Tuesday, September 18, 2018

At the Opera: Reflections on Booing and Audience Behavior

Opera singers, composers, designers, & directors, etc. are well aware of the "boo factor" before they enter their chosen careers. The tradition of booing has, for good or bad, been a part of opera for, well, long enough for it to become a tradition. Puccini, Rossini, Beethoven, Tebaldi, & Callas all knew this. So do Corgliano, Menotti, Ricciarelli & Pavarotti . . .

The knowledge that one might possibly be booed, has also serve to push some artists towards giving a "booless" performance -- i.e., putting forth their best effort for those whom they hope will continue to pay their salaries.

Opera is the most passionate (and insane) of arts and whether we want to believe it or not, has been known to, in the heat of the moment, cause people to do things they would not ordinarily do. Things like throwing rotten fruit and dead animals at a fellow human being. It can turn a normally gracious, well mannered woman like Ms. Ricciarelli into a raging harpy, screaming words which, I am certain, for the rest of her life will make her blood run cold each time she remembers.

In our "modern" world, we like to pretend that the "savage" has been tamed out of us, or indeed, never even existed. We like to pretend, sitting in our 3000 seat, air-conditioned Temples of Art that we have no relation to the sweaty, dusty, belching, smelly Punch & Judy watching audiences of the past. In this regard we have exhibited little progress from our perfumed-hanky sniffing ancestors who pretended that everything around them didn't smell like excrement.

I have not yet been given cause to boo ... most of the awful performances I've sat through were ones , I knew were going to be awful. If a normally solid singer was truly ill & tried to go on with the show, (even though he/she should not be onstage anyway), I would not boo. I don't really like the idea of it, yet somehow I don't want anyone dictating to me that I may not do so if the "need" arises.

Incidents of booing are probably rarer than they once were in the "Golden Age," but it is still part of the operatic tradition and not likely to change. At least I hope not.

There is no such thing as one type of opera attendee and we need to realize that we all must share the same houses.

Some years back, Fran Liebowitz wrote about persons whose individual sensitivities are offended by the behavior and habits of others whenever they go out. Essentially, she was of the opinion that if one is going to allow things extraneous to the actual event ruin one's good time, one should simply just stay home, adding there's a reason it's called "being out in public." I agree, and while this may be tough for some to accept, but the reality is that once beyond the confines and comfort of one's own personal space, life is pretty much a production of "Anything Goes!"

So, argue til your blue in the face, rebel with a cause, raise a stink, write management and do all you can to effect change but realize it will mostly be in vain as the kind of change you’re seeking is slow (if ever) in the coming.

There are those who talk during overtures and those who will ssshhh them; there’s the scenery applauders (and those who ssshh THEM); there are those who seem to have microphones on attached to their sneezes, coughs and candy wrappers, the bravoers; the booers, the chronic talkers (and those who ssshhh them); the stink bombs (both natural body odor and/or the bathed in perfume type); the ill-prepared matrons ("Harold, what IS she singing about?); those who will bravo a sustained high note concluding an otherwise wretchedly sung aria; those who snore through it all; those who applaud (and cheer) during a final note or during an orchestral postlude (and those who would forever ssshhhh them). Then there is of course, my favorite of all the "revitalized zombie." We all know the type: folk who, during a performance, exhibit no sign of life whatsoever . . . no applause, no bravi, not even a change of facial expression. Don't let them fool you as they are conserving every last bit of energy they may possess in order to leap over seats and/or the backs of others the minute the final curtain begins to descend to be the first out the doors.

If there ever was an era when "genuine, correct theatre etiquette" existed, I'm certain it must have been the briefest one in history.

Most people are wretched, uneducated, excessive, ill-tempered, uncultured slobs who are forever getting in my way. Short of execution however, or banishing them to some cultural Siberia, I've accepted the fact they forever will be among us, and I'm not going to let that interfere with my having a good time, not even if they're seated in the red velvet seat next to mine.

In our oh so modern, civilized world, we like to pretend the savage has been tamed or beaten out of us, in some futile attempt to believe it never existed at all. We may even convince ourselves that, seated in the plush velvet of our 3000 seat, air-conditioned temples of art, that we bear no resemblance whatsoever to the sweaty, dusty, belching, smelly Punch & Judy watching, knuckle dragging neanderthals who fell from our family trees. Sadly, in this regard, we've exhibited precious little progress and really no different from our perfumed-hankie sniffing ancestors who pretended everything around them didn't smell like excrement.

G. Paul Padillo August 17, 1997

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