Sunday, 6 July 2014

On booing, in the wake of the Royal Opera's Maria Stuarda

I can claim neither a stake nor a particular interest in the Royal Opera’s new staging of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda; I cannot stand Donizetti’s music, still less what seem to me his feeble attempts at musical drama. Nevertheless, the production and, more precisely, some reactions to it, seem to have caused a bit of a stir. It is far from the first time that a first night audience’s experience has been ruined by the booing of a vocal minority. Rusalka, which received a production that was hardly ‘difficult’, yet which nevertheless asked that an audience bother to think, to participate, was treated similarly a little while ago at the same venue; so, more recently, was Calixto Bieito’s excellent production of Fidelio for ENO. There are many other examples.  Nevertheless, such behaviour and discussion of such behaviour have occasioned a few thoughts.

First, and perhaps foremost, is a matter of gender. Have you ever heard a female boo-er? Doubtless there are a few here or there, but I cannot recall a single one. This seems very much to be behaviour associated not with all men, but predominantly, perhaps almost exclusively, with some of them.  I first encountered it, cruelly directed at a particular singer (who was hopeless, but nevertheless…) at the Bayreuth Festival, on the occasion of my first visit there in 2000. It seems more generally to be levelled, however, at directors and the production team more generally, though the behaviour of certain sections of the audience at La Scala, for instance, tells another story again. (A culture that treats opera as if it were football may well turn out to deserve neither. It certainly does not deserve Parsifal or Wozzeck.) Are the unabashedly reactionary loggionisti all male? I do not know, never having attended the opera in Milan, but I should be surprised if there were many women amongst them. Note, moreover, that whilst there may be criticism, sometimes savage, of the worst of ‘traditional’ stagings, it never seems to take the form of booing; it always seems to emanate from petit bourgeois outrage at something beyond the unimaginative ken of self-appointed ‘traditionalists’.

What does booing entail? A bestial response to something of which, presumably, the perpetrator disapproves, a response, moreover, which seems intended to garner attention, to threaten the scapegoated victim in the public arena of the theatrical here-and-now, and violently to drown out the applause and even the non-applause of others. Some have claimed that booing is merely the other side of the coin to applause. Now, admittedly, it can sometimes be irritating to encounter enthusiastic applause for something one has thought mediocre or worse, but one can always refrain from joining in. Is that not a better approach than seeking, in at least quasi-fascistic fashion, to drown out the enthusiasm, however well- or ill-founded, of others? We are not dealing with a game show, in which the contestant with the greatest balance of cheering against booing wins a cash prize; or at least we should not be dealing with that. Given that the generally accepted way of thanking performers for their efforts would be to applaud, is not withdrawal of applause quite enough to indicate displeasure and disapproval? What can someone have done that is so truly appalling that it necessitates assumption of the persona of a rowdy farmyard (male) animal?

‘We have paid for our tickets; we are entitled to do whatever we want,’ shout the ‘me-first’ boo-ers. Do you have no consideration for others and for how they might feel about your threatening, coercive behaviour?  There is a problem here, of course, in that part of the alleged justification for such behaviour is that of a commercial transaction. All the more reason, ultimately, to rid art of such alien concerns. Wagner’s vision of a festival theatre, free in every sense to all, is what we should be aiming for. Wildly utopian? Why? We offer free admission to our great museums and galleries. Why should music and theatre be different? The sums are miniscule when contrasted with what we spend on bombing to death fellow human beings in Iraq, on nuclear weapons, or on bailing out the banks. Ridding performances of those who consider their wealth offers them entitlement would be a victory in every sense. In the meantime, however, kindly offer some common courtesy towards other audience members. And yes, that also involves refraining from applause or other noise during an act, from coughing, chattering, allowing your mobile telephone to ring, etc., etc. Should you claim otherwise, then you really would seem to have no conception of art and of why it might matter, let alone of how one might behave decently towards other human beings. You are no more entitled to force your pathetic, caricatured attempts at ‘masculinity’ upon others in this arena than you are in any other.

For booing is not ‘refreshing’, ‘liberating’, ‘valid’, or any other such nonsense; it is a form of violence which should have no role in civil society. There are now more opportunities than ever before for every member of the audience and for interested parties beyond to contribute to appreciation, discussion, criticism, even downright demolition. Social media buzz after every performance. You can even set up your own blog; I am anything but a technological mastermind, and I managed to do so. Sometimes we may be guilty of excessive brutality in such arenas; it is a danger of which we should be mindful. That is really quite different, however, from the fascistic – let us lose the earlier ‘quasi’ – behaviour increasingly turning theatres into bear-pits.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit on a few times in the past I have booed a performer or production team and now greatly regret doing so. My rationale (I guess) was I yell brava, bravo or bravi at a great performance or production so why not boo when someone or something is really bad. Of course no one is intentionally giving a bad performance or staging a bad production and I'm sure they already feel lousy when things don't work out the way they intended. It is just boorish and rude to boo. I agree with you that withholding applause is enough to express displeasure.

