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Master Class: What to wear to the opera

Look around next time you're at the opera.

It might be this weekend when you see Tosca with Opera Tampa at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. It might be in June, when The Tales of Hoffmann opens with St. Petersburg Opera at the Palladium Theater.

You'll see all nature of dress, everything from flip-flops and khakis to gowns, tuxedos and opera glasses. You'll see gloves and polos, little black dresses and big Hawaiian shirts. What's right? What's wrong?

Many people don't know what to wear to the opera. For casual consumers or first-timers, opera can feel like an exotic, uncharted world. Italian arias! Supertitles! An orchestra! And the reaction can range from an all-out sartorial effort involving patent leather to a frozen, I-Give-Up-Here-Are-My-Toes approach.

We can probably thank movies for the overwrought image, said Rebecca Davis. Davis, 42, is a classically trained soprano who has spent her career doing public relations and marketing for classical musicians, opera and arts organizations. She performs with the St. Petersburg Opera and will appear in the chorus of The Tales of Hoffmann.

"Pretty Woman is the first one that comes to mind," said Davis. "She wears the diamonds and the floor-length gown and she's all done up. That's the apotheosis of that movie, the glamor and the transformation she makes."

Think, too, of Cher and Nicolas Cage watching La Boheme in Moonstruck. Or Cage's real-life great-uncle, Anton Coppola, conducting an opera in The Godfather Part III.

Time was, opera was a more formal affair — we're talking Hope Hampton dragging a $25,000 chinchilla across the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House on opening night of Aida in 1963.

"That was something from the past, dressing more formally," said Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the Straz, who studied opera at the Juilliard School.

Producers want to make opera accessible to guests. In 2017, when so many entertainment choices involve never leaving your pajamas, purveyors of opera want you in the seats no matter what you're wearing.

And with good reason. The stories are so full of rippling emotion that they must be sung, not spoken. Plus, the plots are pretty delicious. Did you know Pretty Woman bears a striking resemblance to Verdi's La Traviata? That's what Julia Roberts and Richard Gere are watching in that scene.

Some traditional opera fans and donors might show up in white tie, especially at a more formal event like Opera Tampa's gala in March. Coppola, Opera Tampa's founding artistic director, was there. It was his 100th birthday party. You dress up!

"But, gosh," said Lisi. "Even at the Met now, there are people that go from jeans to more formal attire."

The Met's website reads:

There is no dress code at the Met, but a night at the opera can be a great excuse to get dressed up. If you need inspiration, visit our style blog, Last Night at the Met, to see what our audience looks like.

Please do visit lastnightatthemet.com. It's a beautiful blog full of well-dressed folks playing at all levels. The eye candy here includes smart leather jackets, fur capes, dark denim, cardigans, sport coats, gowns, full skirts, blazers, scarves, fascinators and all things fascinating.

If you do want to turn things up, the opera is a great chance to do so. Wear those sparkly shoes. Bust out that studded necklace. Try that bow tie.

"If you're up with opera and feel like dressing up, great, dress up," Lisi said. "We've had people come in capes and all kinds of things. But the most important thing is to be comfortable."

Remember your mother's advice, Davis said.

"Make sure you're wearing something clean and flattering, something that you would wear if you had a job in an office."

Davis swears by Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses and those $10 faux pashmina wraps.

This is not really a time for shorts, unless you're attempting some fashiony formal-shorts suit. But a tie is not necessarily a requisite. Use your judgment, get a feel for the venue, the production, the time of day.

Above all, consider this: Operas can last anywhere from two to four hours. Err on the side of comfort, not an artfully constructed bodice made of feathers and wire. Anything too stifling will distract from your real mission: seeing if anyone makes it out of Tosca alive.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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