ENO's 'dress down' campaign to entice more young people to the opera is patronising. Co-productions with innovative artistic companies is a far better away of attracting untapped audiences and ENO's co-production of Julius Caesar with Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is an excellent starting point.
The ENO have just announced a new ‘dress down’ campaign where some of the best seats will be on sale at only £25. In principle this is a fantastic initiative to get more young people coming to the opera, but the idea of encouraging young people to wear jeans to come to the opera is a topsy-turvy method of enticement.
Many of their recent productions have been inspiring and edgy with a real contemporary feel, but a dress down drive is not the answer — exposure to the art form is. Believe me, there will be plenty of young people who will love coming to the opera if they get the chance and can afford it, and they will want to dress up. Dress down is patronising. Newly commissioned co-productions with innovative artistic companies is what the ENO is superb at, and this is the vehicle to interest an untapped yet inquisitive audience.
The co-production of Julius Caesar with Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is a great place to start. Of course it’s not a new concept to fully integrate dance into opera, where the dancers reflect the mood, emotion or story line.
And yes, perhaps some devices were a little clichéd, but they work and I was transfixed by not only the most beautiful company of dancers I have ever seen on stage, but also by the choreography and whacky ideas used in this rather unconventional production: from a giant crocodile, which is sliced up and robbed of its crocodile eggs, with plenty of stage blood, to a giant giraffe which is decapitated and has its tongue ripped out.
It was like a macabre wing of Hamley’s, but oh so much fun and visually in such a long opera (over three hours), there was never a dull moment. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s direction of this interweaving of dance and opera works for me.
As usual, there was faultless singing by a top-class cast; Lawrence Zazzo as a rather louche Julius Caesar is simply a stunning counter tenor. Visually he was a little distracting when in full coloratura mode, he had a slight jazz approach, but one could forgive the restless jaw when you hear this magnificent sound. Patricia Bardon was Cornelia and unusually, Sesto was played by a mezzo soprano Daniela Mack, which rather heightens the drama of victim into avenger. Their duet at the end of Act One was simply other-worldly and sensitively conducted by Christian Curnyn.
Anna Christy, despite a slight cold presented a vocally sparkling Cleopatra with a beautiful tone. There is something very appealing about this singer, she draws you in, and I loved her sulky yet coquettish depiction of the role.
I would have liked to hear a little more of a straight tone and leaning into notes, but on the whole I was happy to hear such full, glorious and rounded singing from the entire cast. Tim Mead as Ptolemy was hilarious, totally dissolute, despotic and reckless as he made his poor subjects disco dance on tables. I loved it.
My only reservation would be that many subtleties of interpretation of text were lost in this integrative production and the singers were obviously asked to play down their acting abilities while the dancers took over, but this new take is certainly a knack for the ENO to attract a more diverse audience — who I hope will at least be wearing designer jeans when they attend.
Read more by Melinda Hughes