loud. ENO, of course, also sings in English – although the safety net of the surtitles helps, even if they did upset purists when introduced in 2005.

Unlike Norton-Hale, some artists are explicitly trying to shake thing up – consider Toni Castells's Life from Light, which premièred at Union Chapel in Islington on Thursday, and has attracted attention for a libretto featuring Wikipedia descriptions of sexual intercourse. The 36-year-old does not disguise his aim to unsettle: "Provocation is a tool art has always used." But the opera world may not be ready: "I've just always had closed doors, even when I approach the Royal Opera House's experimental studio, the Linbury… it's like, 'You don't belong here, you're not part of what we do'."

But traditional venues hardly shy away from raunch; Don Giovanni was advertised with a picture of a condom packet and the line "Coming Soon", while the ROH had a hit with Anna Nicole: The Opera, about the late Playboy model, last year. Notorious Spanish director Calixto Bieito has long been dousing stages with all manner of bodily fluids.

And then there's Grimeborn… based at the Arcola theatre in Dalston, east London, the cheekily named festival is a dress-down, hip affair, staging classic and experimental work in a converted warehouse and a tent. "It's important to do it cheap – that will guarantee a new audience," explains director Mehmet Ergen. "Young and poor come to Grimeborn. You don't feel like you have to dress up and you're not overwhelmed by the surroundings – you can concentrate on the skill."

Behind all of these schemes is a desire to get more people to experience opera. Those attempts may be a little try-hard, a little naff, especially when the biggest barrier is simply expense. But lack of experience, and a feeling of intimidation, play their parts too. And if a cheeky name attracts publicity that gets people through the doors, then I take my hat off – oh, and everything else – to it.

ENO's Undress for the Opera nights: 7 February, 18 April and 13 June; OperaUpClose's 'La Bohème' : Charing Cross Theatre to 19 January

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