Boo Whom?

Thursday, May 12, 2011 - 12:01 PM

Hear an example of booing, at La Sonnambula (2009 Met Radio broadcast):

It was supposed to be a night off, a busman’s holiday, and I would wear none of the hats of my opera life -- except that of eager audience member. On Tuesday night, I went with friends and relatives to the Met to see Strauss’s/von Hoffmannsthal’s delicious yet profound Ariadne auf Naxos.

The scheduled cast was excellent: Violeta Urmana (Ariadne), Kathleen Kim (Zerbinetta), Joyce DiDonato (The Composer), Robert Dean Smith (Bacchus) and, in real luxury casting, the veteran British baritone Thomas Allen as the Music Master. I have always respected that the Met has used older artists who do not find a place in casts in many theaters once they reach a certain age. Some great performers may get to the Met quite late (Marilyn Horne was 36; Giuseppe Taddei was 69; Anna Caterina Antonacci at 50 still has not appeared there) but they seem to stay on longer if they have found a place in the hearts of audience members.

The performance was conducted with supreme elegance by Fabio Luisi and the original Elijah Moshinsky production was directed with great humor and precision by Laurie Feldman.

Our group included people who love one another but don’t see each other often. One of us was celebrating a birthday. It was the kind of night in which we were ready to enjoy an opera performance that had all the right elements in place. After the opera we would go eat tasty food, with no concern about staying out late. In fact, we closed Café Fiorello, the haunt opposite Lincoln Center where singers and opera lovers gather after a show because the kitchen is open until 12:30 AM.

At the opera house, we had wonderful seats, much better than I am used to. One of the senior members of Met management sat in front of me during the first act (in Ariadne it is the Prologue and the second part is The Opera), but did not return after. In their place, a couple slipped in as the lights went down. Next to them was a man who slept serenely during the Prologue but more audibly during The Opera. The Houstonian in my group said Texans refer to the sounds the man made as “calling hogs.” 

When the sleeping man did awaken, he turned to chide the couple to his left for their talking. In fact, they spoke endlessly, with the man being quite the know-it-all. They leaned toward one another, laughed a lot, and seemed to take particular interest in the work of Maestro Luisi, who probably heard their talking. The man of the couple was one of those operagoers -- you know the type -- who just has to conduct the entire performance and find fault with the real conductor.

I really wanted to enjoy the performance and tried to get him to sit still. I don’t think they held tickets for those seats, so they had not even paid full price for the right to be annoying. And I certainly had no intention of writing a post for this blog on what was really a night off. 

But I cannot ignore an outburst from another ticketholder, seated in Orchestra F1. He was middle-aged, had a John Waters pencil-thin mustache, wore a wrinkled khaki blazer and trousers so short that his bare legs were visible almost to the knee. All of this is fine, and chacon a son gout, until he belched out a loud ugly Boo! after Kathleen Kim (pictured) sang the show-stopping “Grossmächtige Prinzessin!” one of the most difficult arias in all of opera. While I don’t find booing acceptable in a theater under any circumstances, to do it following something so extremely challenging is what Italians call maleducato. It says more about the booer than the person being booed.

During the curtain calls before an ecstatic audience, this one patron again uttered his single Boo!, sounding more like he wanted to startle someone than to criticize a singer. Most of the crowd was cheering loudly and I hope Ms. Kim did not hear the one naysayer. I know that acclaimed writers and actors chew over a single bad review even when they are showered with raves and awards. I imagine that one boo could unsettle some singers even during a standing ovation.

Some Perspective, Please?

Let’s put this in perspective. Almost no one, including most opera singers, can sing “Grossmächtige Prinzessin!” Even fewer people can sing it well enough to be in a cast at the Met. Artists such as Kathleen Battle and Diana Damrau made their mark early on and then excelled at it, and I am sure Ms. Kim will be recalled for her skill as well. If I am unhappy with something in a theater, I simply do not applaud. If I really don’t care for something, I have been known to fold my arms. But I think it is highly maleducato to boo. 

