Going to the opera — that is, being seen to go — has become a symbol of power, wealth and relevance. Thus, each year across the world, a summer season of festivals and performances presents an opportunity for the society calendar — from politicians to enthusiasts — to promenade the theatre grounds before taking their place within the auditorium.
It is precisely such patronage of these events that has empowered companies and performers to take often unprecedented risks on stage, from Wieland Wagner’s experimental minimalism in Germany’s premier festival Bayreuth, to the UK’s defining festival, Glyndebourne, and it’s recent controversial production of Pelleas and Melisande.
In addition, clothing has become integral to the festival experience. Not only in its complementing status, but through providing what Wasfi Kani — chief executive and founder of Grange Park Opera, one of England’s newest upstart festival — calls a “mental preparation” for the form’s often extraordinary demands on its followers (a performance of the Wagner’s Ring Cycle takes 16 hours over four days.)
Kani explains the relationship between clothing and the aesthetic experience itself: “Sitting in the auditorium with vast emotions flying about and the artists creating epic performances, it is only right that the audience should join them by dressing in a special way…elegance isn't compulsory — far from it — but it has become customary, and customs must not be shunned. They bind us together.”
“The fashion industry has produced fabulous costumes, but not really leveraged the opportunities of the audience, which offers a fantastic platform to brands. ”
Thus, while the productions themselves may challenge the status quo, the audience’s clothing is very often a lacklustre affair. Opera festivals no longer enforce strict dress codes (although audiences generally still ‘dress up’) and attendee fashions are often a world away from the innovative design often seen on stage. Given this fact, why is the luxury industry not exploiting this ripe, predominantly monied audience? Moreover, why has the fashion set, including influencers keen to find the next niche, not taken more of an interest in the opera scene?
Especially given the potential here for a dynamic, lucrative partnership, this not been translated to capturing and tantalising the audience. Frances Card, a London-based fashion consultant believes: "Opera is an interesting partner. The fashion industry has celebrated the concept by producing fabulous costumes but not really leveraged the opportunities of the audience and data capture which in turn lends itself to offering a fantastic platform to many brands,” she says.
The question is more valid still, when you consider the relationship between the two industries: fashion is by no means a stranger to the art form. In 1980, Karl Lagerfeld, a lifelong opera fan, designed the costumes for Luca Ronconi's production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Designers such as Christian Lacroix, Emanuel Ungaro, Tom Ford and Viktor & Rolf have all designed costumes for productions across the globe.
Prada’s fringed leather coats and animal prints appeared in Pierre Audi's production of Attila at the Metropolitan Opera, while Valentino Garavani, who saw his first opera La Traviata at 13, designed the costumes for Violetta directed by Sophia Coppola 2016 — the first time when choreography was adapted to the clothing. The one exception was Armani's work for Jonathan Miller's 1995 production of Così at Covent Garden. These costumes came from the then-current Emporio Armani line and were intentionally contemporary (the singers liked them so much that were allowed to keep them.)
“It reminds me of museums — always in great locations and commanding massive audiences and always receptive, but assets not often used by designers,” says Card. “It would seem negligent that the industry is not celebrating this ”seam of gold” in terms of the profile customer and the audience – but actually the great chef’s don’t either!” With over 150,000 people a year attending Glyndebourne and it’s tours, and with Bayreuth being an annual draw for the glitterati of Germany, it may well be that fashion and opera are the next big partnership.