Lars Immisch said...

I have encountered booing only once, in the very first opera I went to, "The bartered bride" by Smetana.

It was a modern staging in Frankfurt in the eighties, and the polka was somewhat deconstructed.

There was a lot of booing from the pit.

The balconies were delighted, however, and tried to out-bravo the booers. Finally, someone from the balconies yelled very loudly "Ruhe auf den billigen Plätzen" ("silence on the cheap seats").

And then most people laughed and the booing stopped.

And it was perfect because the antisocial booing was dealt with immediately and effectively.

Per-Erik Skramstad said...

Booing a singer or a single performer is totally unacceptable. But, isn't indifference the really big problem, not the occational booing at the end of a performance? In Norway, almost every performance receives a standing ovation. The consent is unbearable. Booing singers is, of course, extremely rude, but booing the production team is, in my view, acceptable. I think.

Stephen said...

I did boo on Saturday, for the first time in my life. Whilst I'd agree it is bad behaviour (though 'bestial' is a touch hysterical) I don't think you quite appreciate that when it gets as bad and dissapointing as the production of Stuarda was, that it is audience members that feel like the victims of the Directors impositions, arrogances and insults. I'm actually not convinced that the mature response is to keep mute in such subjective circumstances. Directors have no god-given right to self expression and Stuarda for me was as close to incitement as going to the opera gets. I also think you are wrong that booers want to drown out anybody else, they just want their voice heard alongside the applauders. I also admit to wanting to rather spoil the smug self-congratulation of Directors on such an occasion. I think that's a natural reaction to having had them spoil an evening I'd been looking forward to for months.

Anonymous said...

I find myself in almost total agreement with this excellent post Mark. Booing does seem to emanate largely from a section of the audience that feels that it is entitled to a certain production style. Would anyone dream of booing a concept driven production of a Shakespeare play? I doubt it. I do think opera managements of the past (and in some places the present) in the English speaking world are partly to blame. After a couple of generations of mindless productions it's little wonder that the audience has got lazy.

violinhunter said...

I believe that booing is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes, things can get so bad that no other form of objection will do. I have only experienced it once - in Mexico City, after a performance of a really bad new work. Most people booed. A few applauded. A few laughed. However, when the composer took the stage, the booing and laughing stopped and the man was left with the paltry applause he got. I guess that just showed him the negative reaction was not personal. People don't boo at museums or art galleries, but neither do they clap.

John Babb said...

So when Boulez et al booed and disrupted the French premiere of Danses Concertantes they were wrong? Right?

Mark Berry said...

John: Yes, I have no wish to defend that. Why should I?

Mark Berry said...

One of the performers, Matthew Rose, tweeted:

Dear Booers, Thank you for spoiling a great evening @RoyalOperaHouse for everyone that had worked so hard. Your silence would have sufficed.

Monte Stone said...

I love the second sentence!

David Rosenbaum said...

The merciless booing of Anna Gabler at last year's Meistersinger in Salzburg stands out in my mind as one of the most unfortunate and uncomfortable experiences I've had in any theater. Even the booing of Gatti didn't seem as bad by comparison because Gabler seemed so hurt by it. Coming from the U.S., where everything seems to get a standing ovation, my wife and I were shocked, especially because neither performer seemed to have earned such mistreatment.

This behavior is especially unfortunate because the booing becomes the story or the main memory of the evening. This might seem like an overstatement, but if somebody was assaulted onstage after an otherwise memorable performance, the assault is what you'd remember.

aaron boss said...

i like your blog, agree with much you write and never boo; however: 1.i am also a masculine man and have never met a woman or man who wished me otherwise: you seem to feel men are a problem. 2. we all know from our wagner that the world is an ambiguous mysterious place in which violence appears to play an intrinsic part: objecting to it feels like objecting to pain or night viz. rather fruitless. and 3. 'liberal (that is, free) societies' work by refraining from suppression of opinion rather than by coercing others to follow our line. in a word , we may not like booing ourselves but we have to endure it. really good work on your blog: and thanks!

John Yohalem said...

I've never booed a singer -- or other performer -- in my life. I don't have the guts or the talent to get up there and do it, and it certainly improves the quality of my life that others can and do.

Productions, when especially wrongheaded, get other standards. I'm sure I could do better. Sure of it. Just gimme a company and a few hundred thou; I'll show you trouble.

I do object to your suggestion that we refrain from applause during an act. With Wagner and other through-composed works it may be incorrect, but earlier operas (and I love those too) were designed with breaks for applause. Fill them by all means! The performers expect and deserve it.

Cell phones: Abolish with extreme prejudice.