In Italy, by the way, they do not only boo but they also often whistle instead. In fact, Italian artists are often surprised in the United States to hear whistles from happy audiences. If you go to La Scala and like what you hear, do not whistle! (See below.)

If you don’t like a musician’s performance, remember that they are human and are bringing their bodies, emotions and energy to what they do. We are not machines and everyone has a bad night. Applaud people for doing their best, or don’t applaud at all. If you do not like a new production of an opera, don’t boo the director, designers and choreographer. Remember that someone hired them and approved of their concept, so the creators of a production are not fully to blame. 

For that matter, don’t boo the person who hired the production team. There are other, more civil ways to express your dissatisfaction, whether by writing a letter, choosing not to buy tickets or to stop making contributions to an arts institution. To which I say, be strong but kind in the expression of your opinions, do not get personal or catty (you undermine yourself and your ideas) and try to be specific.

Sir Rudolf Bing, who was General Manager of the Met from 1950 to 1972, had a very dry wit. Even those who found him autocratic or aloof nonetheless respected him highly. It is customary for anyone who speaks of him to refer to him as Mr. Bing even four decades after he retired and quite a few years since his death. When Mr. Bing received a particularly cranky letter from a subscriber, he did not always address the specific issues raised but simply wrote back saying, “Thank you for your letter to the Metropolitan Opera. I can assure you that it will receive the attention it deserves.”

At times, some colleagues and I are in situations in which we do not want to hurt the feelings of performers who did their best. When people ask me what I thought, I often say “I love this opera.” I have heard other people say to singers, “No one sings Puccini like you do!” or “You really have a special way with Mozart!”

Because I have reached the stage of my career in which I teach opera to singers, students and audiences, I see it as my responsibility to impart what composers and librettists intended, what the history and culture embedded in an opera mean in the context of the work, and I try to suggest how we all, in our own ways, can bring more to an opera performance. To me it is an article of faith that we come prepared to love it and applaud those rare individuals who work in this art form who face great challenges to keep opera vibrant and compelling. Life is too short to be negative about something that, in most every way, is so incredibly rewarding.

Save your activism and indignation for politicians and corporations -- often in cahoots -- who really do us harm and get away with it because the people will not stand up for what is right. If you don’t agree with me, watch a performance of Fidelio and then write to your senator and congressman.

Do you believe that booing is acceptable at the opera? Why or why not? Leave a comment below.

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Comments [35]

TheO'ReallyFactor from NY

Is Booing Illegal? Disturbing the peace?
If I'm paying 135 bucks or more, why shouldn't I boo, You ain't getting that back. I say boo just as much as clap. Maybe Broadway will stop with the garbage. Theater used to be a cultural aspect, not a commodity. Cheers are a way of expression why not booing? Why have the Baby Boomers painted everything in smiles and lies? I can't boo at curtain call, but you can clap? Ain't that Pollyannaism?

Aug. 06 2011 04:33 PM

Several years ago, many in the audience booed long and loud after a performance of an atrocious piece - something very much like what we get from modern composers nowadays. Of course, I participated in the booing. Not applauding or staying away from the concert hall does not send as clear a signal that the piece need not ever be heard again.

May. 17 2011 09:34 PM

Booing certainly has it's place. I reserve mine for the ballpark. If a performance/performer falls short of the mark, a lack of applause will certainly be a more than adequate response. IMHO

May. 14 2011 02:23 PM
Mary Jane from Melville, NY

I remember a performance of Turandot in which the lovely and wonderful Anna Moffo was in poor voice and suffering through (with us) a performance as Liu. She was soundly bood by a couple of cretans and my husband almost jumped up and defended her honor (because he was secretly in love with her).

May. 14 2011 01:09 PM
Bernie from UWS

@David - wholeheartedly agree. Those first bravo people annoy the heck out of me. It's like saying 'I'm the biggest arbiter here so I'll take the lead in breaking the silence."

