Come as you are: ENO seeks a new audience by encouraging jeans and trainers and serving alcohol


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The Independent Culture

Glyndebourne, this is not. Welcome to opera for the next generation; where jeans and trainers are encouraged, punters can drink in bars and the young audiences can even stick on their headphones if they do not like the music.

Damon Albarn and Terry Gilliam are backing a new scheme set up by the English National Opera to encourage a younger audience through the doors of The London Coliseum.  

The company today launched Undress for the Opera, a series of informal performances where audiences will be encouraged to dress casually, and can drink in “club-style bars serving beer and specially themed cocktails”.

Both entertainers have successfully turned their hand to opera in recent years despite little exposure to it in their youth and are keen to encourage more young adults to experience the art form.

The Blur frontman said the perception of opera “needs to change”. His own second opera Dr Dee, which was performed at the ENO over the summer, has already done its bit for expanding opera’s reach; 60 per cent of the audience had never been to the ENO before. 

As part of the new scheme, the best seats in the house will be held for certain performances, including Don Giovanni and La Traviata and sold for £25 each. Seats in the stalls normally cost up to about £95.

John Berry, the artistic director of the ENO, said: “Young people like informality and we want to say that you don’t need ties or tiaras to enjoy opera at ENO,” before adding: “Come in shorts, armour, jeans, pumps… anything.”

The ticket will also include an invitation to party with the cast afterwards, a downloadable synopsis of the work and a witty guide of “do’s and don’ts” from former Monty Python star Mr Gilliam. They want to change the perception that opera is “too stuffy, too posh, too expensive,” Mr Berry said.

While purists may blanche at the idea, the style of popularising opera goes right back to the ENO’s roots, which can be traced back to Victorian philanthropist Emma Cons in 1889. Her niece Lilian Baylis, who properly established the company, wanted to create a “people’s opera house”.

Mr Gilliam, who directed The Damnation of Faust at the ENO last year, said: “I thought it was for a bunch of old farts; the bourgeoisie,” he said. “It was an art for the rich and successful and almost dead.”

While the ENO has no strict dress code, this marks the first time it has encouraged punters to turn up in jeans and trainers. Mr Gilliam said: “People think you have to wear dinner jackets and get dressed up to the nines to go to the opera. That’s not true, especially the English National Opera,” adding, perhaps jokingly: “If you don’t like opera, wear your earphones.”  

It is not the first time the ENO has targeted a youthful audience. In 2006, it launched an “Access All Arias” scheme to target the market. Since then visitors aged under 44 have grown from a fifth of the average audiences to closer to a third. The artistic director hopes to lift that to 40 per cent within two years.

Mr Albarn said he is working on another opera, but would give few clues as to the subject matter. He said: “I love the scale of opera” adding: “I’ve got a really good idea. I’m not going to say what it is.”