For what it's worth, I feel classical music needs to have more booing. It works in baseball. Certainly in pro basketball. Why not bring classical to the people in the way we respond to it? Get rid of all the formal etiquette!

May. 13 2011 10:56 PM

I never booed. I preferred to abandon a Pavarotti "Trovatore" and a Scotto "Butterfly" during intermission rather than stay and suffer the remainder of what turned out to be sadly disappointing performances.

May. 13 2011 08:49 PM
David from Flushing

People that try to scream "bravo" before the audience starts to applaud are more annoying to me than booing. They spoil the afterglow of the piece.

No one should talk, manipulate cellophane, clap or boo while the orchestra is playing---others did pay to hear them, not you.

However, once the curtain comes down, one is more at liberty to express one's opinion. Singers take curtain calls to receive approval. If a good performance has not been given, they should retreat to the dressing room or face the consequences.

May. 13 2011 08:17 PM
J Rosen

Sometime in the '60s I was a member of the Cleveland Orchestra when we played a symphony by Easley Blackwood Jr. On our yearly Eastern tour, we played the piece at Princeton, which was then very much a center of the ultra-serialists, led by Milton Babbitt at his thorniest (and least tolerant). The Blackwood was atonal but rather otherwise conventional in idiom and was roundly booed and hissed by a substantial part of the audience, which pleased George Szell greatly. I heard him say with evident glee as he passed my violin stand "At least they care!".

For many years I played in the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, where "standing ovations" for indifferent results were routine affairs, delivered loudly and often by people who had visibly slept through an entire performance (including one who managed to do so in the 3rd row while James Galway blasted through the Khachaturian Violin Concerto --- transcribed of course --- a quarter-tone sharp and with the tonal quality of a factory whistle).

As a performer who, under mediocre leadership) ground out acres of uninspired, and very routine performances (not always of course!) I often wished that audiences, instead of offering thoughtless ovations, would treat such occasions with some lusty booing. I certainly wanted to from time to time but naturally professional decorum restrained me. If the listener really cared enough to give us what we earned on a given day, it would keep players, conductors (and managers who engage the former)) more honest.

However, having also been on the stage during the notorious Soliotis Carnegie Hall "Norma" in 1967, I recognize that things can get out of hand. Still, on balance, I would rather have an audience boo me than see them asleep!

May. 13 2011 03:48 PM
Craig from San Francisco

I hate booing at the opera (or any theater) and have never done it. I have seen some spectacularly bad performances, however. During the applause, I've just sat on my hands (giving the frowning of a lifetime) and then followed up with letters to the management. Performers who have bad nights (or a bad year) are still human beings with feelings, and booing in the theater (or during the actual singing) doesn't help anyone. In fact, it makes the others on stage uncomfortable (so report my musician friends).

May. 13 2011 03:27 PM
Ronald Cohen from Wilmington, NC

An opera or concert attendee should, properly, display approval or disapproval. Certain things deserve to be "booed" -- particularly those productions that fail to serve the libretto or the music (or frequently both). An artist (or whatever stripe) enters the arena seeking applause and being booed is part of the risk and the game.

May. 13 2011 02:33 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

I forgot to mention that in Naples not only do they whistle as a disapproval but also do something called the "pernacchio". Their version of the raspberry. Again, very fine article.

May. 13 2011 01:55 PM

I have't 'booed' anyone onstage, even when I felt their performance earned it. I don't agree with the majority opinion on this blog that booing is unwarranted or unearned under any circumstances. Years ago, I heard Kathleen Battle sing with the Cleveland Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf in Carnegie Hall. She was performing the Mahler 4th and messed up the words in the final movement. Most of the audience gave her a rapturous ovation, but one man who sat near me - who actually knew the words or was following them in the program - he booed her. I knew she had made a mistake as he did, but I chose to 'slow' applaud to express my appreciation of the orchestra and the conductor, not her. If I felt more strongly about the mistake, I would have had no compunction about booing. If I had booed and if others felt unhappy about that and if they had confronted me or asked about it, then we could've had a good conversation about why I booed, what I expect when I came to the concert and why they didn't boo, etc. It might have made for an even more gratifying evening than what transpired.

It seems to me that if some can openly and positively express their satisfaction for a performance, it should also be the case that some can openly and negatively express their dissatisfaction with a performance. To my mind, this is another sign of our society's immaturity in that we seem to be all too willing to accept plaudits and acclaim without also being willing to accept negative criticism.

May. 13 2011 01:42 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

We have nothing to boo but booing itself.

May. 13 2011 01:26 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Nice article Fred. The person you wrote about sounds like a real "cafone" and the world is full of them. Yes, I agree. The people who really should be booed should be our politicians who have bankrupted us with our corporate welfare and unending wars. I must confess that occasionally I felt like booing but realized all the work that goes into opera and not just by the singers. I used to prompt many years ago and know the effort involved. Also, I do not want to be maleducato. Auguri, Fred.

May. 13 2011 12:47 PM
Michael Meltzer

Judith's anecdote raises the prospect of the opposite sometimes being the case. Everyone defending the booing is assuming that it is "justified," but please remember that a negative opinion held by a very small portion of the audience, but expressed vocally, can ruin an otherwise satisfying experience for a large number of ticket holders who just may be enjoying the performance. Who is to say they are wrong and their ticket money is no good?

May. 13 2011 11:56 AM
Judith from Brooklyn

We were given tickets to a new opera at Juilliard. It was called "The Losers," appropriately. It was about a motorcycle gang, totally dissonant, and the only enjoyable moments were when the real Harleys came on stage. We would have left but we were stuck in the middle of the row. At the act break, my husband booed, loudly. I yanked at his sleeve, saying we could just leave, and to take pity on the poor students on stage. And the tuxedo-clad, tepidly clapping gentleman in the next seat gave me the fisheye and said, "Madame, have you considered that he's right?"

May. 13 2011 11:19 AM
Ken

Mr. Feldman,

You sound (or you attitude sounds) as if such a behavioral slap on the wrists is unwarranted. I respectfully disagree.

If you had actually done an internet search on Mr. Plotkin's name, you would discover that he is a prolific writer on the arts and culture, including an excellent book entitled OPERA 101. I recommend that you do such a search.

While one may exercise one's human privilege to disagree with Mr. Plotkin, I concur that booing of any kind, any time, anywhere is just basely rude and disrespectful. If you don't like something, you don't clap. If you wish to air your grievances further you write the management and you attach your name to stake your claim for your opinions. If you see that artist's name on an event announcement don't like them, don't go.

It doesn't take a noted writer of the arts to have to explain humane, proper concert-going etiquette. Hopefully if one's parents reared one in a way which promoted courtesy, civility, and empathy, credentials of the author of one's blog such as the above need not have had to have been questioned. Manners are manners - if you don't have them, it would be to your great advantage to get them.

May. 13 2011 11:04 AM

@Frank Feldman: Here you go:

http://www.wqxr.org/people/fred-plotkin/

Don't know why you couldn't have found that yourself by clicking on the link, but happy to help out!

May. 13 2011 10:57 AM
Frank Feldman

I was just curious to hear what your undoubtedly supreme accomplishments, musical skills, honors, awards, etc. are, Mr. Plotkin, so that we might understand why we should take your opinions re operatic etiquette seriously in the first place. Please describe them in detail.

May. 13 2011 10:17 AM
Laurie

I am appalled by booing, for all the reasons you so beautifully expressed. My most intense booing experience was last year at the new Bayreuth Lohengrin, which I found a truly horrifying production, though one of the most well sung performances I have ever attended. The director was booed by just about the entire audience (he loved every minute and pranced around like a total cretin, not bothering even to acknowledge Simon O'Neill, who had stepped in at the last moment and sung beautifully). Though I'd been revolted and felt offended and assaulted by this director's work, I couldn't bring myself to join in the booing. I just sat there.

Thanks for your always astute, thought provoking commentary!

May. 13 2011 09:28 AM
Ferenc from Queens

Well, aren’t we all so polite and politically correct! If any of the commenters below knew anything about the history of western music they would certainly know that expressing approval or condemnation of a performance or a composition is part and parcel or our heritage. There are certainly many famous anecdotes of such instances, and when they are misplaced, as say in the case of the premiere of “Le Sacre du Printemps”, they are pointed out for ridicule by those who have the comfort of historical perspective. In the less publicized cases I am sure it has been quite justified.

The truth of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of these posts which condemn ‘booing” indicates to me a lack of knowledge and passion concerning the music and its performance. Generally people don’t “boo” because they don’t know what is good and what is bad. When a baseball player strike out for the fourth time in a row at Citi Field, the crowd doesn’t think twice about booing; that is because they know baseball. When people politely applaud at a performance at the Met, they generally do so because “that is the thing to do”, not because they are in a position to judge a performance. Classical music is dead, and much the same could be said of its audience. If booing is boorish and impolite, go tell it to the audiences of the 19th and early twentieth century at la Scala in Milan – perhaps the most knowledgeable audience to ever enjoy opera.

May. 13 2011 08:58 AM
Michael Meltzer

Why should it be unacceptable to make a questionable sound from the stage but O.K. to make a distinctly ugly and obnoxious sound from the audience?
Why is coughing condemned universally but booing an arguable blog topic?
Have we lost our minds?

May. 13 2011 05:52 AM
meche from MIMA

At my first Walkyrie I had been given a ticket on the fifth row. During the overture a nearby couple was chattering away. When I glanced at them and held my finger to my lips they shot back, "But no one is singing yet". This continued throughout the act. During the intermission a severe looking man with an equally severe German accent accosted them thusly--"When the conductor has raised the baton, the opera has begun and WE ARE NOT TALKING". Not another peep was heard from the miscreants.

May. 13 2011 12:50 AM
Mark Zeisler

Booing is unacceptable. Period. You don't like what you're seeing/hearing, get up and leave. Performers owe an audience nothing. There is no excuse for that kind of behavior in any venue: theatre, opera or sports. It is for the dim-witted and the small of soul. Get over yourself.

May. 13 2011 12:09 AM
Jim Lieberthal

I haven't booed anyone. The one time I TRULY loathed a production, not the singers, was an occasion to walk out after the first of two acts. It was unbearable to watch because it also made the singers terribly uncomfortable to be performing. Sad, actually. The booing sample from the Sonnambula, I heard on the live premiere broadcast and felt it was absolutely ghoulish. It taught me without a doubt, that the negative energy generated from such a sound is equal to certain epithets people throw at others to intentionally denigrate them publicly. I perform myself. Most of the audience will never know what it is like to work so hard to first memorize a score, let alone perform it, and also to an audience of 4 thousand. If I was there, I might have thrown something at the booer just so he would know what it was like to have someone throw something at HIM that he didn't expect! LOL....

May. 12 2011 11:10 PM
Berta Calechman from Connecticut

GREAT article, Fred! I agree wholeheartedly. As a singer, I consider boos anathema, and as you said, if you're not happy with someone's singing, just don't applaud. I've heard Ms. Kim sing Zerbinetta, and I've heard her sing Olympia in Hoffmann, in which she was sensational. While at the performance you attended, she may not have been at her best, she CAN'T have deserved boos (one boo?). This indeed sounds like a personal vendetta, and was extremely rude. I like Anne from NYC's anecdote: maybe bopping this moron over the head was a good idea. With a vocal score!

Berta Calechman

May. 12 2011 10:17 PM
mak

Fred-Since the man in front of you was "calling hogs" perhaps that's why a "boor" surfaced. It sounds like there was more drama in the audience than on on stage-but a lovely evening otherwise...Happy Birthday-M

May. 12 2011 09:41 PM
Veronica from New Mexico

Wonderful article, Fred, and a lot to think about for us all. The Neanderthal you cited (who boo'd) is probably addicted to recordings, where all flaws are edited out, and unknowns are unworthy. Live performances have something recordings will never give us, and we must never abuse the privlege of hearing them.
Your other example, the know-at-all, sounds like the boor who once took my place in the Artists' standing room at intermission. When I tried to point out that I had held that place for the previous two acts, (I had a standing pass as an Artist's wife) I was berated for not being a paying patron, and HE was entitled to my place so that he could duck out quickly when the curtain fell. Sigh.

May. 12 2011 08:50 PM
Franz from Germany, Cologne

Very good postings. The most horrible thing in the audience is no reaction - a kind of indifference and phlegm. Express yourself, so the opera is the most wonderful place of emotions.

May. 12 2011 04:46 PM
deangold from Washington DC

I have only had the desire to boo one time. That was at a Turandot so miscast it went from funny to sad to annoying to a feeling that someone had walked up to me with a gun and taken my 140 Euro... each! The tenor was making his debut in Calaf. And I mean his debut including ever rehearsing from the results presented on stage. He came in on the wrong beats, he forgot arias, he only seemed to have a passing relationship of the notes Puccini had actually written. The Turandot simply did not have enough voice for the part. But the chorus and the orchestra was wonderful, and the setting at Torre del Lago Puccini so serene and beautiful that we stayed.... and did not boo!

May. 12 2011 03:47 PM
howard kissel from new york

Perhaps the most horrifying moment I've ever experienced at the Met (always excepting, of course, the 2009 "Tosca") was back in the '80s, when soprano Erie Mills gave a splendid account of the Doll Song in "Tales of Hoffmann." The applause was hearty, but just as it began to die a prolonged boo began in one of the boxes. She must have heard it. It was totally unmerited and I can't imagine what she must have felt. I can only assume there was some personal score being settled, perhaps on behalf of some other singer. It was too calculated, too ugly to have been a spontaneous response to what was great singing.

May. 12 2011 03:03 PM
Anne from NYC

Good for you ! I witnessed a scenario at the Met a few seasons ago that was very different but I'll share anyway: a young couple sitting together kissed as the curtain was rising only to have the person behind them bat them both on their heads with a rolled up program !

May. 12 2011 03:01 PM
Matt Edwardsen

Fred, this is a wonderful article. Your sentiments are spot on in my book. As a performer, you are often most vulnerable at the curtain call & directly after the show. If an audience didn't care for your performance, the level & enthusiasm of the applause is response enough as a gauge. Boos seem a bit vindictive, personally motivated on some level and unnecessary. While it is somewhat common, in this country, to be boo'ed as the bad guy in a production, it is still a bit jarring but can be appreciated as a vote of approval for the performance.

Thanks again for this article & hope this obnoxious person did not taint the entirity of the evening.

May. 12 2011 02:48 PM
Cara De Silva from New York City

As usual, a wonderful post, Fred. And so right on. Booing makes me crazy, anywhere but at a political rally and even then only when someone is being particularly offensive. The only thing that makes me crazier is the use of phones (or the keeping on of smart phones and the constant checking of emails and sudden flashes of light that accompany the act) during a performance). I seem to remember reading in the NYTimes that you once actually took a phone out of someone's hands because he began to generate a call during a performance.

May. 12 2011 02:33 PM
Karen

Excellent column. Cultures differ in expressions during performances as you pointed out with Italians at LaScala. In Japan, during kabuki performances, audience members may shout out encouragement, or an actor's name, or the acting house he belongs to, all part of the atmosphere of popular entertainment. And in some African American theaters, in some neighborhoods, the audience members may be so caught up in the drama as to shout out to the screen. I always imagine a Shakespearean play with people eating in the stalls and shouting from the rafters, interacting with the actors, but, an opera in America, has a certain decorum and booing isn't acceptable under any circumstance. If it's so offensive that the person feels compelled to boo, they should quietly excuse themselves from the theater, and, as you suggested, write the management.

May. 12 2011 02:31 PM

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